Write should I write in a letter to a prisoner?
May 24, 2014 7:42 AM   Subscribe

My best friend is in jail, and he going to be in jail for a very long (10 to 25 years) time. I'm thinking about writing my first letter to him. What do I say?

My friend Bill has been my best friend for about 30 years. He was always there for me, I want to be there for him. I'd like to begin to correspond with him, but I'm not sure how to start. I know what topics to avoid, and what items not to send, I just don't know how to broach the subject of Bill being in jail.

I put $50 in his account when he was first arrested, and I sent him some junk food via an online service that sends care packages to prisoners. I suppose I could use those two events as part of my first letter but still all I come with for an intro is "Hey Bill! Sorry to hear you are in jail and will be for a long time. Aside from that, how are things?"
posted by anonymous to Society & Culture (19 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Whatever you write, it might be nice to include some photos.
posted by box at 7:45 AM on May 24, 2014 [8 favorites]

I don't think it matters. He'll probably just be happy to hear from you. Tell him what's going on in your life (provided this wasn't a scary, violent thing?)
posted by amodelcitizen at 7:47 AM on May 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Ask some general questions (how are you doing, Are you adjusting? ) Talk about a few things in your life. Ask him if there is anything specific he needs and then see if he writes back.

Be careful with your wording. You don't want to sound like an awkward outsider. Prison is now his life and he will pick up on avoiding words and such. It isn't kid glove times.

He may appreciate details about his family or other friends.
posted by AlexiaSky at 7:48 AM on May 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Maybe recount an experience of the kind he and you would have shared, so that he can live vicariously. I.e., if you went to sporting events together, tell him about a game you just went and saw, or if it's concerts, tell him about one you just attended.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 7:55 AM on May 24, 2014 [3 favorites]

You know, this is kind of a ridiculous comparison, but when I was in the Peace Corps, and people wrote letters to me, I really loved the shallowest, most newsy, chatty letters that were full of detailed information about people's lives. I was desperately lonely and homesick, and reading about home in that way satisfied some of my cravings. So I would avoid any serious pronouncements about Life, and just kind of chatter away. You can lead into that segment of your letter by acknowledging the weirdness of it, "Well, it's hard to know exactly what to write here, but I guess I'll just start..." Often, my mom would start a letter to me and finish it over a couple of days, so her letters turned into semi-diary entries. "Today at work, something funny happened..." He is probably going to have a low thresh-hold for boredom, so release yourself from the pressure of being fascinating and just write.

Other things:

~ clippings from newspapers or magazines with your comments on them.

~if he's even remotely a reader: books (if that's allowed) accompanied by your notes in the margins/several paragraphs about your opinions (like a long-distance book club)

~gossip, gossip, gossip (celebrity or otherwise)

~one of my favorite things anyone sent me came from my friend: she found tons of old childhood pictures and wrote hilarious captions on the backs of them. Just really good jokes. I needed jokes.

~Regularity! If you can get yourself in the habit of posting a letter, or even just a card, on the same day every week, he will have something to look forward to every week, that he can count on. And that will mean a lot.

~Flexibility. Maybe none of this applies! Maybe he wants you to act like his spiritual advisor, or he has no patience for details, or only wants to hear about sports, or wants you to set up a long-distance chess game. You don't know, and it's not your fault for not knowing, so listen, and follow his lead.

I think it's great you're doing this. Good luck!
posted by pretentious illiterate at 7:57 AM on May 24, 2014 [36 favorites]

I write letters to people all the time. The "how are you" model of letter-writing is boring, and inappropriate for this situation. You don't need to say, "You're in jail!" but you can say, "I miss you."

What people seem to really like is hearing stories. Have you done something fun? Seen something unusual? Finished a project you were working on? Dealt with the most annoying possible customer service representative? Discovered a ridiculous new flavor of snack food? Tell him a story that will help him feel like he's getting a taste of life. Maybe don't tell him about the great time you had doing a thing you used to always do together if you think it will pain him.

Let him know that you'll write to him again and would love to hear from him as well. And then do write to him again whether he writes back or not. I am currently writing a lot of letters to a depressed friend who doesn't have the energy to reply; it's my way of making sure she knows she still has a friend out here and isn't forgotten. I don't allude to her depression much.
posted by not that girl at 7:58 AM on May 24, 2014 [4 favorites]

Volume. Lots and lots of volume. Things about daily life. If he has favorite internet pages, print them out for him (unless he's in one of the rare prisons where the internets are allowed).

Beyond that, the #1 thing he probably needs to hear is that there's someone outside who is thinking of him -- this is HUGE, it's a theme than runs through everything when you read mail from a prison. And prisoners who have connections to the outside tend to do much better. You're doing a good thing here.

Make sure you check the letter guidelines -- sometimes there are page limits or other weird limits. Most prisons have their guidelines online but you could also call.

