Thoughts to consider when writing to someone who is incarcerated:
Adapted from the guidelines created for the Write to Win Collective and the Prisoner Correspondence Project
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 selecting two incarcerated penpals, to help ensure that frequent communication with one or two 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 When Writing:
Reply letters might take a while
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.
Openness about LGBTQ identities
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. Also, check with the prison as to what type of funds and/or gifts are acceptable.
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.
Determining how you will write your penpal
Below, we describe options for writing letters via “Snail Mail” or messages via online services. If you are not located in the US, we recommend an online mail service. Remember that whatever you write will be read by staff in the mail rooms-- so skip the escape plans :)
Online mail services
ccJmail will print and mail your message to your penpal for about $1 per letter. Your penpal writes to their address, and they will email you a scan of their reply letter for about $1 per letter, plus $25 annual fee.
Incarcerated members in Federal prisons can access this basic email service. It will email you when you have a message in your inbox, for an additional fee.
JPay works in many prison systems. JPay has two modes, depending on the prison:
1) You and your penpal message back and forth using their email-like service, costing about 50 cents per message. Some penpals will have access to a tablet to reply.
2) You send a message to your penpal. The mail room then prints out the message and within 2 days and gives it to your penpal. Your penpal will then send you a reply letter in the mail.
SecureMail at Access Corrections allows you to message your penpal back and forth for a fee.
Letter vs Postcard vs Card
An envelope with a letter on normal paper is the safest bet.The rules around acceptable mail vary widely. Some prison systems, like Texas, have decided to ban all postcards and greeting cards as a way to prevent drugs… Some won’t accept construction paper, or mailing labels, or glitter. Pennsylvania scans all mail in a facility in Florida and then prints it.
Typed vs Handwritten
Some incarcerated members have indicated that they need to receive typed letters, perhaps due to a reading or vision impairment. Otherwise, handwritten letters should be fine! Some prisons don’t allow the use of markers, crayons etc., so writing with a pen or pencil is the safest bet.
Your Incarcerated PenPal’s Legal Name
Typically, prisons require legal first and last names to be used on envelopes, along with prisoner numbers. In your first letter, confirm the name and pronouns your penpal wants when addressing envelopes and writing letters.
Return address options
Be sure to include your return address in the letter (some inside members do not receive the envelope). Many of us feel nervous about sharing personal information with brand new people in our lives and that is quite reasonable. However, we recognize that there is extra stigma around sharing information with incarcerated people. We encourage everyone to do what feels right and best for themselves while at the same time looking deeper at what is causing fear, and work on that as we build our movement towards abolition. In general, we encourage people to use their home address and to take time to question where these anxieties are coming from. If you are not willing to share your address with your penpal, you can get a PO box, or use an online service.
Your Name, Address, and Introduction
Use your first and last name in your letters. It might be useful to say in the first letter where you found out about the person. Be sure to place your address both in the letter and on the return address piece of the envelope, as some prisons do not allow the envelope to be given to the prisoner. Know that prison guards often read the mail and, unfortunately, can censor things.
Format the address for an envelope
Please remember to include your return address on the envelope and the letter itself. Please use the following convention when addressing the prisoner the envelope:
Legal First Name, Legal Last Name, #Number
Cell/Bunk Location (optional, if given after the number)
PO Box # or Street Address
City, State Zip
You should write the letter itself to your penpal’s preferred name.
Example of Legal name Gerry on envelope &
Preferred name Cynthia in letter:
Gerry Richards #F05C56
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351-8580
With all this in mind, Here are places that you can find a pen pal:
Adopt An Inmate
PO Box 1543
Veneta, OR 97487
It is an awful truth that many forgotten human beings languish in our nation’s jails and prisons. These men and women have little contact, if any, with the outside world. Because of this, inmates often suffer from shock, fear, helplessness, shame, anger, frustration, anguish, and depression. This makes survival a daily battle. Prisoners without support face challenges that limit their chances for success during and after their incarceration.
