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How to Write a Letter to a Prisoner

As part of our Valentines from VINE event, we have collected advice on letter writing from several sources. Here you’ll learn not only the ABCs of addressing and formatting letters to people behind bars but also the XYZs of writing letters that will be fun and interesting for prisoners to read.

First, the basics:

  1. Follow any and all special instructions on the prisoner’s support website. These will often include specific regulations of that particular prison or limitations on that particular prisoner.
  2. Address the letter exactly as the address is listed on the prisoner support website (or handout). Any departure from may mean that the prisoner does not receive your letter.
  3. Write your name and full return address on the envelope. If you want to be sure that the prisoner has your address, include it on the letter itself, since letters and envelopes can get separated when the mail is processed by the prison.
  4. Yes, a prison official may be reading your letter. Be mindful of that when deciding how much to share about yourself or your own life.
  5. Obviously, do not write about illegal activities or ongoing investigations.
  6. Number the pages of your letter and be sure to write the prisoner’s full name and number on every page.
  7. Don’t affix stickers or anything else to the envelope or the pages. No glitter-glue either!
  8. Don’t include a photo or other enclosure unless you know for sure that this would be both allowed and welcomed. (Some prisoners have a limit on the number of photos they can receive and prefer to receive photos only from close friends and relatives.)

Here are links to other lists of basic guidelines:

Now that all of that’s understood, you may be saying, “OK… but what do I say???” It can be daunting to pick up a pen and write to somebody you’ve never met.

Never fear! We’ve called upon our network to get you some advice on that too. Sarahjane Blum, who serves on the Board of Directors of Support Vegans in the Prison System, says this:

It’s really hard being in prison.  Not only are you locked away from everyone you know and love, the whole experience is tailored to make you feel like you are no longer “normal.” There’s no one thing that incarcerated people want to hear about (some people love stories about cats, others find cats dull), but every current or former prisoner I have spoken to about hearing from people on the outside tells me that they want to get a taste of “normal.”

This doesn’t mean that you should tell a total stranger your deepest darkest secrets, or go on a three page ramble about what you had for lunch–it just means that you should tell them about yourself in the same way you would if you were getting to know someone who wasn’t behind bars.  One strategy is to think of what you would talk to someone about if you were making conversation with someone you wanted to get to know who was in a class with you, or was sitting next to you at a party.  Another is to think of the questions you want to ask the person you’re writing to, and answer them about yourself.

One thing not to do is start your letter with some version of the phrase, “I am sitting here in a room and I don’t know what to say.” Prisoners don’t need to know more about sitting in a room! Instead, write about what interests or fascinates you. Tell a funny story about your canine companion. Share a joke or a fun fact. Imagine that you’re the one in prison: What might it be fun to receive a letter about? Make your letter unique by writing about the things you know best. That way, instead of getting a bunch of letters that all say the same vague things, the recipient can enjoy a range of stories, images, and ideas.

Please don’t expect a reply. Some prisoners are limited in the number of people to whom they may write, and some may write only to people who have gone through an approval process. But if you are writing to a prisoner who may not get much mail, please do let them know whether or not you are open to a continuing correspondence.

Valentine’s Day is rapidly approaching. So, start thinking now: What will you say when you write a letter on Thursday?

To whom will you write? You don’t have to worry about that either! We’ll be posting links to prisoner support websites, all of which include addresses and any special instructions, on Wednesday.

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