How To Write Your First Letter To Someone In Prison
(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
If you’d like to find a penpal or have more questions, check out some of these great organizations:
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.