Writing to a person in prison
A mutual gift
Writing to someone in prison is a special gift for both of you, but particularly for the one who is incarcerated. So many people in prison, especially those on death row, have little or no contact with people on the outside, so receiving a personal letter is something to treasure.
Because letters are so special (and often rare), it’s important that from the outset you let your correspondent know your intentions. If you want to strike up an ongoing correspondence, let them know that and stick to it - think of it as a solemn commitment. If you just want to send a one-off note of support, make that clear so you don’t raise expectations - you could include something like “No need to respond, I just wanted to let you know I’m thinking of you.”
Also, please consider your safety. Until you get to know your correspondent, please be careful about personal information you share about yourself or others.
Writing tips from a long-term correspondent
Please take the time to read Mary Catherine Johnson’s guidelines. Although she writes about her experience corresponding with someone on Georgia’s death row and some of the information does not apply to other states, much of what she says is universally helpful.
Who can you write to?
1. When you know the person’s name, but don’t know their inmate ID number.
In order to write to anyone in prison, you need to know their ID number and the state where they are imprisoned. If you’re writing via mail, you must include that number in the address on the envelope. If you’re using a service like JPAY for email, you’ll need the ID number to locate them in the system.
To lookup someone’s ID, use VINELink. Select the state and type in the name, and you should get a result. However, you must register with the site - it’s free! - to see the full ID.
[Note: VINELink was established to help victims of crime feel more secure by being able to lookup the location and status of an offender. If you know someone who has been a victim of crime and whose offender is in the prison system, please let them know about this service.]
2. When you don’t know anyone imprisoned, but would like to find someone to write to.
The Church of the Brethren has a service called the Death Row Support Project that connects those on the outside with those on the inside who’d like to correspond. We don’t run such a service here at MADP, so please make use of the Death Row Support Project, which now includes lifers as well as those on death row.
JPAY - the electronic alternative
Instead of sending a letter, you might like to correspond via email. Most people who are in prison are able to receive email via JPAY. You’ll need to know your correspondent’s prisoner number, and the name of the prison where they’re held.
JPAY has two advantages: it’s relatively fast, and if you feel uncomfortable sharing your street address, it lets you keep that private.
You’ll need a credit card to use JPAY: each JPAY email must be paid for using an electronic ‘stamp’, which you purchase through JPAY online or using the JPAY app for Android or iOS. You can also send photos and images using JPAY, with each image costing an additional stamp.
If you decide to use JPAY, please remember that many who are incarcerated are very poor, so always consider paying for a “return stamp” when you send an email. You’ll find that option at the bottom of the mail editor. Also, watch out that you not only click/tap ‘Send’, but also click/tap ‘Continue’ on the following confirmation screen.
What should you say?
Write about your own interests and family; ask your correspondent about theirs. You can even make it simple: “Hello, I’m thinking of you and hoping for your release.”
Don’t ask about the details of their case. This is something they will bring up if and when they feel safe enough with you to talk about it.
Be aware that your correspondence may be opened by the prison. Don’t say anything that could cause repercussions for your correspondent, such as disparaging remarks about prison officials. Sexual or violent content is likely to prevent your letter from being delivered.
Rules to follow to ensure delivery
To make sure your letters reach your correspondent, you need to follow the prison’s rules, otherwise your letter will either be returned unopened or disappear without a trace.
Every state has its own rules about writing to prisoners, but the list below includes requirements/guidelines that are almost universal:
- Address your letter correctly, making sure to include the prisoner number.
- Write your name and address both on the envelope and on the enclosed letter.
- Use ordinary writing paper and a plain envelope. Some prisons won’t even let you send a card or a postcard, so it’s best to use the simplest stationery available.
- Do not enclose anything with your letter unless it complies with the prison’s guidelines. Usually, a photo or a news clipping is acceptable, but nothing else is. Don’t even send stamps! The best approach is to send nothing but your letter the first time and ask your correspondent what is and isn’t acceptable in their prison.
- Don’t use scented stationery or attach stickers or glitter. It’s surprising the sort of things that can prevent your letter from being delivered.
- Do not send hardback books or ring-bound books. These get treated as if they are weapons!
- If you want to send a book or stationery to a prisoner, do not send it directly. Instead, purchase the item from an established bookstore and have them send it to the prisoner. Many small bookstores, unfortunately, do not mail goods to prisons, but Barnes and Noble and some other large booksellers do. [NOTE: Because Amazon no longer includes receipts in many of the packages it sends, do not use Amazon. Most prisons require that a receipt accompanies the book. We have found that most books mailed from Amazon get returned.]
State-specific mail rules
Below are rules for writing to people in different states. We are in the process of adding more states to this list later.