Can he receive shipments of books? If so, I would ask him what he is interested in. In general, beach reads are fine, but the time per book is minimal -- you want to maximize the time per book. (I volunteer with a prison book program, so books are always where my mind goes.) Think things like learning a foreign language (Spanish may be a good one, if he's interested, since most prisons in the US have a Spanish-speaking population), learning a new hobby like origami or life drawing (if he can have the supplies), studying some area of history in depth, learning a new type of math/physics, or even something simple like a book of crosswords or sodoku. Also popular: religious books (esp. on less common religions -- some people request these for worship, some people request them just because they're curious about other religions), and legal self-help books.

Some better-educated prisoners end up leading groups for other prisoners, whether formal or informal -- reading and writing skills, job skills, ESL, religion, legal assistance. If he's doing any of this he will likely need books to help.

Ask if there are any addresses he needs for other programs -- I wouldn't give him other people's addresses without their permission, but you could give him addresses to prison support programs. Sometimes prisoners want addresses to research institutions to ask questions.

The specifics of the prison he is in will matter a LOT, so I would definitely ask him about that. In some places he might have access to a woodshop, bakery, etc. He may have a job in prison, and he might be interested in books to learn more about that area. In other places, he may only be allowed a few books and no art supplies. Or there may be more specific restrictions, like no maps, or no sign language books (this is a frequent one, sadly).
posted by pie ninja at 8:10 AM on May 24, 2014 [3 favorites]

Do you need to bring up the subject? I mean, he knows he's in jail.

I would just write what you've written here - Hi Bill, you've always been there for me. I just want you to know that I'm here for you.

And then just write whatever you'd write in any other "here's my news!" type letter or email. You can ask him how he's going generally, if there's anything you can do for him, what he would like to hear about when you next write, that kind of thing.

Oh, and if you two had any topics that you used to have spirited (but friendly) debates about, it might be nice to continue those by correspondence too.

It's so good of you to stick by your friend! I'm sure he'll be happy to hear from you, whatever you write!
posted by pianissimo at 8:12 AM on May 24, 2014 [3 favorites]

Many prisons have a website that will tell you what is/is not allowed to be sent to inmates in that facility. Some prisons have restrictions about what language letters can be in; content is checked. To help Bill answer you, send him some Forever stamps.

There are also vendors that pack boxes with products allowed in prison (meaning you can order a box with categories of items like personal care items, shelf-stable foods, etc, and they'll coordinate getting the products to your friend). ETA: Oops. You already know about this service!

For content, though, pretentious illiterate has some great ideas. Check with the facility first before sending newspaper clippings or books, though.
posted by LOLAttorney2009 at 8:32 AM on May 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

The book (not the show) Orange is the New Black is an account of the author's time in Federal prison, and she talks about how much she treasured letters from friends that were chatty, newsy, referenced interesting stuff to think about, etc. I don't think you need to self-consciously avoid asking how your friend is, but it's probably better to just tell him you miss him, and include updates on stuff you guys used to talk about, whether it's people, activities, hobbies, whatever. From what I understand, prison is both infantilizing and boring, so anything that addresses him as an intelligent adult whose friends care about him is going to be especially welcome.
posted by fingersandtoes at 11:26 AM on May 24, 2014

My brother is in jail. He just likes to hear about what I'm doing, even if sounds banal and boring to me. To somebody locked up, it's a lot more interesting. I include pictures in every letter, usually just printed onto paper. I don't bother with photographic paper.

Really, they just want mail to break up the monotony of the the day. You could send a postcard and he'd probably be thrilled.
posted by COD at 11:40 AM on May 24, 2014

When my family member was in prison, we kept money on his books so he could buy things like stamps and personal items. He couldn't receive books but could receive magazines, subscribed to him, so I set up subscriptions to a couple motorcycle magazines, which I knew he'd enjoy. I also did a fun magazine and something kind of meaty like Esquire.

In my letters, I just talked about things going on in my life, a new baby nephew. (I made the mistake of sending naked newborn photos which I found out was not allowed. I thought he'd like to see the hospital photos of the nurse giving junior his first bath but naked photos of 1-hour-old infants are still photos of naked children.) I also sent pictures of my puppy, a new car I'd bought, things like that.

Most state prisons have a website that has guidelines so check that out. You may also be able to donate books to the prison library but they'll usually have to come directly from a company like Amazon. We couldn't send care packages.

The most important thing is to stay in touch and encourage others who know him to do the same.
posted by shoesietart at 11:42 AM on May 24, 2014

Nthing just be chatty and talk about your life. It doesn't have to be anything you would cringe at sharing with a total stranger. It doesn't have to be deep, meaningful, heart-to-heart stuff.

I was bedridden for a time and later largely housebound. When you can't go out into the world and see it for yourself and you have no life, ordinary daily life is like a forbidden fruit that you hunger for.

Also, photos of super ordinary things that he is deprived of. Pictures of your front yard, your Christmas decorations, your front door, whatever. I recall a show that had a piece about prison titled something like "A world without doorknobs." The gates have no normal doorknobs. Your ordinary doors and doorknobs may be a magical symbol of freedom and ordinary life for him.

