Writing to Prisoners: A Basic How-To Guide

Compiled by Ash K.
GWST-200, UMBC, Spring 2016

This guide is intended as an introduction to the topic of obtaining a prison penpal. I hope that when you are done reading it, you feel more informed about the importance of writing to someone on the inside, and consider writing a letter yourself. There are many wonderful resources available, and I have tried to pull several of them together into a friendly and encouraging guide. Thank you for reading.

Why should I write to a prisoner?

The idea of writing to someone in prison can be very intimidating -- even frightening -- but it is an important cause for justice- and human rights-minded people to take up. One very basic reason why is the simple fact that prisoners are people who lack for the kind of interpersonal relationships that most of us in the outside world take for granted. They are looking for friendship. They might even be looking for love. Inmates are seeking a real connection with other people who will support them. Writing letters shows them that they are not forgotten and are human, even though they are being subjected to a system that is, by design, dehumanizing. Some people are in prison for political reasons; maybe you agree with the cause they were supporting. Some people have committed a criminal act and are trying hard to put their past behind them and rehabilitate themselves; your letters could bring them hope. It's been shown that the connections you make with inmates when you write them letters help foster a sense of belonging and community that can even help reduce rates of recidivism. You stand to gain friendship, understanding of someone different from yourself, and opportunities to take action in a variety of ways. Writing to someone on the inside can be the start of a relationship that is important and enriching to everyone involved.

How can I find prisoners to write to?

There are several good websites that will put you in contact with inmates. They have different methods of giving you inmate info. Here are some of those websites.
Write a Prisoner Has inmate profiles that can be sorted by different criteria like location, age, and whether they're serving a life sentence. Mailing addresses are displayed on the profiles, so you can begin writing right away.
Black and Pink Serves the LGBTQ community. There is a sortable list of inmates, and you fill out an online form saying who you’d like to write to. The organization then provides you the inmate’s information.
Human Writes Serves inmates on death row. There is an application form and a fee, but this organization provides you with many resources, such as counseling to help you cope with issues you may face as result of having a penpal on death row.
Prisoner Solidarity The Anarchist Black Cross' list of political prisoners, which is sortable by movement, birthday, and other criteria. Mailing addresses are listed on inmate profile pages

What are some guidelines for writing letters?

★Having a prison penpal requires a certain level of commitment. You are forming a relationship with another person who does not have many of the same privileges and luxuries as you, and the decision to form this relationship should not be taken lightly. That said, don't be intimidated. Just be honest -- You should be very honest with yourself and your penpal about how often you can write. It can be emotionally really tough on your penpal if you suddenly stop writing to them, or if you promise to write all the time, but suddenly get busy and fall through. Just sending them a short note to say you're busy but intend to keep writing can mean a lot. If you don't want to write to them anymore, you should write them to tell them so, or if you don’t feel comfortable doing that, the organization you found them through may be able to assist.
★Prison staff might read your letter before it is given to your penpal. You should avoid disclosing sensitive information (such as outing them on LGBTQ status, or on HIV status) until you have confirmed with them what is or isn’t ok to discuss. Also, you should not write about anything that incriminates yourself.
★Some facilities will not give your mail to your penpal if you do not address it using their legal name or if you yourself use a name other than your legal name. In the case of queer and trans inmates, use their legal name on the envelope and ask them how to best handle this situation in the future.
★Different facilities have different standards for what can be sent or received in the mail. Until you can confirm with your penpal what is allowed, send your letters on plain paper and don’t include stickers, photos, newspaper clippings, or any other extra items. Write your return address directly on your letter, as some facilities don’t allow inmates to keep the envelope.
★Be up-front about establishing boundaries. If your penpal expresses unwanted romantic attention, or asks for financial resources you can’t or don’t want to give, find a way to tell them so.
★When in doubt, ask your penpal what they need or want. Be honest about your own wants and needs. This is a relationship, and as with any relationship, communication is key.
★Some websites allow you to email inmates for a fee. Check out JPay, JMail, and Corrlinks for more information

Are there mental or emotional implications I should consider?

Like other friendships with people who are going through hard times, writing to someone on the inside can pose a range of emotional issues. Some people find descriptions of daily life in prison hard to deal with. It can be easy to feel remorse for the fact that you can’t do more for your penpal. If they open up to you about the circumstances that led to their incarceration, the details may be hard to stomach. You might feel that they are being wronged by the system. And even more complicated emotions can arise if you’re writing to someone serving a life sentence or on death row.
There are ways to handle and overcome these difficulties. Telling your penpal that you feel for them and have empathy for them can strengthen the bond between both of you. Talking to understanding friends or relatives about your feelings can help, as well. Knowing other people who are writing to insiders can give you a useful support network. Many of the penpal websites linked to on this page have good resources for when you run into various emotional stumbling blocks. Getting involved with other prisoner advocacy initiatives can also do a lot of good, and help you find more ways to cope with your feelings. Seek professional help if you need to. Take care of yourself.

Additional Resources

Here are some links to other websites where you can learn more about the cause of writing to prisoners and get involved in other ways.
Prisoner Correspondence Project’s Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) list
Prisoner Correspondence Project’s Expectations and Guidelines (PDF)
Black and Pink’s Penpal Guidelines
Anarchist Black Cross Federation
Amnesty International

Testimonials from people with prison penpals

Jay K. says: “I got into it after reading about a guy in prison for crimes he committed in the name of animal liberation, which I am a believer in, and as part of a way to show solidarity to him, and show him support from the outside, I decided to write him a letter and introduce myself. He was cool, but I didn’t know what to say -- I didn’t want to make him miss things on the outside, or make him feel like he was missing out. I wanted to make him feel better, not make him feel bad. It’s really hard to know what to say, because not only are they a totally new acquaintance, but you don’t want to make it worse for them. I was very immediately aware of the differences in our day-to-day lives. At the time, his case was ongoing, and the website that told about him was keeping updates about his case, and they requested that his penpals write the judge letters on his behalf, so I did. But eventually I stopped writing to him. If I could start over, I think I would have asked him flat-out what the best way for someone like me to show support for him was -- what he needed from someone who was writing to him. I told him it was awkward for me to write to him, but I could have said, ‘what do you want from me, as someone who is in need of support?’. I would have been more open and up-front with him. I also got busy. It’s so easy to get busy. But while you’re busy, they’re in there, waiting for you to write them.”

If you would like to share your experience with having or being a prison penpal, or if you have any other input or questions, please email me at ash34@umbc.edu.
Thank you for visiting!