Guide to Writing to Incarcerated People - Updated July 2023
It’s important for prisoners to stay in touch with people who are on the outside of prison walls. Regular contact with a close friend, family member or supportive partner provides a sense of community, motivation to do as well as can be expected and a positive tie to the outside world. Caring, stable relationships have also been directly linked to lower rates of offending – so facilitating prisoners’ communication with people in the community benefits everyone.
These electronic mail services have been expensive in the past and were “glitchy” at best. There is improvement on the horizon and much of this is because prisons have discovered that it is cost effective for them to provide tablets to prisoners at no charge. Additionally - the cost of electronic mail “stamps” has been greatly reduced in many prisons across the country and this makes it so much easier for friends and family to communicate and stay connected. In some cases, prisoners have access to video visits and text messaging
Many prison and jail facilities have signed up for electronic mail. It is mostly state operated prisons. Many private “for profit” prisons are working towards this goal but it tends to run very slowly as prisoners are not a private facilities top priority. Some prisons and jails are offering “tablets” with limited internet use to prisoners at no cost and others are charging between $20 and $60. If your pen pal doesn’t have their own tablet, they will have access to the kiosk to check, read and send emails.
The most popular email providers were JPay, SmartJailMail and GettingOut but these random electronic mail providers are being consolidated and JPay, the most egregious offender in the pre-Covid era of predatory pricing for electronic mail, is now owned by Securus and we are being told that they will soon be the primary provider of electronic mail for prisoners in State Prisons and some county jails. Securus also offers a wide variety of more than 200 free “courses” on reentry for prisoners and is actively working to ensure that everyone gets a free tablet to access email, text messages and even video calls. You can sign up for an account on one of the electronic mail providers using a “civilian” email address and then you can search for your pen pal by using the State they are being held in and their DOC number. You can use your regular email or create a special email account for penpalling. If you ever had a JPay account, you can log into the Securus platform using your JPay account email and phone and you will see all - or most - of your previous correspondence.
Federal Prisoners have access to a Federal electronic email program called Corrlinks and the prisoner MUST add your email to their contact list in order to exchange emails. For this reason, anyone in a Federal Prison (their facility name will begin with FCI) requires that you send a paper letter FIRST (don’t forget to add your email address to the paper letter) and wait for them to add you to their email contact list. If they do NOT add you to their contact list, it may be because they do not have email privileges or they may have exceeded the number of email contacts, in which case, you can continue to exchange paper letters.
Signing up for an account requires verifying your email and sometimes a phone number. You will be asked for a physical address and may have to verify your age, but they do not ask for identification unless you are trying to send money. You can then purchase electronic “stamps” and you can send an email with a return electronic “stamp” that can only be used to reply to YOUR emails at no cost to your pen pal. You can also transfer these electronic stamps to your penpal so they can use them to contact their family or friends.
Each state has different costs associated with prison or jail electronic mail so if you have penpals in multiple states, you will have to purchase electronic stamps for each separate state. SWOP Behind Bars will send you penpals from the same state so you do not incur additional expenses unless you specifically request us to do so. For penpal parties, we will send you the “hard copy” mailing address for paper mail. The cards and letters you send will be scanned into the prison email system and delivered to the prisoner electronically. Sadly, they do not provide color scanning, so your cards and letters will be delivered in black and white.
For our International friends that want to correspond with a prisoner in the United States, we recommend sending them a postcard occasionally but - because of the cost of international stamps, regular correspondence should be over email.
Top Ten Pen Pal Tips for Jail Mail
1. Tell them a little about yourself!
Why you are interested in corresponding: This can be as simple as “I used to be involved in the adult industry, and I want to connect more with folks from our community behind bars” or “My cousin was in jail a while ago, and I know that our criminal justice system is often unjust, there are a lot of amazing people behind bars, and “ or “SWOP Behind Bars shared your contact information and that you were looking for support around [writing/GED/substance recovery/reentry]. I’ve also struggled with this and only got through it with a great support system, and I’d love to ‘pay it back by writing to you.’”
2. Tell them how you heard about them!
Nobody feels good about getting strangers just popping in with no explanation so let them know you heard they wanted a pen pal from SWOP Behind Bars. We only provide penpals to incarcerated people who ask for them!
3. Connect with them with shared experiences, similar hobbies or interests or tales about your travels!
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.
You can say what you do, but don’t go into depth about it.
For our international penpals, we know that prisoners LOVE to hear about your travel experiences and getting postcards from across the world is incredibly exciting!
