Prison pen pals?
December 23, 2016 1:05 AM   Subscribe

I'm considering becoming pen pals with a prisoner in my home state of California. I know nothing about this, other than that being a prisoner must be so lonely; and if I can help a bit, I'd like to try. Do any MeFites have experience with this? Should I do this? How would I go about doing it?
posted by persona au gratin to Human Relations (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
There are web sites where you can find prisoners looking for pen pals. You could also call the prison and ask about any programs they might have. It's a really kind thing to do - lots of people in prisoner are alone. I think you should go for it.

My only advice, as someone who has dealt with people in this world, is to be aware of being manipulated. When I became a foster parent, for example, I thought I was smart, but I was a total idiot and it took me time and (wasted) money to stop being conned.
posted by orsonet at 3:07 AM on December 23, 2016 [2 favorites]

To protect yourself, never give out your home address or phone number --- use something like a post office box for your mailing address, and don't accept any collect phone calls.
posted by easily confused at 3:52 AM on December 23, 2016 [7 favorites]

Don't use your name, don't use your address, don't use your phone number. Send some books, too!
posted by oceanjesse at 5:12 AM on December 23, 2016 [3 favorites]

The Anarchist Black Cross maintains lists, if I remember correctly, of prisoners who could use this and are in for state-related offenses rather than interpersonal ones.
posted by corb at 5:24 AM on December 23, 2016 [5 favorites]

Yes this would be a great help. And it would be a good way for you to learn and listen and expand your knowledge of the world. So you both get something out of it.
If after corresponding you feel uncomfortable with the person or feel pressured to overshare info, then get a different pen pal. Lots of really nice people are in prison.
You need to write out ahead of time how much advocacy you will be willing to do on their behalf. If they ask you to call their mom and ask about Uncle Bob? How will you know it's really their mom you are calling? If they ask for a money for food? What if they tell you the guard just beat them up? Ask you to call their lawyer? Or the ACLU? Then be very clear with them and more importantly with yourself what you are offering. Just corresponding is a huge gift.
posted by SyraCarol at 5:33 AM on December 23, 2016 [4 favorites]

This is a very kind plan, but be prepared to be asked for money - envelopes aren't free, postage isn't free, and once you start paying for the things your pen pal needs to write you back, the slope of paying for other things gets very slippery very quickly. Prisoners need money for the most basic personal items (tampons, soap, socks, pillows, sometimes even toilet paper) and it might be very difficult for you to say no to these requests. You might be asked to call family members, family members of your pen pals inside friends/girlfriends/boyfriends. Also don't underestimate the emotional labor involved in corresponding with someone with a story rough enough to land them in prison.

The sister of a prisoner.
posted by tatiana wishbone at 6:04 AM on December 23, 2016 [20 favorites]

Yup, good advice here. I haven't been a prisoner pen pal, but I work with the population sometimes. I'll nth the recommendations to be alert for attempts to manipulate you or ask increasingly large favors from you. It may be helpful to write down what you will and don't do now (send money? make calls/contacts to other people for them? pass on information?) and stick to that list.
posted by craven_morhead at 8:24 AM on December 23, 2016

Haven't been a prison pen pal but I did used to volunteer with a prisoner book project (which I recommend) and in that capacity would have limited wrote exchanges with prisoners.

I think it's great that you want to do this. I agree that it's wise to decide on your boundaries in advance and stick to them.
posted by latkes at 8:36 AM on December 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

In my early twenties a creative writing teacher who also taught inmates (back when you could get a college degree in prison in Massachusetts) put me in touch with an inmate he had taught. We stayed in touch for 3-4 years.

In retrospect, more than two decades later, I was too naive to recognize how disturbing the letters actually were. I reread a couple of them recently and they're full of sexual fantasies, memories of sexual encounters before he went to prison and stories of his sexual encounters in prison with other prisoners. The rest was lurid descriptions of drug trips, sex while on drugs, stories about committing crimes - mainly holding up pharmacies with a shotgun - and probing questions about my sexuality and sexual experiences as well as urging me to have certain sexual experiences and describe them to him.

He was very verbose and his letters, which came every couple weeks, were usually 10-15 pages long.

My advice is just to keep your boundaries, be prepared to be manipulated, consider that a prisoner who has been deprived of a pleasure for so long - sex or lobster or drugs - is probably going to be obsessed with it and you have to decide how much of it you're able to listen to.

I think I went into the experience as a young idealist thinking that our conversation would somehow keep him from reoffending and that when he got out he'd go back to his regular life and family and live happily ever after. I google him once in awhile though, and he's still in and out of prison.

I also heard a lot from him about how prisoners were treated by guards as well as the justice system, and it has made me concerned about issues in prisons - I read lots of longform articles about mistreatment of prisoners and I'm positive that they only scratch the surface. I totally understand your empathy for people who are treated so poorly and who live in such depressing surroundings. Just be careful.

I also visited my friend - in maximum security - a couple times and I can tell you about that if you like.
posted by bendy at 10:49 AM on December 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

The Sex Workers Outreach Project has a pen pal program that includes very good tips for corresponding with incarcerated individuals. One recommendation is to to enclose self-addressed stamped envelopes for their reply, but you need to check the guidelines for the specific prison they are located in, because rules vary about what and how much you can send. There is also good advice about how to set appropriate boundaries for the kind of support you are willing to offer, and it makes clear that even one-time expressions of support (rather than long-term correspondence) can be very welcome.
posted by gateau at 11:01 AM on December 23, 2016 [3 favorites]

Here's an alternative: Write for Rights where Amnesty International encourages people to write to people imprisoned unjustly in an attempt to encourage the prisoners and show the countries that they're imprisoned in that the international community condemns their imprisonment.
posted by Chrysalis at 4:53 PM on December 23, 2016 [3 favorites]

This is great advice. Thanks so much!
posted by persona au gratin at 11:54 PM on December 23, 2016

My town has a prison library project. I was reminded of that from latkes' post. So I've contacted them and will see if I can help out there and will see if they have advice.
posted by persona au gratin at 11:59 PM on December 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

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