As Well As What NOT To Put In
The need for a letter writing guide for communicating with prison pen pals became clear to me in 2004. At that time, my wife and I lived in Anaconda, Montana. More days than not, my “me time” was spent having lunch with a close friend at MacDonald’s. Let’s call him “Jack” (not his real name).
Jack was in his early fifties, a truly good man, but had never been married. He had been engaged once. As we visited regularly over double cheeseburgers and dollar fries, the conversation sometimes touched on my ongoing practice of writing women in prison. Then, natually, came the question:
Could I share a few?
What I did was to pick out a few ladies I thought MIGHT be compatible with him, and encouraged HIM to write them. (He does not have a computer.) The results were disastrous, and I suddenly realized that not all people knew how to do this. So let’s get started.
Thankfully, we have word processors these days.
Things To Include
Prisons have strict rules about permitted correspondence. Each state is different, but a few things tend to be pretty universal:
1. Place your full name and address at the top of the letter every time you write (not just the first time). The mail room usually opens the mail, trashes the envelope, and gives the inmate ONLY the contents. Without that full address, the institution will not trust you and your friend won’t know where to write.
2. As your opening statement, BRIDGE. That is, give your new friend (male or female doesn’t matter) a reason to see common ground between you. It could be something as complicated as a taste in poetry or as simple as the fact that you hail from the same state. Remember, you are a stranger, and the recipient’s life has not likely given him or her reason to trust people at first contact.
3. Tell a few things about yourself, honestly and openly. Age, background, physical description, interests, education, whatever. Not ten pages of biography; there will be time enough for that. But a page or so to provide the beginnings of an accurate picture of you as a person, yes. Something funny is okay (within reason), and if you have trouble writing humor, I’ll even help (if you want) for free.
4. Without being pushy, say something about what you are looking for. Just a platonic friend, or getting to know each other, or (as we have done for specific situations) a frank statement. (Such as our advising our goal to eventually have additional staff to care for my disabled wife in return for room and board.)
Things That Should NOT Be Included
1. Any specific mention of a prison pen pal ad. In most states, that does not matter, but some officially hate pen pal ads and will confiscate any letter they know came from one. Contraband, they say. Which is ridiculous, but there it is, with Florida being the absolute worst. Most importantly, such a mention can actually get the inmate in trouble for daring to place the ad in the first place!
2. Do not make mention of his/her crime in your first letter. If you get a return letter, there will be plenty of time to discuss that later.
3. Do not include anything OTHER than the letter itself. Every state has a website where we can THEORETICALLY check out the rules for corresponding with inmates, but not every site is easy to access or navigate. Simplest is to wait, even on photos or stamps, until your correspondent can advise you regarding the rules at that institution.
In closing: Pam and I have been corresponding with incarcerated folks for more than seventeen years and expect to continue as long as we live. To us, the rewards are more than worth what effort it takes. Hopefully, you will agree.
Slammer! (A New Women-In-Prison Musical)