Receiving mail from the outside world has a profound impact on an inmate’s life. When one’s name is called out at mail call, other inmates and staff are made aware that there is someone on the outside who cares for that person, thus making them less vulnerable to violence and abuse.
Many inmates never hear their name called.
With pen, paper, and stamps, you can change that.
Black and Pink PenPal Pairing App
Log in to find a pen pal.
At Black & Pink, we coordinate a nationwide PenPal program in which we match incarcerated LGBTQIA2S+ people and people living with HIV/AIDS with PenPals who correspond, build relationships, and participate in harm reduction and affirmation. For an incarcerated LGBTQIA2S+ person, corresponding with someone on a regular basis is itself a harm reduction strategy, giving that person a support network outside of prison.
Buddhist Inmate Sangha Pen Pal and Book Donation Project
Buddhist Inmate Sangha
Betty Lu Buck
PO Box 6517
Brookings, OR 97415 USA
We are an independent interfaith Sangha dedicated to providing spiritual support for Buddhists behind bars. We currently donate Buddhist books, magazines, videos and audio cassettes to prisons and inmates around the country upon request. Your donations of new or used books and literature on Buddhism and Eastern Philosophy are what make this possible! Thank you to ALL who have in the past or will in the future mail study materials to an inmate; or if you prefer, you can mail them to ChanterKyo/Betty for distribution:
2003 Southern Blvd SE Suite 102 #59
Rio Rancho, NM 87124
1 (855) PEN-PALS (736-7257)
Since 1999, CellPals has been a family owned prison pen pal site that is free for you to browse. All the addresses and information needed to write to our male and female pen pals are right on their profile pages. Click on the pen pal's name or profile picture to see thier personal page with biography, artwork, additional photos and more.
Christian Pen Pals
Who We Are
Christian group reaching out to the lonely men and women in prison with the Gospel and love of Jesus through letters. The need for more Christian pen pals increases as more and more inmates learn of this needed service. We also provide resources to inmates and their families and do networking with others helping inmates. We have a new branch group working to help the Veterans get pen pals.
Visit the chat rooms, prayer board, and sign our guest book. Thank you!
This ministry is to help inmates in the USA and International. We started out as a correspondence ministry to a few in the spring of 1998. Pen Pal Connection was started to reach out to more for Christ. In March 1999, we joined with Church USA and built a web site to reach even more inmates. Our mission is to minister to each inmate that reaches out to us for help.
Types Of Activity
Correspondence and networking with others in prison ministry. We seek to provide a Christian pen pal friend to those who ask, as God enables. We provide a resource directory to let inmates know of other help in various categories, including family support, advocacy, legal help, re-entry, and spiritual growth. It can be printed from the CPP web site.
About Our Prison Ministry
Chaplains or family members can register inmates at the CPP web site. Also, any one who wants to help by corresponding can sign up to be a pen pal, it's easy to get started! All for the Glory of God!
FFUP (Forum for Understanding Prisons)
29631 Wild Rose Drive
Blue River, WI 53518
• Write directly to FFUP Pen Pals to request a pen pal volunteer.
• Provide some information on your background and the areas of interest for which you would
like to correspond.
Human Rights Pen Pals
1301 Clay Street
P.O. Box 71378
Oakland, CA 94612
We envision a world without prisons and an end to all forms of torture, including solitary confinement in California.
Human Rights Pen Pals began in the spring of 2013 as a project of the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity coalition (PHSS). PHSS is a Bay Area-based coalition, whose overall goals are to amplify the voices of California people imprisoned in long-term solitary confinement; and to win the Five Core demands of the hunger strikers, who have initiated three major hunger strikes in 2011 and 2013, the most recent one involving 30,000 people incarcerated in California prisons.
