34 New Things: Write To An Inmate

Every year on my birthday, I make a list of new things I want to try. 
Some things are difficult, some are weird, some are shockingly
mundane.  You can read about past adventures here.


Here’s something that might surprise you:  I’m quite passionate about prison reform.  I even applied for a job teaching ESL to male inmates a few years ago!

If you’re not sure why you should care about prison reform, here are a few things to consider:
24% of inmates have mental health issues
Despite a lower occurrence of violent crime, we have more people in jail
Non-violent offenders make up 60% of the prison and jail population
State correctional spending is estimated at $52 billion per year
60% of prison inmates are functionally illiterate
61% of Minnesota’s inmates will be convicted of another crime and return to prison.  Most states have a recidivism rate of about 40%

Shocking and sad, right?  I don’t really have any answers, but I wanted to do my part to make things a little bit easier for someone in a tough situation, so I used this website to find a lady inmate who seemed like she’d be a good match for me.  I found a woman who, pre-prison, worked as an accountant, has two kids, and was looking for letters from either sex.  Seems pretty legit, right?

It was a little bit weird putting pen to paper in a letter to someone I’ve never, ever met.  I told her a little bit about myself and my life, but didn’t want to err too much on the side of “and then I went to Europe for six weeks and it was greeaaaaaat!  PS whatsprisonlikeanddoyouhavetowearthoseorangejumpers?”  I settled on a middle ground of asking her about her kids and if she’d liked her previous job.

I’ve just dropped my letter in the mailbox and I’m interested to see if I ever hear from my new penpal.  I sure hope so!

Edited to add: On November 27th, I received a return letter from my pen pal!
First, let us acknowledge that getting a handwritten letter is The Actual Best, regardless of its source.

My penpal wrote about her kids (a boy and a girl, ages 5 and 7) and how much she missed them while they lived with her mom for the time being.  She wrote about her job in the prison, helping cook for 1,300 other female inmates.  She talked about preparing the Thanksgiving meal desserts “7up cake, peach cobbler and sweet potato pie :)”

Really, she seemed super sweet!  I totally plan to write back. 



Have you ever written to an inmate? Would you? Has anyone in your life ever been in prison or jail?

If you’re interested in helping but not comfortable writing a letter to an inmate, consider Books Through Bars. Thanks for the suggestion, Jesse!

34 Comments

Kaitlyn Sykes

Sarah, I always wanted to write to an inmate but never really found the right program/website. I've already chosen someone to write to off of the site you used, so thank you for posting this! I tend to agree with you that there is a HUGE issue with the justice/punishment system… although I have yet to come up with the right answer.

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jesse.anne.o

I took a look at that site and for some reason thought it'd be more like Books through Bars and not ladies looking for romance (all the ones I clicked on were majorly in that arena). Kudos to you for wading through that and finding someone to write to.

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Julia H. @ Live Young & Prosper

Whoah, I'm kind of fascinated by this! Honestly, I didn't even realize it was possible to send letters to particular inmates (unless, of course, you knew them personally). So interesting! Definitely keep us posted on if you hear back!

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Carly

I am sure that your letter will be well received, I went to the site and felt very humbled by life thank you for sharing this.

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Sorcha

I've only written to prisoners of conscience (via Amnesty International) before. I think regular prisoners are just as worthy of our care and solidarity, so thanks for posting this Sarah. I have already written a letter and will post it in the morning!

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Wonder Woman

I wrote to an inmate back in college. It didn't last past one letter. He ended up killing a guy in prison (he had killed before apparently) and had no hope of getting released.

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Anonymous

Interesting – I've always been curious about the motivations behind people who write inmates. I think my assumption was that they were all people looking for love in familiar places and/or they need to 'save' or 'fix' the inmates (personal disclaimer: my mother became involved with a felon while he was still in prison, stayed with him for years as he bounced in and out of jail. Clearly I have bias).

I love this site for so many reasons – thanks for making me open my eyes to other possibilities and see that there are other reasons one might/should engage with inmates.

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Gem Wilder

When I was 20 I worked at a country club in CT. My roommate wrote to and received letters from David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam killer. She was a little odd. I overheard her on the phone telling her friend how she just didn't understand why he was still in jail because he'd found Jesus. That experience put me off the whole idea of writing to inmates, but I know it's not always like that.

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Lissa

I was a little worried about the "feel" of the site you linked to and the lack of sanctioning by some sort of a vetting system. Felt like I was looking for a sleazy date. I wonder if prisons have some sort of system for the inmates. Many prisons have chaplains and that might be a place to start to find a pen pal.