5. Determine what kind of a letter exchange you want to do
Some kinds include:
Mentor-style [AA/NA/Re-entry/Writing/Group Facilitation), where you’re offering someone advice, info and support. Write something like “I’m happy to support you around XXX, give advice and connect you with information you might want or need.”
Friends/Peers - Communicating mainly about your own different interests, lives, goals, dislikes, whatever. Just providing social connection! Write about your own personal interests, yourself, and ask about them! Write something like “I’m super-glad to connect with you and excited to get to know you better!”
Specialized Projects [This can include sending drawings, poetry, or creative writing to each other; collaborating on a ‘zine;]
Diary or Journal Entries - just telling them about what you are doing on a daily basis. You can include tales about vacations, trips or even just boredom.
More about yourself & questions about the person: Make it a dialogue. Talk about your life, goals, quirks, & interests & ask about theirs!
One of the most frustrating things about emailing someone behind bars is the multiple emails they will write, many times about the same issue. Most of our “outside” penpals simply answer the last email they receive and encourage their penpal to refer back to the email where you set your capacity boundaries. Letter writing is kind of a “lost art”. A good letter should consist of:
An appropriate greeting (Dear Sir/Madam, Dear Kathy, Dear Mr Brown).
An introduction clearly stating who you are and the reason you are writing.
A main body in which the subject is developed. This can be multiple paragraphs, with one paragraph for each developing subject.
A final paragraph in which you sum up the topic or express your wish for something to be done, like asking the recipient to respond in a similarly constructed letter/email.
6. SET YOUR BOUNDARIES IN YOUR FIRST CONTACT EMAIL OR LETTER!
It’s 100% okay to only write a one-time support letter, or only commit to write once a month.
One-Time Letter “I’m at [event]. Just wanted to drop you a quick, cheerful note. You rock & I’m rooting for you!”
Ongoing correspondence “My financial capacity is really limited, but I’d love to correspond with you & get to know you better
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 initial letter! Some ways to phrase this:
“I don’t want to set unclear expectations so I want to let you know up front I am not able to send you money”
“I have a limited financial capacity so I won’t be able to send you money on a regular basis.”
“I am not able to send you commissary funds but I can occasionally purchase a book for you.”
7. PICTURES ARE APPRECIATED
Prisoners love to be able to “see” who they are writing to so they LOVE to get pictures! Just keep in mind that the prisons can still see incoming and outgoing mail so it is being monitored! You can attach a picture to any electronic email at a small additional cost.
DO NOT send nudes
DO NOT send pornography - this (eye-roll) includes nipples.
DO NOT send any images of bombs or firearms. Not even cartoons. Prisons have no sense of humor.
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. We do not want anyone to be arrested for interstate sex or drug trafficking.
Do not forward letters or emails they send you to mail to other people. Especially to other people in prison. THIS IS ILLEGAL. This could get your email denied permanently and could cause your penpal to get punished and could even result in additional charges against them and against you.
They may ask you to get pictures from their facebook pages and send them to them. This is fine and not at all against prison rules but take care to only send images that are of the prisoner.
They may ask you to contact people that are not in prison. Sadly, this is just a bad idea and in some cases, it could violate the prison rules and the prisoner could have their email privileges revoked. We have no way of knowing the relationship status of the person they are trying to get you to contact. Keep in mind how YOU feel when random strangers start sending you messages on facebook or other social media.
8. Mental illness and “Awkward” Social skills are common!
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. They may be socially awkward from the institutionalization experience. There is also an incredibly high incidence of mental illness in prisons and jails with more than 70% of prisoners on some kind of mental health medication, so keep in mind that inappropriate behavior can be a result of all of the above. Gently correct and move on.
9. Prisons no longer provide any kind of “free” items for indigent (very poor) prisoners.
It is not uncommon for a prisoner to leave prison or jail with a “balance owed”. This balance is held over and if a prisoner returns to jail or prison, this balance will be reinstated on their newest prison account. Common charges are for medical care, including vital medications.
10. Be aware that Pen Pal programs are a “hustle” in prison
We constantly tell our inside pen pals that we do NOT arrange romantic pen pals, but they have been known to continue to try and then pressure you to send them money for commissary or some other "urgent" need: especially if you are a member of the opposite sex. Please only do what you feel comfortable doing and know there is no obligation to send money or items on their Amazon Wishlist. If they ask for something specific that you do not know how to respond to - suggest they write to SWOP Behind Bars at email@example.com to make their request.
Ready to get started? Sign up to write to a prisoner using electronic mail today!