The Pen Pal program started with two workshops in the Bay Area, with a total of about 25 community pen pals, each ‘matched’ with one or more imprisoned pen pals, all of whom were hunger strikers. After the 2013 hunger strike, we received numerous requests from community supporters throughout the country to be ‘matched’ with an imprisoned pen pal. As of April, 2017, we now have over 300 ‘matched’ community pen pals; however we also have a waiting list of around 100 imprisoned pen pals seeking a community pen pal with whom to correspond. In addition, although we’ve had to stop taking requests from ‘inside,’ we continue to get an average of 5 to 10 new ones every week.
Interfaith Action for Human Rights: DC
PO Box 55802
Washington, DC 20040
Do You Enjoy Writing? Do You Like to Meet New People?
Join Interfaith Action’s Pen Pal Progam.
When prisoners lose connection to their family and community they are more likely to commit crimes after they are released. D.C. residents who are convicted of a felony serve their sentence in a federal prison. Over 4,600 D.C. residents are incarcerated in 122 prisons around the United States. D.C. residents are incarcerated in prisons from California to Florida to upstate New York. D.C. residents in prison often feel very isolated since they are often incarcerated so far from home.
To address their isolation, in November 2017, lAHR kicked off a campaign to identify volunteers who will write to at least one D.C. resident in prison once a month for a year. As of March, 2020, over 150 people have volunteered to be pen pals with a person incarcerated in a federal prison. Yet we still have over 30 people in prison who have requested a pen pal, with new requests coming in every week. We need more pen pals on the outside to meet the need on the inside.
Lifelines to Solitary
PO Box 11374
Washington, D.C. 20008
In 2015, we expanded Lifelines to Solitary to include the first prison correspondence program specifically designed to reach people in solitary confinement, using our list of more than 4,500 people living in long-term isolation. We engage with student groups, community organizations, and faith communities who want to work together to bring a spark of human contact into the darkness of solitary confinement. In 2016, we added a program for individuals, allowing everyone to correspond with someone living in otherwise total isolation.
For anyone joining the program, Solitary Watch provides names and addresses of individuals in solitary, guidelines for maintaining a healthy correspondence, and ongoing advice and support. For groups interested in getting involved, we can also arrange a launch event (in person or via Skype) that includes Solitary Watch staff, local activists (if applicable), and survivors of solitary confinement.
In an age of electronic communications, letters remain the one and only way to penetrate the dark world of solitary confinement, and to establish contact with a group of people who have been banished and buried not only by society but also by the prison system itself. We believe this communication has the potential to transform the lives not only of the individuals in solitary, but of those on the outside who bear witness to their suffering.
Midwest Trans Prisoner Pen Pal Project
2002 23rd Ave S
Minneapolis MN 55404
Write to someone on the wait list:
The Midwest Trans Prisoner Pen Pal Project (MWTPPP) started as a support project for CeCe McDonald and other transgender, gender non-conforming prisoners in Minnesota. Since then, we’ve expanded to include the Midwest region. MWTPPP seeks to connect Midwest-based incarcerated trans/gender non-conforming people with other trans/gender non-conforming and allied community member pen pals for friendship. This project was initially launched to reach out to transgender prisoners who are placed in lock down (administrative segregation) but we recognize the isolating and unsafe conditions for prisoners no matter what their situation. We accept pen pal requests across the LGBTQI spectrum.
Are you interested in writing a pen pal in prison? Check out the following options. No matter what you choose, we recommend you read "Write to Win’s Tips for Penpals" and the "Prisoner Correspondence Projects FAQ."
You will notice our online pen pal list includes the Prisoners name, DOC#, Prison Name, Prison Address, Chosen Name, About the Pen Pal, and Looking For. The About and Looking For columns are a summary of what the pen pal wrote about in their letter. If a pen pal mentioned their gender identity or sexual orientation, that is listed in the About column.
If you choose to use MWTPPP as your return address:
c/o Boneshaker Books
2002 23rd Ave S
Minneapolis MN 55404
2B. When replying to a pen pal, address the letter using their given name. Always include the prison number too. Its best to follow the way they wrote out their return address.