He is likely sensorily deprived in some sense. Just be chatty. Let him drink it in.
posted by Michele in California at 12:26 PM on May 24, 2014

From what I've heard, prison is so boring that prisoners love mail and will write basically anyone. I'm sure letters from his best friend would be very welcome, even if they were basically, "Hey! Walked the dog this morning. How about them Dodgers?" for three pages.

So, just be chatty. Write long letters every now and then, include pictures, and show him a slice of life on the outside.
posted by ablazingsaddle at 6:30 PM on May 24, 2014

Send him up to three fairly long books, and say a bunch of random shit in your letter about what you feel like is your mundane boring life minutiae. Like talk about your pets or your gardening or your dinners. That minutiae is what he misses, and what he needs. Well, besides the books.
posted by oceanjesse at 8:55 PM on May 24, 2014

I spent a very short period of time in jail once (a few days, I think). Obviously, a long weekend in the county jail is a different animal than a lengthy for-real prison stint, but I feel like it's possible to superficially extrapolate...

As others are saying, mere contact is valuable in its own right. The sense of isolation and confusion -- early on -- is really intense. Sure, there are people all around you, but it takes a while to learn who is trustworthy. You have to grapple with a feeling of being truly confined, when your natural state has always been not-confined. You may not even have a clear picture of your physical surroundings; there are hallways you can never see the end of, places you absolutely can't go, uses of time that are dictated by others. I suspect that, in time, this becomes "normal," but the initial period is sort of existentially disturbing.

So, at first, the content of your letters will probably be of secondary importance than their simple existence. Talk about whatever, and let his responses guide you to other topics. If you know this friend well, you should already have handful of things that you enjoy discussing.

But let's say, worst-case, that he takes offense at your naivete regarding some aspect of his new situation. Or maybe that he is too upset about being imprisoned to engage (or takes his frustration out on you, when he replies). I still think that, in hindsight, he'll seriously appreciate the effort taken. His new life carries with it a tremendous stigma, and it's likely that many within his sphere of friends/family will abandon him. If I was in his shoes, and even if the first letter from a friend was completely tone-deaf or caused me to further grieve my lost freedom, I'd probably treasure it.
posted by credible hulk at 10:16 PM on May 24, 2014

If you could commit to a weekly letter, saying no matter what, that will be goddam huge and will be an incredible support for him. Make sure you can commit to it though.

As to what to put in it, just chatter about bullshit like you were at a bar or something.
posted by Sebmojo at 3:03 AM on May 25, 2014

Letters from home. My analogy is having been overseas for several years.

So, FWIW, tell him about your days. He already knows about his.

Please take this for what it's worth, but some prisoners will try to work the system through outside contacts; for example a prisoner may ask you to help him communicate with another prisoner, by passing a message (this happened to me). I was put on the mailing list of a person I didn't know by a person who knew an imprisoned relative of mine, and asked to deliver a message. I decided to inform the prison staff instead. The message itself may be innocuous, but if it's illegal bad things happen when it's discovered. More to the point, communication with prisoners in this way is truly a dangerous thing to do.

As time passes, your friend will come to be more and more institutionalized. You can't predict how he will handle this.

In the meantime he's still a man you've known for 30 years. Your life on the outside has now become a theory to him. For now, I'm sure he'll appreciate warm chatter about your daily doings. Let time inform you how else this will turn out. I have had pen pals in the past (no, not prisoners), when I was overseas, and I really enjoyed them. Some of them were from people I'd never met, but they got involved in a "write a soldier" program through their church. I got so many boxes of cookies I couldn't give them away. I imagine your friend will be in a somewhat similar situation.
posted by mule98J at 11:33 AM on May 25, 2014

Someone I love spent 8 years in prison. I wrote every week.

He liked hearing about mundane, every day things. I included pictures of things that might be considered mundane and every day that he loved - like when the wheat was ripening, lots of pictures of the fields. His field of vision was, like him, confined - so I sent pictures (just printed on ordinary paper) of wide open spaces.

I told him about day to day stuff - what my husband and I did over the weekend. How that meeting I was complaining about in the last letter turned out.

He didn't write back often - but I knew he would not. He's never been much of a correspondent.

But after his release, I overheard him on the phone telling someone how he always knew he'd hear from me, and how he counted on those letters. How they gave him a break from the incessant boredom of doing time.

Another thing I did was find out some magazines he would like (by asking him) and subscribed to those for him - he really enjoyed getting magazines. I put $30 / month in his commissary account - he worked, but made a pittance. Being able to spend some money on ice cream at commissary every week improved his life in a way I don't know I can actually understand. Another relative kept money on his phone card. He didn't make many calls, but it was good that he knew he could.

In the end, it wasn't what I said that helped. It was that I was talking at all, and that he still felt a part of the outside world.

It doesn't matter so much what you say as that you say something. People in prison need to feel connected to the rest of society - and you can help your friend maintain that connected feeling.

Your friend knows you know he is in jail. It isn't some elephant in the room that you have to avoid, but it isn't the only facet of his existence either. I usually just closed my letters with something along the lines of "Take good care of yourself and let me know if there is anything I can help you with."
posted by hilaryjade at 12:28 PM on May 25, 2014 [12 favorites]

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