↑ Return to Pen Pals

Step 1: Review Our Guidelines

There are 4 steps towards Pen-Pal friendship. Our Guidelines offer great advice!

Why do I want to write to someone in prison?

What is my capacity?

How might I deal with hearing about the prison system?

Am I anxious about giving my mailing address to a new pen pal?

In Spring 2014, incarcerated B&P family members shared some things they think free world family members should keep in mind when writing to a Pen Pal. Take a look!

“Don’t be afraid to really open up and tell us about yourself. We’re still people, and we crave connections with others too. If this is just a trial/temp thing, be upfront about it. A lot of us don’t get much mail and are grateful for what we do get. The most important thing is to just be yourself.”

“Be honest about what type of correspondence you are looking to engage in (upfront), whether it be personal (platonic or romantic), legal/activist- oriented, networking, card-sharing, gift-giving etc, any combo of the above.”

“Be honest about how often you can write.”

“Understand that because of the U.S. Legal system’s class discrimination… the prisoner you would write to is probably poor which could lead to some common problems, such as A) Free world people offering money and books in their initial letters when they don’t really mean it, giving false hope to the prisoner, and B) prisoners thinking they have to “play” you for money instead of just being honest.”

“Advice on how to handle the issue of money: A) Decide before you write to a prisoner whether or not you can/will assist them with money. Overall, be clear and direct about this.”

“Realize that a lot of us are going through living hell in here, isolated and cut off from family and friends, so a lot of times we will write and just need to “vent.” It’s ok don’t panic … Some of us are just so cut off we just want to be heard and have a friend to talk to. A lot of us want to get involved in gay rights and activism… and may not know how. Help us help others when possible.”

“When you can and if it is not too much, send pictures!”

“Be Honest, Be True, Be Real, and Be You. Know your Boundaries, respect yourself first and foremost… and understand yourself first to better understand others.”

 

The folks at Prisoner Correspondence Project have plenty of resources and FAQs as well, such as their expectations and guidelines. We have some additional answers to frequently asked questions we have received below. Please note that we welcome people of all genders and sexual orientations to become penpals!

 

     Step 1: Review Our Pen-Pal Guidelines (continues below!)
>>Step 2: Choose Your Pen-Pals  
>>Step 3: Fill Out Form
>>Step 4: Write Your Pen-Pal!

 

Thoughts to consider when writing to someone who is incarcerated:

Based on the guidelines created for the Write to Win Collective and Prisoner Correspondence Project

1. Why do I want to write to someone in prison? It’s really important that we all take some time to ask ourselves what we want to get out of this pen pal friendship. It is absolutely okay to not have a complete answer, but it is good to ask yourself what your motivations are. We all carry our own assumptions and need to continuously challenge them. Ask yourself what assumptions you might have about people who are incarcerated and how that might impact the way you write.

2. What is my capacity? For many prisoners receiving one or two letters from someone promising to correspond regularly, but failing to follow up with further correspondence can be incredibly difficult. Being a pen pal doesn’t have to be an intense time commitment; letters can be as long or as short as you want them to be, so please be upfront about the regularity that you will be able to write —if it’s only once a month, say so. It is perfectly acceptable to send postcards of support to people on the pen pal list, just do not set up expectations you will not be able to meet.

3. How might I deal with hearing about the prison system? Writing with folks in prison can often lead to a deep education about what incarceration means that one might not have been expecting. It’s important to have support systems to deal with the stories of trauma you might hear. It is also very helpful to do this work in community so you can discuss what you are learning and how you might engage the system as well. Individual pen pal relationships can sometimes lead to a desire to do far more advocacy for that individual or to abolish the system as a whole. We can succeed far more when we struggle in relationship with other people.

4. Am I anxious about giving my mailing address to a new pen pal? Many of us feel nervous about sharing personal information with brand new people in our lives and that is quite reasonable. There is, however, extra stigma around sharing information with incarcerated people. In general, we encourage people to use their home address and to take time to question where these anxieties are coming from. If you are not willing to share your address with your pen pal there are a number of options you can use. You could get yourself a P.O. Box for your pen pal letters. You could use Jmail.cc You can also intentionally write to someone who is doing a life sentence in a location far from you to see if that decreases your anxiety. We encourage everyone to do what feels right and best for themselves while at the same time looking deeper at what is causing fear and work on that as we build our movement towards abolition.

Commonly asked Questions:

I want to end a pen pal friendship; how do I do that?

