Tips for would be penpallers
Penpalling Tips for those who are considering writing prisoners from those who have been writing inmates for at least 5 years
A note of caution: We feel that children under the age of 18 should not write prisoners unless they specifically know the person.
Below is a list of ideas for those who want to learn from other’s mistakes. Do not let it scare you off because the rewards from writing men and women in our prisons far outweigh the woes. Those of us who have become close to some inmates and their families have been on a journey of discovery and our lives have been greatly enriched.
When one of us encounters difficulties with a prisoner, we often team up in working with an inmate- give each other support. On the other hand, one of the reasons we are so committed to this work are the wonderful friends we have made in the inmates. Prison breaks many people but it also forces many people to evolve into incredible human beings. Many inmate have a focus and outlook that is unavailable among we over stimulated “free” people.
Here is advise on how to begin from one of our members:
Please forget any preconceptions or stereotypes you may have heard of people in prison. In your first letter, explain a little about yourself why you are writing, and ask if the person would like writing to you. Introduce yourself, describe yourself and the concern that leads you to write. Feel free to ask about prison life, about the persons interests, where they are from, whether they have any appeals in progress etc. It's good to ask questions, because it gives the person something to respond to, but do not ask to many at once-especially in the first letter. Let trust grow between you, and always try to share as much about yourself as you ask the other person to share.
If you feel you only will be able to write, for example, monthly, make this clear to the person. It is important not to promise things that you will not be able to follow through on. If you want to send things like books, stamps, stationary, or food, ask first whether the person wants them, whether they will be able to enter prison and how they will need to be sent.
The person may ask you to send money- if you feel good about that, ask in which way you could send it. NEVER feel obliged to respond to a request for money, again, be sure to find out first in what form it must be sent. You may want to send the person a money order yourself, but ask beforehand if it is appreciated, it may be that the money goes onto an amount of debts, and the inmate would have wanted to receive a magazine subscription or so instead.
You may want to visit this person in addition to writing. That would be great!! just ask him or her whether they want you to visit and what the hours and restrictions are concerning visits. He waill send you a form to fill out giving you permission to visit.
Most prisons do not allow letters with no senders name and address. It is possible to use false ones, but bear in mind the prisoner may reply, so use an address you can receive mail from. If you want to use the FFUP-Postbox, please ask us beforehand, so that we know your return address! Be sure both your return and to address are legible. Always print your name and address neatly on the envelope and include it again in the body of the letter in case something happens to the envelope. Put your pen pals last name and correctional ID number on each sheet of paper or the back of any photos that you enclose - this insures that pages won't get lost when the mail is opened.
Do not put off if you do not receive a reply straight away, prisoners are sometimes limited to how many letters they can write each week. One thing more to remember: all mail to prisoners will be opened and censored, so don't write anything that could jeopardize future actions or someone's freedom.
A few more tips:
1) State your intentions in the first letter. Be clear about why you are writing the inmate. If you set the tone now, you can avoid misunderstandings later. Many male inmates will ask the woman writer for a romantic relationship- they are starved for the feminine. In this case, I often tell the inmate to think of me as a sister, mother or aunt. There are, however, many women who do have romantic relationships with inmates, so that is a choice also. FFUP is always available also to give our views on specific inmates as we know many of the people on our lists. Use our email or Postoffice Box. Forum for Understanding Prisons at yahoo.com (FFUP).
2) The great majority of the people we write are delighted with a short note once in a while, while others will reveal more about themselves will allow the relationship to become deeper. Later you may be asked for money for canteen etc or be given other requests. They may ask you to make copies for them or do hunting on the internet. You can say you just want to be friends and will not be giving them money, etc. Do not do anything you have any doubts about and feel free to email us for advise or call the prison to ask for clarification of rules if you have doubts about the appropriatemness of a request. All the way along in this relationship, remember you are in control over what you agree to do.
3) Usually the inmate will freely talk about the reason for his or her incarceration. Most of us wait until the relationship is established before we ask, but it is often our hesitancy, not theirs. If you want to check the criminal background of any of these people- here are some sites:
Research Data USA: links to (paid) background checks
For Federal prisons and inmates: Bureau of Prisons
Used most for Wisconsin: Wi Courts
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