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Sarah Von Bargen

If you look the bottom of each woman's profile, you'll see a line that reads "Notice: To verify all or some of the information given please click here and then click on [state]."

You can also use http://www.writeaprisoner.com/ or http://www.prisoninmates.com/female_inmates, though it seems like a lot of the time the women are posting Glamour-shot style photos.

I'd sort of guess that they're so desperate for non-inmate interaction, they want to be as appealing as possible and they imagine it's more likely that they'll get mail from men if they post a sexy photo.

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Anonymous

I volunteer with the Prison Book Program here in MA, and the letters we receive from the inmates requesting their books are often fascinating (and sometimes heartbreaking). As an avid reader I find it deeply satisfying to choose books I think someone will like or benefit from based on their requests. It's somewhat selfish, since browsing the donated books for choices is very much like browsing a used bookstore, which is one of my favorite activities anyway, but it also makes me happy to think of making an inmate's day with choosing a good book for them! =)

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Anonymous

My cousin went to jail earlier this year, and I have been writing to him for a few months. He is schizophrenic, and offended while he was unwell. Writing to him has been really difficult; I end up saying a lot about what I'm up to because I just don't know what to ask, and I want to show support and love without ignoring what he did… Also he recently became a Christian, and as I am an atheist it makes that hard to talk about too.

I think it's great that you want to reach out to someone in prison; inmates are so easily forgotten by people on the outside, and it must be so lonely.

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Sweet Athena

I love that you wrote about this topic! Our prison industry complex is out of control, but people who have spent time in prison really lack a voice in our society. Have you read 'Are Prisons Obsolete?' by Angela Davis? It is a quick and easy read, but articulates the problems so well. Glad you are talking about this. Jess

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shannon

My brother was in prison for several years (fatal DUI) and I wrote him weekly. I found it really hard to figure out what to write about (I thought I would at first, but honestly it was hard every time)…I tried to avoid descriptions of my daily life that might unintentionally read as "here's all the awesome stuff I did because I'm not stuck in a cell"…I sent a lot of jokes and stories b/c we share the same dry sense of humor, I wrote about world news and ridiculous MN politicians (unfortunately, they give you ample material!), and I sent newspaper articles I thought might be amusing or interesting. My brother has said he really appreciated "normal" mail, like birthday cards, holiday cards (even a president's day card!) and news because it gave him some variety, let him know he's not been completely forgotten about, made it seem like seasons were passing. Our US prison system is so so so broken, so dehumanizing and focused on punishment (which is easy) instead of rehabilitation (which is hard, yes, but ultimately better for everyone) and betterment…why not send a bit of normalcy and compassion and kindness to someone in a tough spot? I don't write letters to any inmates right now (I'd have no idea what to say, it would be so hard, and I applaud anyone who can do that), but if anyone I even remotely knew were in prison I would write to them.

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Anonymous

Aloha My name is Sandee I have a son that is incarcerated in prison I am looking for people that can write to him he is a good kid and when his older brother committed suicide 7 years ago he lost his best friend. His name is Nathan Oliva he would love to have letters he will be released in about a year and he is from Hawaii. He made wrong choices in his life and it seems that he just lack motivation to feel good about him self. I am just his mother and my letters try to encourage him. I am in hopes that someone will have a heart and reply to my plight for a penpal ,friend, mentor for my son. here is the webpage for him

Nathan Oliva 1213153 Missouri State Prison System

Thanks Sandee

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MegG

Hey Sarah, I found your blog via problogger and love your 34 new things idea! This one caught my attention because I have a very odd job that makes it necessary for me to write to prisoners, often about their crimes, so I personally have written close to 500 letters over the last 5 years. The art, the stories and some of the miscommunications I've had are kind of fascinating. Anyway, congrats on making the problogger list, I know that I'm adding you to my reader!

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I.Write.To.Prisoners

Hi Sarah,

Love the blog. I've actually 'StumbledUpon' it before via various Google searches, but today you cropped up again in relation to my 'writing to inmates' search query. I'm actually just compiling a selection of resources to link out to from my own blog, which is all about the whole prison-pen-pal experience, in an attempt to dispel the myth that everyone who writes to prisoners, is that stereotypical middle aged hag, who sits in a muumuu all day, pining over her Death Row fantasy man.

The reality is a lot different and people would be surprised to see just how varied a cross-section of society actually take the time to reach out to an incarcerated individual. I would recommend the WriteAPrisoner.com site to find a pen-pal. The site is part of a bigger organisation that helps to organise and fund programs which provide reading resources for inmates, welcome-home packs for the recently released and a Children Impacted By Poverty Scholarship scheme.