Just like friendships on the outside of prison, sometimes pen pal friendships don’t work out the way we want. Sometimes the person just isn’t a good fit or maybe they are refusing to respect your boundaries. While it is important to remember that your pen pal is living in a traumatizing environment and maybe they communicate differently than you are used to, there is no expectation that you keep up a pen pal friendship that is hostile or makes you feel unsafe.

Based on our experience, being clear and direct in your letter ending your pen pal friendship is your best strategy. If you have particular things that made you uncomfortable that you want the person to know about, it can be helpful to note those things. It is important to note at the end of your letter if you want the person to respond and acknowledge your letter, or not. If you feel uncomfortable or unable to be direct about why you are ending the friendship, it is also okay to be vague. You may try something like, “Due to personal reasons and capacity, I can no longer commit to this pen pal friendship. I wish you the best, though I cannot keep writing with you. This will be my last correspondence.” While being vague about your reason can be appropriate, it is important to be clear that you are ending the friendship. You can decide for yourself what level of reason you want to offer to the person you’re writing, though we ask that you please give as much detail as possible to Black and Pink about why you are ending the friendship. Please send an email to penpals@blackandpink.org.

My pen pal wants me to look up their family member, ex-lover, friend, etc. Should I?

It is up to you to make the decision about how much support work you are able and willing to do for your pen pal. Given that your pen pal is incarcerated, they have no access to the internet to do their own type of outreach. If you do wish to reach out to someone on behalf of your pen pal, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Rather than give your pen pal the contact information for the person they are looking for, if you find them, give that individual your pen pal’s contact information so they can decide if they want to be in touch;
  • Be aware that the person you reach out to may not be glad to hear from you. Maybe they are homophobic/biphobic/transphobic/pozphobic and hold hostile feelings towards your pen pal because of their identity. It is also possible that your pen pal caused harm to the person or someone they care about. You are not responsible for their feelings, you do not need to take care of them, though it is important to prepare yourself for the potential of a negative reaction when you reach out;
  • If your pen pal is asking you to connect with someone on the outside that they already have a positive relationship with, see this as an invitation into their closer circle. If they want you to call their mom who visits them regularly, this is an invitation to become closer to their family. It is up to you to decide how close you want to get. There are times when this closeness can be really powerful and create new community for you, but it may also feel like too much. It can be helpful to reach out to national staff or the Pen Pal Support Working Group to help you make a decision.

How do I communicate with my pen pal that I do not want to write or receive sexually explicit letters?

While it is fine and reasonable for your pen pal to want to write sexually explicit letters, it is not okay for them to write you sexually explicit letters if that is not want you want. Given that we are an LGBTQ/HIV+ program, people sometimes think that this means all of our outside pen pals want to write about sex or have romantic connections. We do our best to clarify to prisoners that we are not a romantic pen pal program in our newspaper and on resource lists we are included on. However, given that many of our members have no access to healthy sexual expression the inside of prison, at times they seek that through relationships with pen pals.

If your pen pal writes a sexually explicit letter to you, and you do not want to write sexually explicit letters with your pen pal, it is important to be very clear with them. We encourage you to write back and be clear about the type of friendship you are looking to have and what your boundaries are about the types of things you want to write about. We suggest giving your pen pal a chance to hear from you that you don’t want to write sexually explicit letters and allow them a chance to respond appropriately. If your pen pal does not respect your wishes, please see our suggestion about how to end a pen pal friendship.

My pen pal expressed that they are feeling suicidal, what should I say?

These are words we printed in the May 2017 newspaper written by our founder, Jason Lydon. These may be helpful for you to read as you think about what you want to say to your pen pal.

“Feeling suicidal is a very common feeling behind the wall. You are not alone in that. Sometimes that can feel like the only way to have power over anything. There is no shame in having those feelings. Life can feel like too much some times. What I want to encourage you to do, though, is try to take some deep breaths when you’re having those moments. Try to pay attention to your breathing. Feel your feet on the floor. Try to feel your heart beat in your chest. Try to be aware of every feeling in your body. Even when everything around you feels terrible, your body is a miracle. Try to pay attention to the moments of life that feel good. Try to clear your mind…

When that doesn’t work, it’s ok to just cry in your bunk. Push your face into your mattress. Cover yourself with your blanket. Imagine being anywhere else. Imagine a different life, one where you are free. Cry and feel angry. Try to feel all the rage in your body. Feel yourself get hot from the anger. Feel your face get wet from the tears. Know that it is ok to feel weak and broken some times. You are not the first one to feel this way. Life can be horrible; life is completely unfair. Each day you make a choice, a choice about living, and my hope is that even as things are so bad, that you will keep choosing life. As part of Black and Pink you have a family that does care what happens to you. Even if we can’t always write, even if we can’t get you free, even if we can’t make everything better or right, we care about you. We care about your life. You are valuable to us.

