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How to be an AWESOME Pen Pal!
Thoughts to consider when writing to someone who is incarcerated:

1. Why do I want to write to someone in prison?

It’s really important that we all take some time to ask ourselves what we want to get out of this penpal friendship. It is absolutely okay to not have a full articulated answer, but it is good to ask yourself what your motivations are. We all carry our own assumptions and need to continuously challenge them. Ask yourself what assumptions you might have about people who are incarcerated and how that might impact the way you write. These are good conversations to have with others who are also penpals. 

2. What is my capacity?

For many incarcerated people, receiving one or two letters from someone promising to correspond regularly but failing to follow up with further correspondence can be incredibly difficult. Being a penpal doesn’t have to be an intense time commitment; letters can be as long or as short as you want them to be. Please be upfront about the regularity that you will be able to write. We suggest writing at least twice per month. If your capacity is only once a month, let them know. At this time, we have restricted our outside penpals to three incarcerated penpals, to help ensure that frequent communication with penpals occurs.

3. How might I deal with hearing about the prison system?

Writing with folks in prison can often lead to an intense learning experience about what incarceration really means for those navigating the prison system in the US. It’s important to have support systems to deal with the stories of trauma you might hear. It is also very helpful to share these revelations with your community to deconstruct what you learn and how you might participate unwittingly in the system. Individual penpal relationships can sometimes lead to a desire to do far more advocacy for that individual or to abolish the system as a whole. We can succeed far more when we work to navigate this world together.

Important Things to Know:

Reply letters might take a while

We have found that pen pals are like friends. You might have one you speak to every day. You might have one you talk to every week and then there are some that you will only talk to every year or so. All of the names you receive are people who have requested pen pals, but they may not all write back, at least right away. If you should send out three introductory letters and get back 3 rapid responses...write back at you leisure and determine which one you want to stay in regular contact with and which one you want to just send off an occasional post card.  Some of the reply letters from your penpals might be sent after a considerable delay, one of the infinite awful aspects of prison. If you don’t hear back from the person you’re corresponding with within 4 to 6 weeks, it is possible that they have been transferred or released. We always attempt to update our incarcerated members’ addresses regularly; those updates will be reflected monthly on this penpal site, so look at your Current Penpals information. If you can - send a self addressed stamped envelope and a few sheets of blank paper.  While some people may have friends or family putting money on their books, others do not. Even for folks with supportive friends & family, money can still be very very tight, and after commissary deposit fees, it can be significantly more expensive to buy stamps and envelopes behind bars. Sending a stamped, self-addressed envelope removes the cost of pen-pal-ing for the person you are writing to.

Harm Reduction Strategies

Mail Call often happens in public spaces in the prison. When someone hears their name called by a prison guard during Mail Call it is a reminder that people on the outside care about that person. It is also a message to the guards and other incarcerated people that this person has support and is not forgotten. This can be a vital harm reduction strategy for people who are locked up, especially people who have tased sex and queer and transgender folks.  There is a fine grey line between “harm reduction advice” and “non-judgemental attitude” and “promoting drug use/prostitution.” Err on the side of harm reduction/non-judgement. In particular: 

  • It’s always okay to express non-judgement, that you don’t think certain things should be illegal or stigmatized. It’s also always okay to express your opinions, knowledge and beliefs about knowing that doing XXX isn’t the horrific experience people learned about in DARE, or whatever.

  • If the person is not asking for “safer” escorting/sex-adult work/drug selling/using advice, DON’T give it. If the person expresses or you sense ambiguousness/lack of desire for “abstinence,” acknowledge challenges and frame it ask keeping safe regardless of whatever they do. Some ways of phrasing things:

  • Acknowledge challenges - “Completely changing your life around can be really, really hard.” “I know from personal experience that changing is a really hard thing.”

  • Say the person shouldn’t be hard on themselves for not changing. “

  • Phrase “harm reduction” options as a 2nd best alternative/an important thing to know for sanity/health/safety/protecting future self/best way to ensure ability to meet long-term goals while being realistic.

  • Phrase “harm reduction tips” in generals: People use syringes for insulin & hormone shots too! Advice for staying safe, successful & sane in sex work is equally applicable to freelance domestic work, modeling, elder care, formal massage therapy, social work homecare visits, etc. Illegal substance moderation tips are equally applicable for moderation of any substance --cigarettes, alcohol, caffeine, dependency on legal prescriptions.

  • Phrase harm reduction tips as a past-tense story: yours or a friend/family member. 

Questions about how to Identify

Mail is screened, so be cautious about how you describe any of your own experiences and any involvement illegal activities. Generally, mail is skimmed but not read in depth unless there is something about your letter that raises a bright red flag. Connecting is important, but so is keeping yourself safe. We believe in Harm Reduction. So follow your own risk tolerance around this & trust your gut.* If you want to connect with someone because you share experiences, some ways to do this might be:

  • Talking about your own work or substance use in past tense.