Donald James # 123456
Townville State Prison
Townville, IN 12345
Prisoner Correspondence Project
Prisoner Correspondence Project
QPIRG Concordia c/o Concordia University
1455 de Maisonneuve Ouest
Montreal QC H3G 1M8
The Prisoner Correspondence Project started in 2007 in Montreal by taking on a handful of surplus letters from another organization and committing to finding them penpals. Since then it has grown exponentially as word travels inside prisons. The project is run by an all-volunteer group. An outside collective of about 6-10 people answers letters, sends resources inside, and compiles the newsletter. An inside advisory committee of 4-8 people helps choose newsletter themes, reviews new resources to be added, and offers general feedback on the functioning of the project.
One question that we often field is why we focus on LGBT prisoners. On one hand, LGBT prisoners face an intensification of many of the issues faced by all prisoners: exposure to violence and sexual violence, mailroom surveillance and censorship, medical neglect, lack of safer sex information or materials, and a profound isolation from friends, families, chosen families, and other networks of support. For a deeper understanding of the issues faced, check out Black and Pink’s excellent report Coming Out of Concrete Closets.
On the other hand, we view it as an opportunity to draw the wider LGBT community into prison justice organizing. We believe we can build on gay liberation legacies to work in solidarity with a larger prison justice movement. We are guided by a commitment to community support, a deep and historic suspicion of policing and surveillance, the belief that personal relationships are an integral part of consciousness building, and an unyielding dedication to sexual and gender self-determination.
Spark of Light Prison Programs
9540 Colllins AVe.
Surfside, FL 33154
Your opportunity to perform a Mitzvah for the cost of Only a postage stamp.
As you may know, The Aleph Institute is a 29 year old charity that is dedicated to providing many services to "Our Forgotten People " , Jews in prisons, in nursing homes and in the military. These services include prison and nursing home visitations, free Judaica, family counseling, legal services, Passover food for our US military worldwide, and a Pen Pal program for our most forgotten brethren . . . Jews in prison.
My volunteer job is the Pen Pal coordinator for the 5000+ Jewish men and women in prison who have been forgotten by their own friends and families, and are isolated from their Jewish roots. Many are serving their time in hostile and anti-Semitic environments. Those that now appeal to us to find them a PenPal, were once the doctors, teachers, lawyers, shopkeepers, and mothers, fathers, and children that you would greet with a "Shabbat Shalom" in your own synagogue or temple.
These same brethren now ask for your hello and friendship by a letter or greeting card... These Are Our Forgotten People...in need of a penpal.
Before writing to an inmate we provide you with complete details such as age, birthday, education, background, interests, family background, hobbies, release date, religious practice and other data given to us in their application for a Pen Pal. We try hard to MATCH people with common interests so that correspondence can be interesting and enjoyable for both parties. Letters are not always required...receiving pen pal mail from someone on the outside is what is important...therefore a greeting card, newspaper clipping, picture postcard is also welcome mail to a person in prison.
Worthy Now Prison Ministry Network
Church of the Larger Fellowship
24 Farnsworth Street
Boston, MA 02210-1409
Letter Writing Ministry
Incarceration here in the United States is complex and tainted by white supremacy culture. We choose not to share our incarcerated member’s crime with the general public (though it is readily available online). Instead, we implore our participants to embrace our Universalist heritage and talk about anything else with their assigned Pen Pal. This is an example of where our faith’s “rubber hits the road”! Can we hold multiple truths; our incarcerated siblings may have done horrible things AND they still deserve for us to honor their worth and dignity. The hard truth is that some of us are able to embrace this more than others and thus we encourage you to think hard about why you are signing up. We also encourage you to think about your past and your triggers; Pen Pal writing to incarcerated people isn’t ministry for everyone and that is okay as there are so many other ways to serve.
This relationship has the power to bring you proximate to the issues of those people who find themselves incarcerated. In turn, your heart may be renewed by witnessing the power of Unitarian Universalism present even in the most difficult of places.
All letter writers (incarcerated and “free-world”) agree to the same guidelines, which emphasize that our program is not intended for romantic, legal-aid or financial/gift interactions.