How To Write Your First Letter To Someone In Prison

by Riley MacLeod on May 4, 2012

(These are general suggestions for writing prisoners and are adapted from the guidelines at Black and Pink and the Prisoner Correspondence Project. Always refer to CeCe’s support website for details on writing her specifically.)

When someone hears their name called by a prison guard during mail call it can be a powerful reminder that people on the outside care about them, and it sends a message to guards and other inmates that this person has support and isn’t forgotten.

The CeCe McDonald case has brought a lot of national attention to the ways the prison industrial complex persecutes queer and trans people, especially low-income people, trans women, and queer and trans people of color. The folks at Support CeCe McDonald have done an incredible job of publicizing the case and rallying community support and awareness about the racist, classist, and queer/transphobic practices that have taken over two million people away from their communities and placed them behind bars. The Support CeCe McDonald site is always the best place to find current information about CeCe’s status and what you can do to help.

If this case has inspired you to get involved in prison issues but you aren’t sure where to start, becoming a pen pal to a person in prison, either CeCe or another individual, can be a great way to show someone they aren’t alone. Mail call often happens in public spaces in prison; when someone hears their name called by a prison guard during mail call it can be a powerful reminder that people on the outside care about them, and it sends a message to guards and other inmates that this person has support and isn’t forgotten. This can be a vital harm reduction strategy for people who are locked up, especially queer and trans people. Additionally, many people are incarcerated far from their communities or may not have a lot of support from the outside world; many queer and trans people may be in “protective custody” or solitary confinement and may not have a lot of daily contact with others or time out of their cell. A quick letter of support or a long-term correspondence can be a great way to keep their spirits up and let them know they aren’t alone.

The Support CeCe folks have provided some specific guidelines for writing CeCe while she’s incarcerated here: http://supportcece.wordpress.com/get-involved/write-cece/, but if you’ve never written to someone in prison before, you might not know where to start. Here are some additional suggestions to get you started.

  • Your letter can (and probably will) be read by prison officials. Think about this when including any information about your political activities, immigration status, history of incarceration, or mentioning anything that might incriminate you or your communities. Be aware that your letter may be censored as well.
  • Include your full name and contact information. Many prisons won’t give the envelope to the person you’re writing, so, if you want them to write you back, make sure your first and last name and mailing address are written legibly on the letter as well as the envelope. If you don’t want to use your home address when corresponding with people in prison, the organizations listed at the end of this article may be willing to let you use theirs.
  • Be sure to use your penpal’s full government name on the envelope. Most prisons won’t deliver mail that isn’t to the legal name of your penpal. When writing to your penpal for the first time, you may want to use their legal name in the letter as well, and ask them what name and pronouns they would like to use for future correspondence.

Relatedly, many people aren’t out as LGBTQ in prison, so it’s never a bad idea to ask how comfortable they are discussing such things. Be aware of the difference between outing yourself by discussing queer and trans issues and outing your penpal. If your return address is a queer organization, that information may inadvertently out your penpal to prison officials or other inmates. In your first letter, you could write something along the lines of “I’m queer/trans/etc. Are you comfortable discussing that with me?”

  • Mail restrictions vary from prison to prison. Many prisons won’t allow stickers, paint, glitter, or any other mail art. It’s probably best to stick to white lined paper, black or blue ink, and a plain envelope for your first letter. If you continue corresponding with someone in prison, you can ask them about the particular restrictions at their prison.

Your biggest question is probably “what do I write?” It can be hard to reach out to someone you don’t know, and it can definitely be difficult to know what to say. Always be up-front about your time commitment and what your intentions are. If you’re writing to CeCe or to a political prisoner, your note can be as simple as “Thinking of you—keep up the fight! You aren’t forgotten!” or something along those lines. For more long-term correspondence, start by introducing yourself and saying what some of your interests are. Many penpal listings will have some information about your penpal’s interests; these can be a great way to start a conversation. It’s not a bad idea to state your boundaries in your first letter, such as “I foresee being able to write you once a month or so for friendship and support.” Remember to ask them about mail or content restrictions, what name and pronoun they use, and if there’s anything they aren’t comfortable writing about.

Some penpals may want to write sexual or romantic letters. If that’s something you’re comfortable with, do it! If not, it’s OK to let your penpal know that, but that you’re still interested in corresponding with them. Try to frame it positively, and be aware that penpals writing about sex or romance or expressing an interest in your sexual or romantic life may not necessarily be coming on to you. Additionally, someone may ask you to contribute money to their commissary for stamps, envelopes, paper, or other essentials. If that’s something you’re comfortable with, it can be a vital way to support your penpal, but if you aren’t able to or comfortable doing so, be clear about that. The best thing you can do is be consistent, open, supportive, and honest about your boundaries and abilities.