As with any pen-pal site (be they for the incarcerated or free world folk) there are going to be adverts for people looking for more than just a friend, but there are hundreds of people on this site, who just want to get a letter at mail call, some words of kindness and a little human contact. There is also a great forum on the site which is a really helpful wealth of information for those who are new to the whole prison-pen-pal experience and need to know about the different rules and regs for each institution.

I've been writing to prisoners for years and find it incredibly rewarding. As you yourself have already stated, nothing beats that feeling of finding an actual, proper, old-fashioned, handwritten letter waiting for you when you get home at the end of the day. It doesn't take much time to write a letter and it certainly doesn't cost a lot to post it. But that letter can be priceless in worth to the recipient, who might not get any other form of human contact.

I really hope you continue with your correspondence to the female inmate you wrote to and look forward to reading your updates.

Kind regards

Bex

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Hailie Lynn

My brother is currently in prison and I miss him day after day. We write each other atleast 3 times a month but its been getting harder and harder to write him because of the things we talk about. We talk about my fiancé or we talk about how my GED is going, My brother just turned 21 in febuary im gonna be 17 in 2 weeks and I miss him so much. I haven't seen him I about 3 years and hes been in for 5 this year. He gets out next year but I don't know what to say to him. Talking to him makes me happy though and I enjoy it because its a time where we get things off our minds. He knows more about me than he did when we were younger

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Anonymous

Hi Sarah, Thanks for sharing your correspondance with an inmate story. I have just learned that someone I was friends with but lost touch with, is now in jail and possibly going to prison. I'm sad to have found him in this situation after all this time. I want to write to him, and hopefully give him some support, and hopefully he will remember who I am and that we once were work mates/friends and that I never forgot about him and our friendship. From what you wrote about your experience it seemed to work out on a positive note. I hope you are still in touch with this woman and that your letters bring her some sunshine.

Thanks!!

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Allie

I love this idea! Only thing (and I'm probably about to unintentionally sound ignorant…) weren't you worried about them having your address? Or did you give a PO Box or something like that? Thanks for sharing such a unique idea! xx

Allie @ callmesassafras.wordpress.com

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Anonymous

I write all the time to girls and guys in prison as I know for a fact having somebody writing to them makes you feel so much better and brightens your day. This is a little website I found about what you should write and the reality of it also. http://anti-politics.net/distro/download/writingprisonersflyer.pdf
Thank you and unfortunately I have someone close that is in prison and looking for more people to write to him. . Writing letters is a very good time filler as in jails there is almost nothing to do. No programs, one TV for 60 guys and a few games. Having a PO Box is a good idea then you can write freely without thinking that somebody might find where you are.

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Anonymous

My boyfriend is currently imprisoned. I write him atleast 15 letters a month and we speak every other day on the phone. The main problem prisoners face being locked behind bars is the world on the outside. A lot of times the friends and family that you communicated with almost daily often times forget about you once your locked behind bars. For me my life is moving but not quite in the direction I want it to. With him being locked up a piece of me is missing. I write him every week telling him how much I love him, reminding him that mistakes are a fact of life how we address those mistakes is what's important. I try to bring him peace of mind because with him being in there he doesn't really know what's going on, and he can't control things here on the outside. Inmates somewhat loose there selves behind bars. It's up to the loved ones to be that sense of change, direction, love, and support. I try and be all that and more to my boyfriend. Although I don't condone his actions that has placed him in the situation he's in ..I don't judge him ..I let him make his own mistakes .. And usually going through the jailing system opens up most inmates eyes an heart to the things that could subject them to the imprisoned lifestyle again. We got to encourage change for the better, or give ultimatums that if they can't take that high road then all that you've done will have been listed the 2nd and 3rd time around.

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You and Whose Army?

I just started writing people in prison. I admit, it became addictive. I hope they don't have a reality TV show for me. I'm up to about 8 letters so far with a few of them being short "Happy Birthday" wishes, letting them know someone on the outside cares. I think the hardest part is waiting. Prison mail is extremely slow and I am probably just as excited to get real mail as they are. I'm wondering how this panned out for you since posting this blog.

