Write a Prisoner

How to be a Penpal to a Prisoner

So you want to start writing to a prisoner. It’s a small thing to fit into your schedule that makes a real difference in someone’s life. It means the world to someone inside to have contact with someone who cares. It can even protect them from abuse if guards know someone on the outside is paying attention.

Here are some tips:

Find a penpal

atlblackcross.org has a list of prisoners who have requested penpals, so contact us if you want to write someone. (Some, but not all are listed below). You can also find someone’s name in the news, or you can search the Georgia Department of Corrections website for random names. Some groups publish political prisoners’ birthdays and addresses. The Georgia Department of Corrections website has a “find an offender” page that lets you search any inmate in Georgia. It has information like their charges, GDC number, and maximum possible release date. If your penpal has been moved, you can find out what prison they are in.

Introduce yourself

In your first letter, explain who you are, how you came to find out about them, and why you decided to write. You can include details about your life.

Don’t overcommit

Be honest with the recipient and yourself about how much time you can commit, because it’s such a lifeline to them, you don’t want to have them be disappointed expecting a letter from you every week if you can only get one to them every month or two.

Don’t expect too much from yourself

A letter a month is a huge thing, a real lifesaver. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to send it by a certain time or to say all the right things and none of the wrong ones. A few paragraphs or a single page is plenty, you can add poetry or artwork as well. If you’re having writer’s block, jot down whatever you’re thinking and get it in the mail. If you have multiple penpals, you can copy paste an update on whatever is going on in your life, with a little bit of a blurb in response to their last letter or in particular about their case. You can also include printouts of articles or zines.

A lot of people when they are first starting out are really shy about what to write. They don’t want to make their life seem too great in fear that it will make the prisoner feel bad. Don’t worry about that. They can handle it. It’s just nice to have touch with someone who’s on the outside, partly because you get to hear about the outside world. It can be kind of a sanity check. So for example if you went hiking, tell them that. There’s no reason to worry about how that’s going to sound. Your penpal probably just needs a friend of any kind who knows they’re alive and cares.

Doing tasks for prisoners

Your penpal may need someone to do stuff for them: make a phone call, send legal mail, get in touch with someone, do some Internet research. It’s great to do favors, but don’t be afraid to say no if it’s too much. A lot of prisoners don’t have a realistic idea of how much work they’re asking you to put in when they make requests. So don’t be shy about turning down a request that is going to cost you too much time, money, or energy. If they’re asking you to do something shady or illegal, like an end run around restrictions on communicating with other prisoners, consider where they are: maybe they shouldn’t be the one you look to for what legal risks are smart to take. They are generally very understanding when you say no, and don’t want to be too demanding, because they know that if they burn you out they might stop hearing from you. You can even say, I’ll put in x hours a month into doing tasks. Also, if they’re asking for help with something that ABC could reasonably maybe provide someday, we can put them on a list and maybe someone else will fill that request.

If they are experiencing abuse, there are some organizations on the outside you can contact. ABC can publish their stories on our website, atlblackcross.org, and our newsletter that goes out to prisoners monthly if they want us to, anonymously or otherwise.

Be careful about security

Do you want to use your home address for the return address? Maybe you trust your penpal, but do you trust all the other people who might get access to that envelope? You could use a PO Box, or get in touch with your local Anarchist Black Cross or infoshop and find out what address they use.

Remember all your mail is being potentially read by censors. Do not discuss anything illegal or that could get someone in trouble. If your pen pal wants to discuss anything like that, explain the concept of security culture. You could send them some literature about it.

What you can and cannot send to prisoners

Some prisons are very restrictive about the stuff prisoners are allowed to receive in the mail, others are more relaxed. Dekalb County jail allows nothing but white postcards under 6 inches. You may be able to find out what the rules for their prison are by going to the Department of Corrections website, or calling the prison. Sometimes the rules are inconsistently enforced so you may be able to get something in once just to have the same thing bounced another time. Things like staples, paper clips, and stickers are likely to not be allowed. Books may have to come directly from the publisher, but we have gotten around that by printing them out a chapter at a time and sending that in a large envelope. There may be a weight limit, so a lot of paper may need to be sent in parts.

Prisoners in the Tier Program in Georgia are not allowed to have any media: no photos, printed out pictures, books, or news articles, even if they are cut and pasted into a letter. Although we have been able to get cut and pasted articles through either because the censors allowed it or were not paying attention.

Sending mail

Some prisoners in Georgia have access to kiosks or tablets so they can send and receive e-mail. It’s a little bit cheaper to send an email and a lot easier, so you can find out in your first letter if they have access to that. You make an account with jpay.com and find them using their GDC number.

To send a letter, you need the prisoner’s name, GDC number, and the prison’s address.  If you’re writing to an immigrant detainee, you need their “A number” as well. If you have their name, you may be able to call the prison or jail and get their number.

Mail costs 55¢ for the first ounce (about 5 sheets of paper) plus 15¢ for each additional ounce. Rates change a lot but you can always Google “postage price” and it shows you the table of prices.

If you need help or have any questions, feel free to contact us!

Here’s a list of prison rebels who would like mail:

Kelvin J. Stevenson. Involved in 2010 and 2012 hunger strikes, and the current resistance. On Tier II, but can now receive media (newspaper, magazine articles).

Kelvin J. Stevenson 570391
Baldwin State Prison
P.O. Box 218
Hardwick, GA 31034

Robert Watkins 1245402
P.O. Box 3877
Jackson, GA 30233

Prometheus Rosser 1252012
Hays State Prison
P.O. Box 668
Trion, GA 30753

LaDarius AKA Comrade Seer. Helping to organize resistance among prisoners. In general population.

Mr. LaDarius Colbert 1000145093
Hays State Prison
P.O. Box 668
Trion, GA 30753

Dominique Jenkins 1000321266
Hays State Prison
P.O. Box 668
Trion, GA 30753

Tron Hill 1191485
300 1st Ave South
Reidsville, GA 30453

Daniel Travis 1301615
Hays State Prison
P.O. Box 668
Trion, GA 30753

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