For more information about writing to people in prison, see these guidelines:

Black and Pink: Guidelines for Penpals

Prisoner Correspondence Project: Expectations and Guidelines (english PDF) and their FAQ

If you’d like to find a penpal or have more questions, check out some of these great organizations:

Black and Pink

Write to Win Collective

Prisoner Correspondence Project (Canada)

Tranzmission Prison Project 

TGI Justice Project

Riley MacLeod ran the TIG Prison Penpal Project (now a part of Black and Pink) for 5 years and spent time as a chaplain’s assistant at the Nashua Street Jail in Boston through the Weston Jesuit School of Theology.

A full update on CeCe as of May 4th, 2012 can be found here, along with more explicit information about sending her letters and materials.

Links are welcome, but any comment containing more than 4 external links will be held for moderation to prevent spam.

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{ 45 comments… read them below or add one }

Gwyneth Arnold-Starr May 7, 2012 at 8:46 am

Hoping there’s a good reason (I suspect I’m not going to like it) but why won’t prisons allow stickers, paint, or art in inmates mail?

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Riley MacLeod May 7, 2012 at 6:18 pm

My guess has always been that they think you might use the glue to smuggle drugs, but I’ve never had it explained to me.

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mike February 28, 2013 at 3:34 am

That is correct.people can hide drugs behind stamps,inside the envelopes,people will also split the thick paper that cards are made of and fill with powders then glue it back together. People will also simply just drip liquid acid on the paper. Thats probly why u cant put perfume anywhere on it, or accept paper with stains on it

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katie February 1, 2013 at 10:37 am

because they’re a way of concealing drugs you virgin

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Demarion Borden September 6, 2012 at 6:41 pm

wow, awesome blog.Really thank you! Much obliged.

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Scott Ocasio September 10, 2012 at 7:17 am

I appreciate you sharing this post. Awesome.

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Gavin Bondurant September 10, 2012 at 8:00 am

I really liked your blog post.Really looking forward to read more. Really Great.

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Kristian Ramon September 10, 2012 at 8:08 am

Very neat article post.Thanks Again. Want more.

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Dianne September 10, 2012 at 8:41 am

I want to write to some but I read a lot of the inmates use people for money. Obviously anyone considering writing to a stranger in prison probably has a good, compassionate heart – and unfortunately those are the ones that are easy to take advantage of. I wouldn’t mind helping someone out if they really need a few bucks for necessities – but I won’t know if the person is using 30 other people to also help them out. And it isn’t so much about the money, it’s more about getting feelings hurt if you get close to the person. any tips to avoid getting taken advantage of? or anyone have mostly good experiences writing to inmates?

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cherie ferguson November 2, 2012 at 7:40 pm

My son is a handsome man who would like to meet a woman who is in the early forties and this is his first time in prison. He likes to fish and camp all outdoors stuff to do is a great cook and home body. not afraid of hard work He will tell you himself why He is incarcerated. He is not a gang member. He is 45. blue eyes. neat and clean. 6ft 2 big not fat. has a good sense of humor. I,am his mother and He maked me laugh all the time. please contact me and I can tell you more about him. He was married His wife got into meth and met another man. He would like to share the camping and outdoors with someone who likes that stuff to do. He is not a bold person and would and just a little shy. He would like to have a penpal

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Sara Martin November 8, 2012 at 1:07 pm

Hi I would be interested in email and speaking with your son. Could you possibly email a photo and I could reply with mine?

Thank you,

Sara

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mike February 28, 2013 at 3:43 am

Thats a good thought.someone in jail has nothing but time to collect penpals just for money.it would pass alot of time and keep you in as many soups coffee or honeybuns.and if you would happen to lose a penpal or two,it wouldnt effect you at all

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Lukas Press September 10, 2012 at 11:07 am

Major thankies for the post.Much thanks again. Much obliged.

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Daniel de Culla September 18, 2012 at 3:52 pm

Lovely¡ I enjoy You and Yrs so much.
Blessed Be¡

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Amanda October 19, 2012 at 5:11 pm

I really want to write an inmate. Can someone help me please?

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Bennie October 25, 2012 at 4:14 pm

I need to know if a black woman from 50 to 65 years old, comming up for peroll in five years or so. “Got to be a christian”, I am trying to help my causin Danny he is 62 years old and world like to have a woman to write him his in a Texes prison.

