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.
Ensuring 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 these are almost universal requirements/guidelines:
- 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.
- Do not enclose anything with your card or letter unless it complies with the prison’s guidelines. Usually, a photo or a news clipping is acceptable, but nothing else is, including 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.
- 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 all 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.]
- 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.
Writing advice from one who knows!
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.
State-specific mail rules
Below are rules for writing to people in different states. We have listed those states covered by our Oklahoma Action Team (which is not just for Oklahomans!) but will add other 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.
- 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.