Things to keep in mind before you begin writing:
These letters are important gestures, but they can do work beyond that. Receiving mail can be a form of harm reduction, it signals to the prison guards that your comrade has people on the outside who are concerned with their well-being. It can also signal to fellow incarcerated folx that there are support networks out there to be tapped into.
Don’t let the cruel and arbitrary prison mail room policies scare you into not establishing relationships with folx inside. Yes, it’s frustrating and infuriating, don’t give up.
Always double check the prison’s website for any changes or updates in mail restrictions. It’s a good practice to check monthly at a minimum if you’re writing with regularity. Every prison mail room is different and their policies frequently change.
First things first, banned/censored materials to remember:
The following things seem to be censored at most prisons, so you should refrain from using them to ensure your mail has the greatest chance of making it to your comrade inside:
- Thick, multi-layered greeting cards (especially made of cardstock)
- Colored paper of any kind (including construction and computer paper)
- Stickers, glue, confetti, glitter, ribbons/additional items on greeting cards
- Oversized envelopes (Try to only mail standard sized envelopes, legal-size paper and preferably 8 ½ x 11 max)
- Drawings on envelopes (unfortunately, your art might be considered “graffiti”)
- Crayon and colored markers (this one really hurts because kid’s drawings are frequently rejected)
- Tape on envelopes in general, clear scotch tape or otherwise
- Peel and press envelopes, and envelopes with metal brads that press down.
Best practices when writing:
- You must have a complete name and return address on all mail, including post cards.
They’ll be returned or possibly thrown away if not!
- Remember to set boundaries and expectations if you’re beginning a pen pal relationship. Let me know how often to expect to hear from you, and what kind of pen pal relationship you have the capacity to be in. They’ll be able to assess if this works for them too. From Survived & Punished: Please be aware of the scarcity of resources for incarcerated survivors and the power differential that creates — do not make commitments or promises that you cannot keep.
- If you want, or are open to, a direct reply, put your name and preferred mailing address in the body of the letter and/or somewhere written inside your card, as sometimes envelopes are damaged or destroyed by mail room prison guards.
- If your writing a several page letter and are including multiple sheets of paper, make sure you don’t exceed the amount of pages allowed by the prison per envelope. On every separate page, write your comrade’s name and “inmate ID number” in the top right hand corner, it’s also a good idea to write the date and number every page (ie page 1 of 5, 2 of 5, 3 of 5 etc).
- Send a photograph of yourself if you’re beginning a pen pal relationship. Make sure you write your comrade’s name and their “inmate number” on the back of the photo. List the photo on a cover sheet that you make for your letter that lists all contents (ie 1 three page letter, 1 photograph).
- Consider where folx are coming from in terms of vocabulary/language accessibility. From Survived & Punished: Please keep in mind the mixed literacy levels among incarcerated people and try to respond appropriately — ask questions to help assess what the survivor needs and what is the most accessible way for them to receive support.
- Don’t forget to check the formatting of the prison address when addressing the envelope, it’s gotta look the way the prison wants it or it’s likely to be discarded.
- Remember, your mail is being read by prison guards. They can deem content of any kind reason enough to reject your letters. Don’t out people in letters; take cues from your pen pals. From Survived & Punished: Remember that letters will be opened by prison staff — ask survivors to let you know what they are comfortable sharing and discussing by mail.