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Mohassa October 27, 2012 at 11:01 pm

I have a daughter in prison and I don’t know what to say to her when we talk let alone when I write. Can you help me? She is 19 years old. We obviously cannot talk about the case as she hasn’t gone to court yet. So what do we talk about?

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Sara Martin November 8, 2012 at 1:10 pm

talk to her about how bad a parent you are, and the fact that she is a selfish brat. Tell her life is not all about her. She is in jail because she is a bad person. Let her stay there for a while. Also ask her what her plans are for the weekend.

Thank you,

Sara

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sara is an asshole November 10, 2012 at 12:03 am

Just be up front with your daughter, she isn’t a bad person necessarily. Everyone makes mistakes, these mistakes don’t define a person totally. You should be as supportive as possible because prison is no cakewalk, its spiritually/physically exhausting. Just try to put yourself in her shoes, and ask her what you can do for her. Be as sincere and open minded as possible. Its only a small phase, and if you suffer together in this you will both come out stronger.

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mike February 28, 2013 at 3:51 am

Write about stries from her favorate magazine that you know she would like.write a bunch of jokes,it can change her mood.or make up,or find and rewrite a short story in each letter.it may sound corny but it can help get her mind out of where shes at.the imagination can do wonders :)

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Donna January 23, 2013 at 6:51 am

Sara you suck, how dare you tell that woman that about her child. You are a evil devil

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mike February 28, 2013 at 3:56 am

Sara is an asshole.if she has kids they probly hate her bitchass.i can tell shes just selfish

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#gotta#man! July 14, 2014 at 4:20 am

SARA?? THE SAME SARA WHO JUST TOLD THIS OTHER LADY TO SEND A PIC OF HER SON AN U WANT A PEN PAL…? WHAT DOES THAT MAKE U THEN IF U TRASH TALK SOMEONE ASKING ADVICE FOR HER & HER DAUGHTER. LOL I HOPE CHERIE KNOWS WATS UP AFTER READING ANOTHER REPLY FROM U. U DONT BELONG WRITING AN INMATE!!! U GONNA ASK HER SON WHAT HIS PLANS FOR THE WEEKEND ARE TOO? SILLY!!! GOOD LUCK 2 THE GOOD LADIES.

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Beverly Rice February 19, 2013 at 1:47 am

Yeah Sara is definitely an asshole. It’s not your fault she is in prison, but I agree with the other people, be as supportive as possible. Encourage your daughter to be on her best behavior so she can get out ASAP. Give her advice if she asks for it, and best of all, go with your motherly instincts. Best of luck to you and her. I would also like to state this (please don’t take any offense not meant to be a rude statement), a lot of inmates become depressed from being away from family for so long, ask her how she’s doing in there and if there is anything you can do for her to help her while she is in prison. I’m only saying this because I am studying to become a prison guard and the one thing they have made sure to teach us is that inmates become distressed when they are away from family for too long. (this is not at all meant to scare you, your daughter will be just fine.) anyway have a great day! :)

Bev.

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Beverly Rice February 19, 2013 at 1:52 am

I just realized you didn’t state whether or not you are male or female and I said go with your motherly instincts, I would like to rephrase that sentence.

Give her advice if she asks for it, and best of all, go with your parental instincts. :)

Again, have a great day!

Bev

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Cynthia Weems December 6, 2013 at 5:05 pm

Thank you this helps me i actually just typed up a 2 page letter to my uncle that i have not seen in about 13yrs i think that is how long he has been in prison for..So it’s challenging for me to emotionally prepare for this, i don’t know if i will hear back but it’s out of my hands after i send my letter.

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Bree November 11, 2012 at 1:44 am

Wow, that’s a jackass move if ever I saw one
Not cool. Think before you type next time. M’kay, pumpkin?

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MARCUS A. THOMPSON February 20, 2013 at 1:16 pm

What happens if you send a letter to a prisoner and they have already been released a day or two before your letter reaches them. Your name and address are on the outside of the envelope. Will the prison forward your letter to where the prisoner relocated to, return it to you or throw it in the trash? I wrote to someone who was getting released and wrote my home address on the outside of the envelope but my letter was never returned to me.

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Cinna318 March 4, 2013 at 9:31 am

If you establish a relonship and u are asked to send money make it cleat that you are not a national bank. Let.them know up front what you are comfortable with. then follow through. above all don’t say that you will send money if you cant.

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Cinna318 March 4, 2013 at 9:48 am

how would I go about being a
pen pal for a prisoner. would somebody please help me?

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