Prison Pen Pals: How to Become a Pen Pal to A Prisoner

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You may have heard of people developing pen pal relationships with prison inmates. Or maybe you are interested in becoming a pen pal. There are prison pen pal programs in place to help with this. Read on to learn how to become a pen pal to a prisoner.

Why Do Prisoners Need Pen Pals?

Prison life can be very lonely. Some prisoners can serve long sentences and have little or no contact with the outside world — having a pen pal is sometimes their only connection.

In fact, human connection is important for: 

The pen pal program can also be lifesaving because pen pals are usually aware of the prisoner’s state of mind. So, they can alert prisons if prisoners are considering harming themselves, like suicide.

Benefits of Prison Pen Pals

Prison pen pals can make a big difference with prisoners’ re-entry into society. Inmates connected to the outside world are six times less likely to re-offend within the first year of release. But, without a connection, more ex-offenders will return to prison. Within one year of release, 4 out of 10 return to prison, and 6 out of 10 return to prison within three years. This is why the prison pen pal program is essential.

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Prison pen pal programs also play a significant role for prisoners serving their terms. These programs can help prisoners:

  • Feel less isolated
  • Boost their happiness
  • Change their self-identity
  • Look forward to a life beyond prison

There are also benefits for those writing to the inmates, such as:

  • Feeling satisfied
  • Enjoying writing to the prisoners
  • Broadening their outlook on life

So, what’s it about, and how do you become a prison pen pal?

Can You Become a Pen Pal to a Prisoner?

Every year inmates are looking for pen pals. But sometimes they cannot find penpals because there are not enough people signing up. So, how do you get involved?

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You can become a penpal to a prisoner if you are:

  • 18 years or older
  • Not involved in criminal activities or disclose incriminating statements to your pen pal. Disclosing incriminating information, especially to an inmate awaiting release or conditional parole, may jeopardize their freedom.

Finding your pen pal

Prison pen pal programs usually have an online directory where you can visit prisoner profiles. You can learn about the prisoners from their profiles and see if you find similarities or a connection.

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You can take a step further and seek records from the court clerk or do an online search for public records to learn more about the crimes that landed a prospective prisoner pen pal in jail. The Federal Bureau of Prisons website’s inmate locater tool will confirm where the inmate has been incarcerated. Try to avoid prisoners whose crimes you find reprehensible; this way, you’ll keep your interactions objective and respectful.

What Programs Are Available to Get Involved?

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There are many pen pal programs you can use that can connect you with the right pen pal, such as:

  • Wire of Hope connects prisoners with volunteer pen pals worldwide. It has a search engine that allows you to narrow down your search based on your interests. Once you find the pen pal you most connect with, get their contact information and send them a letter. You can also send an email but leave a mailing address if they can’t email back.
  • Write A Prisoner also works the same as Wire of Hope. They have rules of what can or cannot include in the letters, like (prison mail rules), paper clips, perfume, and staples.
  • The Appalachian Prison Book Project pen pal program supports inmates from six states — Virginia, Ohio, West Virginia, Tennessee, Maryland, and Kentucky. This site uses a pen pal survey to match you with a pen pal who fits your request.
  • The Prisoner Correspondence Project focused on matching penpals looking for LGBTQIA+ inmates. 
  • There are also female only pen pal programs like Women Behind Bars and Jail Babes 

Safety Tips When Writing to a Prisoner

Like any friendship, you need to set boundaries when beginning your pen pal relationship. As you start writing to your penpal share:

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  • Why you chose to find and make a friend from prison
  • If you’re open to sensitive topics like sexual, religious, or political

You can also choose how you talk to your pen pal— emails, letters, or phone calls. Make them aware of your boundaries, and be firm if they cross them.

Protect yourself by sharing as little personal information as possible, including information about your family, workplace, and other personal issues. You can also use a pseudo (fake) name to protect your identity. Keep in mind that some prison rules may prevent inmates from sending letters to someone with only a first name. In this case, a prison that allows first-name letters may be a factor to consider when choosing a prison pen pal.

If you are not comfortable sharing your address, you could use a church’s address to receive mail on your behalf. But, be sure to explain the circumstances to the church first.

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