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Anonymous

Hey!
First off, let me commend you on your kindness and understanding of the plight of inmates. People often forget that they are indeed human beings and write them all off immediately as "bad" people, who deserve to be forgotten, mistreated, and lose everything because of a mistake. Everyone makes mistakes.
I have personally been to jail, because of a mistake I made to HELP somebody else in need, I guess I should be written off forever… I know how lonely, painful, hopeless and overwhelming it feels… first hand. Not to mention that the person who I landed myself in there trying to help couldn't be bothered to even write, or set up an account so we could talk. (An ex boyfriend) and my mother was the only one who stood by me throughout my trial and incarceration. It meant the world to me, and I vowed that I would never, ever, EVER abandon somebody the way my ex abandoned me.
Well, two years later… my current boyfriend of a little more than a year has landed himself in that very position because of a few unfortunate mistakes of his own. We haven't been together as long as I was with my previous boyfriend (the same one I previously mentioned) but already he has been there for me unconditionally, through some very tough times, through a debilitating illness where he patiently and lovingly nursed me back to health, this man has been my rock and given me strength through all of our struggles, in fact… nobody besides my family has ever fought as hard to be with me and make me happy, or stood by me so faithfully and loyally… it is the first relationship that I have ever been in where my partner tried as hard for me as I did for them, and the first time I ever really truly felt the love of somebody.
Well, now it is my turn to be his rock. To let him know how much he is loved, and prove to him that he will not be forgot ton or abandoned.. that I will wait no matter how long he is in there, and that I will never give up on him.
I have written him a few letters… but I was wondering if there was anything in particular that I could include in future letters or anything I can do to prove to him my loyalty and love… make him understand how much I care for him. I know he is terrified right now… of what will happen to him, what will become of us, and to further compound the situation… we are expecting a baby, and he is sitting in there with the realization that he is going to be a father… this will be the first for both of us… we are young… I am almost 23 and he is 22. Not only does he have to worry about the fact that he is going to be a father… but a father from behind bars, who is powerless to do anything but worry about his future, and the health of myself and our unborn child (I am better these days but my health is still tenuous at best.)
So what can I do? If anything. And is there any thing I can do to get closer to him?

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Anonymous

My fiance is in jail but will be out october 23rd. Unfortunately he's got another court date on the 25th and I hope he doesnt get sent away again, it's a bit difficult to handle while pregnant. I've also checked out sites in the past to write to inmates but wasn't successful

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Anonymous

Hello! 7 months ago, I was curious and decided to write to an inmate. I was just as excited as he was to recieve letters. I didn't do it to find a mate, I did it to help since most prisoners are abandoned by their family. Weeks after weeks, our correspondence and phone calls went to the next level where we were in a relationship. I went to see him a few weeks ago. That visit gave me a new view on prisoners. Yes they have made mistakes but we all have, they were unfortunate to get caught. He even proposed to me during the visit. And I must say, altho he is in prison, he is the first man who has made me this happy. I'm still cautious and have my guards up, but I am also not gonna turn down this opportunity. Overall.. great post! I wish more people in society can understand the system and realize that there may be more evil people outside than there are in the inside.

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Anonymous

in 1985 i was a freshman in high school and dating a junior. he gave me his class ring, six months later i gave it back to him. i had a lot of family issues and instead of listening to my mom's boyfriend rape her every night of my life, i turned them in for dealing pot. i was placed in foster care for 6 months then moved home again. during those six months i lived in another town, while i was gone my x boyfriend got his sister-in-law pregnant. when i got back home i saw him and one night found him. i told him i didn't think the baby was his, he said he didn't care and found the life he wanted. he made it crystal clear that it wasn't with me.
six months later i saw him at a party. i was with a new man and when he saw me with him my x got pissed. i got pissed that he was pissed and got into his face saying my new boyfriend is not who i want. this is what u want. after that i left the party. my x was drunk, i had never seen him that drunk. i went home and cried myself to sleep. i wanted to go back to the party but he didn't want me, he had a lover and it wasn't me.
that night he continued to drink and when his sister-in-law wouldn't let him into her bed he left the house. the next day my friends found me, fed me a few beers and told me that my x had raped a 65 year old lady, a friend's grandmother and had beat her so badly she had a heart attack.
two days later i tried to kill myself and was sent away to a mental hospital, four months later to a group home.
i'm not sure what is harder, loving someone who doesn't love u back or being in love with someone you can never get over. my x got life plus 25 years so basically he will never get out of prison. the last time i saw him was at the party 30 years ago. for years and years i would hear thru the grapevine about him. i was right the baby wasn't his but his brother. the grapevine was the most frustrating experience i had ever dealt with.
so after 30 years i wrote him a letter. told him i never stopped loving him, i felt partially responsible for his crime the way i got in his face and yelled at him, the way he looked at me that night, so upset i was with another man. i never stopped think of him, everyday for 30 years. for me it was a relief to finally stop wondering how he was doing. so i wrote the letter for me, maybe to stop obsessing about a lost love. he wrote me back. his sister-in-law and mother are the only ppl in his life on a continuous basis. i'm still not sure i fit in his life and i still can't stop thinking of him. writing him was the best thing i ever did. i will be visiting him this year, 30 years later.

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