How To Write To A Prisoner

We now send your emails out once a month. Be sure to include any contact information so they can respond to you promptly.  Most inmates DO NOT have access to email.

 

When someone hears their name called by a prison guard during mail call it can be a powerful reminder that people on the outside care about them, and it sends a message to guards and other inmates that this person has support and isn’t forgotten.

Becoming a pen pal to a person in prison, can be a great way to show someone they aren’t alone. Mail call often happens in public spaces in prison; when someone hears their name called by a prison guard during mail call it can be a powerful reminder that people on the outside care about them, and it sends a message to guards and other inmates that this person has support and isn’t forgotten. This can be a vital harm reduction strategy for people who are locked up, especially queer and trans people. Additionally, many people are incarcerated far from their communities or may not have a lot of support from the outside world; many queer and trans people may be in “protective custody” or solitary confinement and may not have a lot of daily contact with others or time out of their cell. A quick letter of support or a long-term correspondence can be a great way to keep their spirits up and let them know they aren’t alone.


If you’ve never written to someone in prison before, you might not know where to start. Here are some suggestions to get you started.

  • Your letter can (and probably will) be read by prison officials. Think about this when including any information about your political activities, immigration status, history of incarceration, or mentioning anything that might incriminate you or your communities. Be aware that your letter may be censored as well.
  • Include your full name and contact information. Many prisons won’t give the envelope to the person you’re writing, so, if you want them to write you back, make sure your first and last name and mailing address are written legibly on the letter as well as the envelope. If you don’t want to use your home address when corresponding with people in prison, the organizations listed at the end of this article may be willing to let you use theirs.
  • Be sure to use your pen pal’s full government name on the envelope. Most prisons won’t deliver mail that isn’t to the legal name of your penpal. When writing to your penpal for the first time, you may want to use their legal name in the letter as well, and ask them what name and pronouns they would like to use for future correspondence
  • Mail restrictions vary from prison to prison. Many prisons won’t allow stickers, paint, glitter, or any other mail art. It’s probably best to stick to white lined paper, black or blue ink, and a plain envelope for your first letter. If you continue corresponding with someone in prison, you can ask them about the particular restrictions at their prison.

Your biggest question is probably “what do I write?” It can be hard to reach out to someone you don’t know, and it can definitely be difficult to know what to say. Always be up-front about your time commitment and what your intentions are. Start by introducing yourself and saying what some of your interests are. Many penpal listings will have some information about your pen pal’s interests; these can be a great way to start a conversation. It’s not a bad idea to state your boundaries in your first letter, such as “I foresee being able to write you once a month or so for friendship and support.” Remember to ask them about mail or content restrictions, what name and pronoun they use, and if there’s anything they aren’t comfortable writing about.

Some penpals may want to write sexual or romantic letters. If that’s something you’re comfortable with, do it! If not, it’s OK to let your pen pal know that, but that you’re still interested in corresponding with them. Try to frame it positively, and be aware that penpals writing about sex or romance or expressing an interest in your sexual or romantic life may not necessarily be coming on to you. Additionally, someone may ask you to contribute money to their commissary for stamps, envelopes, paper, or other essentials. If that’s something you’re comfortable with, it can be a vital way to support your penpal, but if you aren’t able to or comfortable doing so, be clear about that. The best thing you can do is be consistent, open, supportive, and honest about your boundaries and abilities.