Many people decide to establish a relationship with a prisoner by writing to them through a prison pen pal program or website. They do it for different reasons, and the experience gets mixed reviews. Some people say the prisoners are looking for love – and some websites are designed for that. Others may be wanting financial support. But still others just want a genuine correspondence relationship with someone on the outside.
The benefits of those looking for friendship, in particular, is confirmed by research done by Professor Jacqueline Hodgson and PhD student Juliet Horne at the University of Warwick in the U.K. – the only academic study on the subject of prison pen pals we know of. The two studied an organization called Prisoners’ Penfriends and through questionnaires and interviews found that the pen pal relationship made the prisoners “feel less isolated, helped change their self-identity, provided a distraction, boosted their happiness and raised their hopes for life beyond prison.” In addition, “volunteers spoke of how they get feelings of enjoyment and satisfaction writing to their penfriends – seeing the letters as a two-way relationship, which broadens their outlook on life.”
Religious groups create relationships
One of the best ways to get involved with prison pen pals is through an established group, and a growing number of religious organizations are taking the activity on as part of their mission.
The Death Row Ministry, made up members of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church of San Rafael and two other churches in Marin County, California, is an example of one of these groups. The program began about 25 years ago with the pastor of St. Paul’s and one inmate. It grew from there, and now includes 28 people who are writing to and/or visiting prisoners on Death Row at San Quentin Prison.
When Richard Olive, who is now the group’s facilitator and head of volunteer outreach for the church, was at a service at St. Paul’s eight years ago, the pastor said that if anyone is interested in writing or visiting inmates on death row, see him after the service.
“I thought why not? Why couldn’t I do that?” Olive says. “What prompted me was a passage from Matthew 25 which encourages us to visit the prisoners.”
And now Olive facilitates the program, which also includes people who aren’t associated with the three churches. Members gather for a bi-monthly meeting. People who are interested are invited to come and get more information. “It’s an opportunity for each volunteer to report in on how it’s going with their inmate. We want to know that the inmates who have come to us for fellowship are getting it,” Olive says.
“We encourage volunteers to write a letter at least once a month. It’s been amazing to see the reaction from the inmates,” he says. “They felt that their lives were over. They were sentenced to death. Their attitude was that society had forgotten about them, and to have people writing to them was totally unexpected.”
Two of the churches provide funding to the pen pals — $250 goes into an account for each of them every year, so they can purchase items from the commissary. That way church participants don’t have to worry about being asked for money or other things. This is a thoughtful option but certainly not a requirement for a successful program.
Tips for getting started
The Orange Grove Friends Meeting in Pasadena, Calif., organizes a prison pen pal correspondence program in which members correspond with between 20 and 30 people. It has a wealth of information on its website to help other groups and individuals get started.
Among the topics, are:
- Guidelines for writing to prisoners, including what to write, using your organization’s address rather than your own, only using your first name at the beginning and other tips.
- The pros and cons of giving gifts to prisoners, whether money, books or other items.
- Advice for the prisoners to follow in establishing relationships with their pen pals.
- How to help prisoners prepare for reentry.
Berkeley Zen Center creating program
The Berkeley (Calif.) Zen Center is in the process of creating a pen pal program between the center and people incarcerated in the Alameda County Jail.
According to Preston Evers in an email sent out to recruit volunteers, “The main purpose of the correspondence will be to build bonds with our incarcerated community members, offer emotional/spiritual support, and learn about life inside the county jail.”
He adds, “While pen pal relationships with incarcerated people can be beautiful and illuminating, they can also be upsetting and confusing, as jails and prisons are concentrated sites of oppression, deprivation and trauma, so BZC participants will regularly meet as a group to process their experiences and seek guidance from one another.”
How individuals can get involved
If you’d like to correspond with a prison pen pal without being a member of a group, that is possible too.
There are a variety of websites designed to pair prisoners with those on the outside who wish to communicate with each other. Some of them are rather questionable, but others seem quite reputable.
We recommend that you read about the sites before you choose one and carefully consider any prisoner you might want to write to.
Here are three of the most reputable ones:
Inmate-Connection – The Inmate-Connection website has a page for each prisoner, listed in alphabetical order by name. Each page includes the person’s address, so you can write to them directly, the crime for which they were incarcerated and a statement that they have written about themselves, their personalities, dreams and the kind of pen pal they are looking for. Yes, some are looking for romance, but many are just in search of friends and seem to be quite transparent. Although listings include prisoners of both sexes, there is only a handful of women.
WriteAPrisoner.com – WriteAPrisoner.com’s website also includes profiles that are searchable by location, race, religion, sex and/or age. Each page has a statement by the inmate, as well as a wide variety of standard info – marital status, hair color, hometown, whether they’re interested in furthering their education, etc. It also includes detailed incarceration information. If you want to write to one of them, however, you have to register on the website to get the person’s address.
Wire of Hope – Wire of Hope was created by two young women, after they corresponded with dozens of prisoners themselves and became involved with various issues related to prisons and prisoners. (One created a website dedicated to telling the stories of some of those who have been wrongfully imprisoned. The other served for two years as a volunteer teacher in a penitentiary.)
Their pen pal website includes prisoners incarcerated in 47 states and can be searched by a variety of criteria, including race, language, religion, gender, astrological sign and their sentence, among other things. We were pleased to see Wire of Hope’s policy (spelled out in their FAQs,) about the fact that words matter. They’d prefer not to use words such as “inmates” and “prisoners,” but those are the terms people search the internet with. Jails to Jobs feels the same way. Using common internet search words helps interested people find reentry resources and connect and create more pen pal relationships.
Why do it?
Whether you establish a prison pen pal relationship through a group or by yourself, it is a great way to bring compassion and hope to someone who desperately needs it. In addition, it may open your mind to issues and a way of life quite different from your own.
And if you need some help in figuring out just how to go about it, Sister Helen Prejean, known for her best-selling book, Dead Man Walking, offers some pointers on writing to someone in prison.