Tips on writing to pen pals behind the prison walls

Support for people in prison ranges from books-to-prisoners projects that mail free books to individually becoming pen-pals with a person in prison. Some people focus on political prisoners while others see the entire prison-industrial complex as illegitimate and criticize the way that it targets marginalized communities. A key way we can support people inside is by communicating with them. In an email-dominated world, writing an old-fashioned letter on paper can be surprisingly rewarding for you as well as an incarcerated person. Here are some tips.

• When writing to people in prison, you have to put their prisoner (DIN) number on the first line of the mailing address to get it through.

• Make sure to put a return address on your letter. If you are writing to a prisoner you don’t know, it may be best to use a PO box or other address that doesn’t disclose where you live.

• If you’re writing to an incarcerated person, keep in mind that the prison officials or other authorities may read your letter. Don’t discuss anything sensitive. If the person is waiting for trial or sentencing (or on appeal), it may be better not to discuss the details of their case.

• Prisons prohibit mailing items like books, food, money, etc. Ask your pen-pal for the rules.

• Don’t make promises you can’t keep like offering to find a lawyer to take their case, sending them money or expensive items, offering them housing on release, organizing a support campaign, etc.— being let down when you’re locked up can be especially devastating. Be clear about your intentions. If you’re not looking for a romantic relationship, it can be helpful to all involved to say so right off. It’s also important to stay consistent if you commit to writing to a pen-pal. For you, this may be a simple correspondence, but for a person in prison, this level of contact can be a big deal. 

• While the state locking people up is shitty, it doesn’t follow that all people in prison are angels. They are people just like everyone else, and some of them are flawed or can be manipulative. Use reasonable caution and treat them like you would another pen-pal.

• Be careful about accepting collect phone calls from jail — prison collect calls are usually absurdly expensive.

• Many prisons across the country now use a specialized email system called Jpay. You can set up a free account at or using the Jpay app. Unfortunately, prisons exploit people inside and outside by charging “stamps” to send Jpay emails. They’re about 7 cents per stamp, and you can gift stamps to your pen-pal. As always, these emails are monitored, so be careful what you write.