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Writing to penpals in prison

Hello and thank you for expressing interest in writing to a prisoner! I have had quite a few friends interested in doing this, and because of difficulties I was finding in communicating a long message with multiple weblinks via Messenger and Instagram I decided to put the information here to make it easier.

I’ve been writing to my penpal for 2 years now and I find it a fulfilling thing to do. The following information applies to people in US prisons, however with the systems in place it’s quick and easy for those in other countries to communicate with US prisoners.

The rules for prisoner mail are very varied and depend mostly on the institution (as they each have their own rules) and the type of prisoner. There is a lot of detail but I will try to put it as clearly as I can.

Firstly, you can usually email prisoners rather than post letters but sometimes they do not have facility to email you back, and have to use regular ‘snail mail.’ Prisoners can access their accounts via kiosks in the prison, and they can print your letter from there if they are only allowed to hand-write replies. You can also handwrite letters if you prefer, and send through regular mail.

Depending on the prison there are 2 or 3 email providers that you have to use to communicate. The one that my prisoner has in his prison is called CorrLink. https://www.corrlinks.com/Login.aspx The other main one is called JPay. https://www.jpay.com

But anyway, firstly if you want to view all the various prisoners who would like a penpal, the site I used is called writeaprisoner. Their advanced search is the best way to find someone: https://writeaprisoner.com/inmate-search-advanced

As you’ll see you can select gender, age, location, whether they want a Penpal or someone for legal advice (because some prisoners are looking for legal advice from lawyers who want to write to them as friends), and you can also select things such as whether they’re on death row. You can also search by the email system that they use- corrlink or jpay, so that you know which email system to use.

When you click on a prisoner it will bring up their picture and profile, and you can see details of their sentence and their crime. The crime information is just the main headline like murder, robbery etc. However there is almost always full info readily available on google if you just google the name of the prisoner and the crime, or you can search the Dept of Corrections for the full criminal record.

So the first thing would be to find someone you want to write to, using writeaprisoner.

Once you have that, you can choose whether to use corrlink or jpay, depending on which one the prisoner uses. The prisoner’s profile will tell you which system that prisoner has access to. The profile will also give you the physical address of the prison if you’d prefer to handwrite a letter.

Accounts with corrlinks and jpay are free to open but they charge you per email, but it’s cheap…something like $0.30/£0.15 a letter. You can credit your account via PayPal.

The downside is that not prisoners cannot email you back, they can only send letters in the post. However, I use a company called JMail and I subscribe to their service called JMail Box. What this means is you can use their address in California, and you give that address to your prisoner. When JMail receives a letter for you from a penpal, they scan it and email it to you, and it can be downloaded as a PDF. This costs $10 for 3 months or $25 for a year, so it’s pretty cheap. For a further fee they can also send on to you the original letter from your penpal. I don’t do this yet but I’m thinking I might like to have the original correspondence. The handy thing about having an address in California (rather than your home address) is that (a) it might not feel comfortable giving your home address to someone you don’t know, and (b) if you’re outside of the US your penpal only has to pay for a stamp within country rather than more expensive international mail.

So here’s my process which should illustrate how it works. My prisoner uses CorrLinks, so I have an account on there. To email a prisoner you need to have their full name and prisoner ID. Each prisoner’s profile will give you that info. I enter my prisoner’s info into my CorrLinks account and it finds him in the system. I write my email and I can also attach photos, and then send it electronically through the system. The first time I messaged him I had to give him my JMail Box address in California as my mailing address and I explained to him how that system works. So then my prisoner receives his email from me when he checks a kiosk. He then writes a letter to me, and posts it to my address in California. When they receive the letter from him they scan it and upload it to my JMail account. I have to pay a small fee to be able to open the scans the first time they arrive. Again, something like $0.30 per letter. I like that I can simply email my penpal and within a few days of him sending his letter I will get the scanned copy. Incidentally if your prisoner cannot accept email, you can write your letter as an email in JMail and they will print it and send it in the post to your prisoner. Again, if you are outside of the US this saves you postage and also means your penpal gets his/her letter quickly. Most have email though.

I have probably made it sound really complicated but it’s quite simple once you get your head around it! Do let me know if you have any questions at all.

A few caveats:

This page (linked) below is more for females communicating to male prisoners (although there are female prisoners you can choose), but it contains useful information for everyone. As you’ll see when you search writeaprisoner, quite a few male prisoners are looking for a romantic relationship and they make that clear in their profile, but plenty do seem to be looking for just normal friendship. A nun who has been writing to prisoners for years has written tips for how to avoid difficulties in that regard. There is also guidance on how to handle the situation if a prisoner asks you to send money. I was quite worried about that, but apparently many prisoners won’t ask. https://www.sisterhelen.org/wp-content/uploads/GeorgiaPenPalGuidelines2017.pdf

Whether you ever send money is obviously your personal choice. I limit it to Christmas when I send a small amount that my penpal uses it to be food and other essentials such as deodorant and underwear. Death row prisoners are not allowed to work in prison and so have no source of income other than family or friends. A small amount can go a long way, and can be particularly helpful for extra food items. The standard food my penpal receives sounds horrendous.

All correspondence into and out of the prison is read by the prison first. Google the ‘inmate mail’ rules for the prison in question just to check what rules they may have. There are some general rules for what you can and cannot write, for example you are not allowed to write anything deemed to be political in nature.

Those serving life sentences and those on death row have very, very limited contact with the outside world and often spend 23 hours a day locked in their cell. It was very clear in the first reply from my penpal just how much value he placed on my correspondence and it reinforced to me that becoming a penpal with someone in this situation is not something I can take lightly and that I was committing to a longterm relationship with this person. One last thing I have picked up on from my reading, is that if you intend to message more than one prisoner, do not choose prisoners who reside in the same prison…this has been known to lead to issues between prisoners.

That’s all for now but if you need any extra help please do feel free to drop me a line. If I think of anything else I will add it here and let you know 🙂