  • Describing your own experiences/work as that of a friend or family member.

  • Describing the legal aspects or equivalents of your own work or experiences -- whether that is fetish/adult modeling, adult film work, webcamming, stripping, no-sex BDSM or What’s Your Price social-only dates, or having sugar daddies/older wealthier boyfriends for criminalized forms of adult work; or overeating/over-drinking/over-use of or dependence on legal prescriptions prescribed to you/overuse of caffeine. 

  • Say what you do, but don’t go into depth about it.

(Yes, we know how incredibly stupid this is.) 

Building validating relationships

Do not speak down to, discriminate against, shame, or condescend your penpals. We are about building relationships and validating that our struggles as people of color, activists, sex workers, youth workers, immigrants, anti-capitalist, trans, queer, gender-nonconforming people are intricately connected with prison abolition and liberation. Please be conscious and aware of power dynamics and actively seek support around the acknowledgment and eradication of these dynamics in your correspondence.

Setting boundaries

Remember to be transparent about your own boundaries, and respecting boundaries that your penpal has set. Please voice any concerns you have with your penpal in a loving and affirming way, and try to receive feedback that they give you. If for any reason you are not comfortable, or can no longer engage with your penpal, please let us know.

Your personal information

This may include your ability to disclose any personal information about yourself in your correspondence (i.e.—immigrant status, age, history of incarceration, sexual preferences, etc.). It is not unusual for mail to be screened by prisons and jails, so please keep your own safety in mind. You may use the SWOP-USA mail address to put on the return address and to have correspondence sent to you by email.  That address is:

SWOPUSA- Behind Bars


340 S Lemon Ave

Walnut, CA 91789


This might include requests for funds or other forms of support. Penpals are not required to send funds. If you decide to send packages or funds to their commissary, be clear about the amounts and frequency you are commiting to, and reflect on how it might impact your penpal dynamic. You are NOT obligated to send money or books.  Sadly - because of the nature of prison life - folks are disconnected from the rest of the world and often have very little support from the outside and they often have social challenges around boundaries.

Romantic or sexual letters

There might be some letters which feel flirtatious or sexual. Your safety and comfort are your own, so if you’re okay with sexy letters, keep writing them! If you aren’t, please respond respectfully and firmly to your penpal.

Ten Quick Tips
Things to include in your first letter...


  1. How you found out about this person: “I learned about you through SWOP Behind Bars.”

  2. Your Boundaries/Your Capacity: It’s 100% okay to only be able to write a one-time support letter, or write once/month. You don’t have to send the person you are writing books or add money to their commissary. But it’s super important to clarify this in your letter! Some ways to phrase this:

  3. One-Time Letter “I’m at [event]. Just wanted to drop you a quick, cheerful note. You rock & I’m rooting for you!”

  4. [For letter-exchange] “My financial capacity is really limited, but I’d love to [correspond with you & get to know you better / or clarify your $$ boundaries] “I don’t want to set unclear expectations, I’m fairly busy, but am definitely able to write on a monthly basis”

  5. A bit about yourself! You’ll include more in a letter that is intended to be an ongoing pen-pal exchange, but even if you’re just sending a support letter, people like to know a bit about who the letter is coming from! Some things might be - age, job, an experience that connects you, a random fact, and/or one or two activities/hobbies. 

  6. PICTURES ARE APPRECIATED - the prisoners love to be able to “see” who they are writing to.  No naked pictures or pornography.  Prisoners LOVE to get picture postcards of your travels so don’t hesitate to send postcards from vacations or trips.  Don’t forget to include the return address!

  7. A personalized touch! You can add a doodle or a handwritten p.s. Why? Because everything in prison is standardised, typed, and institutional, and a personal touch means a ton!

  8. Do not forward letters they send you to mail to other people.  Especially to other people in prison.  THIS IS ILLEGAL. This could get your mail denied permanently and could cause your pen pal to get punished and could even result in additional charges against them and against you. 

  9. They may ask you to get pictures from their facebook pages and print them out and send them to them.  This is fine.  Just be sure the pictures are of them or their family members.  They may use pictures of themselves to send to other pen pals.

  10. They may ask you to contact loved ones that are not in prison.  Use your own discretion when doing this.  




*DO NOT offer someone a job in something that is criminalized or offer to let someone use your space, rent your space, help someone create a website, learn how to advertise, work with someone, or learn how to engage in sex work or find or sell drugs.

DON'T give specific advice about where to work/how to work/how to evade law enforcement/how to make (more)money doing something illegal. 

DON'T forward letters they send to you to send to other people.

DON'T look up friends or family members on Facebook and send them contact information.  They may be court ordered not to have contact with certain people and we have no way of knowing this information.

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