I wish words could be more comforting. I wish I could give you a hug or hold your hand when things feel so horrible.  Please know that we are fighting for a better world and that we want to end the suffering you are experiencing. We will not win soon enough. We will not make things better fast enough. We will keep fighting though. I hope you are able to keep fighting alongside us.”

I don’t want to use my personal address; what can I do instead?

If you do not want to use your person address, you have a few options. You can use jpay.com for correspondence. You could also get a P.O. Box. You could choose to write someone in the federal system who has access to corrlinks, a prison email system. Making decisions about using your personal address is up to you. We can note that we have never heard of any problems from Black and Pink outside pen pals about prisoner pen pals getting out and causing any trouble (the most common concern), though of course respect our pen pal’s right to make whatever choice feels safest for them.


Is this a safe thing to do?

While there are certainly moments when writing letters can get uncomfortable, for any number of reasons, we would not suggest that our program is unsafe. We have never had the experience of an outside pen pal being physically harmed by their prisoner pen pal. Just like any new relationship with another person, there are risks. We do not believe there to be greater risk in these relationships.

Important Things to Know and Do!

1. Some of the reply letters from your pen-pals might be sent after a considerable delay, one of the infinite awful aspects of prison. If you don’t hear back from the person you’re corresponding with within 4 to 6 weeks, it is possible that they have been transferred or released. If this is the case, get in touch so we can help to locate the correspondent’s current contact information.

2. Mail Call often happens in public spaces in the prison. When someone hears their name called by a prison guard during mail call it is a reminder that people on the outside care about that person. It is also message to the guards and other prisoners that this person has support and is not forgotten. This can be a vital harm reduction strategy for people who are locked up, especially queer and transgender folks.

3. Use your first and last name in your letters. It might be useful to say in the first letter that you found out about the person through the Black and Pink website. Be sure to place your address both in the letter and on the return address piece of the envelope, as some prisons do not allow the envelope to be given to the prisoner. Know that prison guards often read the mail and, unfortunately, can censor things.

4. Some prisons will refuse to accept letters addressed to people if they are using a different name then what was legally assigned to them. Please clarify this with the correspondent so your letters will not be confiscated. Many people that you will be corresponding with are in facilities that are not gender affirming, so pen pals should ask the name and pronouns the inmate prefers when addressing letters.

5. While many of the people on the Black and Pink list are living at least somewhat openly about their trans/queer/LGB/gender-nonconforming identity, ask them first if you can openly discuss these identities and whether or not it’s okay to send them resources and information directly and overtly linked with these communities.

6. Do not speak down to, discriminate against, shame, or condescend any correspondent you are communicating with. We are about building relationships and validating that our struggles as people of color, activists, sex workers, youth workers, immigrants, anti-capitalist, trans, queer, gender-nonconforming people are intricately connected with prison abolition and prisoner liberation. Please be conscious and aware of power dynamics and actively seek support around the acknowledgment and eradication of these dynamics in your correspondence.

7. Remember to be transparent about your own boundaries/ability to disclose any personal information about yourself in your correspondence (i.e.—immigrant status, age, history of incarceration, sexual preferences, etc.). It is not unusual for mail to be screened in by prisons and jails, so please keep your own safety in mind! There might be some letters which feel flirtatious or sexual. Your safety and comfort are your own, so if you’re okay with sexy letters, keep writing them! If you aren’t, please respond respectfully and firmly to your pen pal. Please voice any concerns you have/your own boundaries with your correspondent in a loving and affirming way. If for any reason you are not comfortable, or can no longer engage with your correspondent, please let Black and Pink know.

8. Here’s the format to address a letter to a prisoner! Please remember to include your return address on the envelope and the letter itself. You can (and should) write the letter itself to your pen-pal’s preferred name. When you receive an email from Black & Pink with your pen-pal’s address, these lines will be separated with ; .

Legal First Name    Legal Last Name   #Number (eg. Gerry Richards #F05B56)

Cell/Bunk Location (if given after the number, eg. B1 Lower)

Facility Name (eg. Michael Unit or Arrendale SP or SCI Greene)

PO Box  #

City, State Zip

robert cepeda pup

 

    Step 1: Review Our Pen-Pal Guidelines
>>Step 2: Choose Your Pen-Pals  
>>Step 3: Fill Out Form
>>Step 4: Write Your Pen-Pal!