Writing to a person in prison
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!). 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.
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 - if they want to talk about it with you, they’ll bring it up.
How to make sure your letter reaches its destination
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 this list 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!
- 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.
- 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.]
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, she includes excellent general advice that is universally helpful. Plus she gets into some really nitty gritty stuff.
Letters from Angola
Fragment of a letter from Patrick Sonnier to Sister Helen Prejean. Sr. Helen was Pat’s spiritual advisor while he was on death row at Angola (Louisiana State Penitentiary) in the early 1980s. Sr. Helen accompanied Pat to his execution in April, 1984.
You can read more correspondence from Pat Sonnier and more about Sr. Helen’s work with death row inmates in the DePaul University Special Collections and Archives.
Follow Sister Helen on social media
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. Tap or click the + sign to display the appropriate rules.
- Both outgoing and incoming mail may be inspected for contraband and/or for abuse of mail privileges.
- When abuses are found, the Warden may prohibit further correspondence between you and the person to whom the offending material was directed.
- All incoming mail must have a complete return address.
- All mail must be addressed as follow:
Housing Unit/Bed Assignment
- No books or publications, unless sent directly from a bookstore or publisher. The purchase receipt must be included, so make sure the bookstore includes the receipt.
- No greeting cards or postcards! Please send letters only on plain letter paper - no glitter, no perfumed paper, no stickers (this includes the envelope, too)
- Mail must include the recipient’s name, DOC number and facility address.
- Don’t send cash, stamps, or photographs with a hard back.
- Include the recipient’s name, DOC number and facility address on the envelope.
- All mail must be received through authorized channels.
- Don’t include letters to multiple recipients in the same envelope.
- Unauthorized materials or contraband found in mail will be rejected. Individuals who carry out serious violations of the correspondence rules may not be allowed to write again.
- Newspapers, magazines and books must be mailed directly by the publisher, publication supplier or legitimate bookstore; subject to review and rejection in accordance with the correspondence rules.
- Items such as food, clothing, cash, postage stamps, jewelry and toiletries may not be mailed to offenders.
- Don’t mail packages; letters and cards only.
- Include your full name and address on the envelope.
- All mail must be received through authorized channels.
- Letters for different people should not be included in the same envelope.
- Unauthorized materials or contraband found in mail will be rejected.
- Individuals who carry out serious violations of the correspondence rules may not be allowed to write any more.
- Newspapers, magazines and books may be mailed only by the publisher, publication supplier or bookstore; subject to review and rejection in accordance with the correspondence rules.
- Items such as food, clothing, jewelry, toiletries, or any item other than books, magazines and newspapers may not be sent.
- Send letters only, not packages.
- The only things you may enclose with your letters are a photo and perhaps an article clipping. Everything else is forbidden. Don’t include stamps.
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.