I don’t know if there are any hot debates about the prison pen pal topic anywhere but I suppose it would depend on what circles you associate yourself with. I’ve never searched out this topic but I know it must be alive and well because there are organizations that exist for the sole purpose of facilitating inmate pen pal relationships.
I can say with certainty that there are plenty of people with varying opinions about corresponding with prison inmates. These opinions are a frenzy of arguments both for and against the idea, depending on what side of the argumentative fence you fall on.
Maybe the “fence” analogy isn’t appropriate in this case.
So, exactly what type of person intentionally seeks out prison inmates to correspond with?
And what types of people purposely start organizations that facilitate these inmate pen pal relationships?
Because you can’t just pick up a pen and paper and mail it blindly into a federal prison, hoping to get a response from a lonely inmate.
I first became aware of prison pen pal programs through an inmate in the Canadian correctional system. I have an incarcerated family member and he heard about the pen pal program from another inmate. He then contacted me and asked me to look into it, so I did, and a Google search led me to Canadian Inmates Connect Inc.
Upon first glance at their website I questioned its legitimacy because it’s not a very attractive nor tech-savvy website but as I browsed further I noticed many links to radio show interview clips with reputable Canadian media personalities, so I knew there must be something legit behind it.
Since there was no clear information on exactly how an inmate can get registered for this site I had to send an email through their contact page. It didn’t take long to receive a response from Melissa, the creator and facilitator of the pen pal service, which seems to be one of the only ones in Canada.
Melissa was wonderful to correspond with and she told me exactly how it all works. She sends an information / application package by postal mail, directly to the inmate at their correctional facility anywhere in Canada. The inmate then returns it to her with profile information he or she writes about themselves. The inmate can also include photographs if they wish. There is a fee of $35.00 CAD per year to have a profile listed on the website. I decided to gift that fee for my inmate and I sent an email money transfer directly to Melissa.
It’s as simple as that, however, if an inmate doesn’t have someone on the outside this task is NOT so simple. Things in the prison system take forever to accomplish. Snail mail, photographs done with film cameras, sending or receiving money, etc, are not speedy processes when incarcerated. Having a person on the outside helps immensely and I thought, it’s the least I could do.
Much of society, friends, and families forget about their incarcerated people over time, which is something I’ll never understand. But that’s another story for another time.
Soon after I paid the money, my inmate’s profile appeared on the website among many others who are also looking for outsiders to correspond with. I saw his profile, assured him that it was on the site, and then he sat back and waited, hoping for the best.
I wondered if this whole thing actually works because exactly WHO is out there looking to correspond with inmates? In my heart I hoped that someone was because many of these inmates have no one else. As I have learned over the years, my family member is one of the lucky ones who has at least a tiny piece of family who cares.
Now back the original question: What type of person intentionally seeks out prison inmates to correspond with?
I had no idea what the answer to that question was until my inmate started to receive letters. I should add that it took months for him to receive the first one. He was getting very discouraged and so were we, his family on the outside. But Melissa had assured us that sometimes the process takes time and that we should keep the faith that someone would eventually reach out to him.
One day while chatting on the phone with my family member, months after his pen pal profile went live, he told me that suddenly he had received three letters from three people in three completely different parts of Canada, almost all at the same time. Melissa was right….it does take time and a little faith but there are people out there who want to write to inmates.
The next thing I wondered was what type of people would they be?
We’ve all heard stories of women who want to get to know prison inmates intimately, develop relationships with them, and even marry them while in prison. That’s the part I can’t understand and I wondered if those would be the kind of people seeking out my family member.
On the contrary, those corresponding with him are intelligent, educated, compassionate and supportive people just looking to understand more about what an inmate’s life and situation is like.
They’re parents, they’re professionals, they’re writers, they come from all walks of life.
I can’t say that I think it’s strange though, because I’ve had my own interactions with inmates through social events in federal prisons. It’s very intriguing, happy and sad, but ultimately enlightening. And I’m just a regular working woman with no agenda so I can absolutely believe that there are other regular people with no agendas out there, who are just genuinely interested in human beings.
When we think of prison or see it depicted on TV and in movies there seems to be a focus on hardened, violent criminals when in fact, there are thousands of inmates guilty of non-violent and white collar crimes. The truth is the world is full of normal people who make bad decisions and end up suffering the consequences.
Although I have several good takeaways from registering my inmate for this pen pal program, one of the best takeaways was corresponding with Melissa. I chatted with her at length via email in the beginning, because I was very thankful that a service like hers exists.
Like she says on her website:
“By inmates maintaining communication with society through pen pals, it may decrease the chance of institutionalization. It may also be a pro-social method of reintegration and reduce the rate of recidivism.
These inmates are obviously incarcerated for a reason, each with their own story to tell.”
As human beings we can’t be the judge of another human being, but we can try to understand them. It’s been shocking to me over the years, just how many family members and friends are quick to ditch out on loved ones who have made some wrong turns in life.
Any one of us has the potential to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, or make a bad decision and end up where these inmates are. If you don’t think that’s a fact, think of the last time you may have gotten behind the wheel even slightly under the influence.
That action alone could land you among the incarcerated.
Then it could be you on “the other side of the fence” wondering who is going to give you a second thought.
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