People write to inmates within jails and prisons for a wide variety of reasons. Some write letters to incarcerated loved-ones. Victims of crimes, and their loved-ones, may also write to offenders in a bid to better understand their motive or to gain other information, or to offer forgiveness. Others decide to write to an inmate they have no personal connection with through a pen pal program.
Whatever your reason for writing a letter to an inmate, it is important to know that you will face certain restrictions as you decide what to write — and finding out of how address the letter can also be challenging. Here's a short guide to get you started
What Do Inmates Like to Read in Letters?
Regardless of the length of the sentence an inmate is serving, they are, as a prisoner, separated from the rest of the world. Within the jail or prison they are serving their sentence in, a rigid routine is upheld and the inmate will be surrounded by numerous other prisoners, many of whom will be violent or suffer from mental health issues.
When receiving letters from the outside world, inmates appreciate the glimpse of the world beyond they get from the letters more than anything else, in addition to the mental stimulation letters can offer. They’d appreciate words of encouragement that show you believe they can continue to grow as people.
Receiving letters in jail or prison can — no matter who they are from — offer a range of benefits, both to the inmate and society at large:
- The connection with the larger world outside of the correctional facility can help inmates prepare for their eventual release better. In turn, this reduces the risk that they will engage in further crimes when released.
- Receiving letters improves inmates' mood and spirits, reducing the risk of developing mental disorders such as depression while incarcerated. In plain English, writing to inmates will help them feel happier and healthier, which also lowers their risk of engaging in violent or maladaptive coping mechanisms.
- The prospect of receiving letters gives inmates something to look forward to.
- In the case where victims or their families correspond with the inmate who wronged them, such letters can play an integral role in the prisoner's rehabilitation, helping them process the crime they committed and asking for forgiveness.
- In cases where family members write to incarcerated relatives, letters help inmates retain a sense of community and belonging, as well as allowing them to follow their relatives' important milestones and life developments.
The extent to which you will consider what inmates like to read in letters depends on your purpose for writing the letter. Regardless of your reasons for writing, inmates will appreciate compassion; keep in mind that inmates have already been tried and sentenced, and are currently serving their sentence.
General Rules of Writing a Letter to an Inmate
The Federal Bureau of Prisons has established general rules that govern the correspondence inmates may receive, which you may read by clicking the link. Keep in mind that the Bureau of Prisons specifically "encourages correspondence that is directed to socially useful goals", and that each Federal Prison's Warden has the responsibility of putting rules in place for a particular institution, in line with the guidelines the Bureau of Prisons has published.
Rules within State Penitentiaries will differ from one state to the next, and in jails — which house people awaiting trial as well as inmates serving shorter sentences — the rules will be different again. It is, therefore, always important to check the rules of each institution before you send a letter.
How do you find out what's allowed and what isn't when you want to write a letter to an inmate? Here are a few tips:
- Do a Google search for "[the name of the institution the inmate you want to write to is in] correspondence rules" — this specific search term will get you much further than "how to write a letter to an inmate at [insert name of institution]".
- Get in touch with the prison or jail via telephone to inquire about correspondence rules. You can ask about the rules via phone, or you can ask the staff to direct you to published rules on the internet.
- While you're at it, locate the inmate ID number of the inmate you wish to correspond with. If the inmate you want to contact is in a Federal Prison, you will be able to find it on the website of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. If they are within a State Prison, the inmate ID number will be available on the website of the state's Department of Corrections. To find information about inmates within jails, a call to the jail is the easiest route.
Are you not sure what the correspondence rules are within the institution where the inmate you are interested in writing a letter to is located? You can already begin writing your letter regardless. Keep in mind that all letters will be vetted by correctional staff, and that your correspondence will be withheld if you include anything prohibited.
The chances that your letter will reach the inmate increase if you stick to these rules, laid out by the Federal Bureau of Prisons:
- You can usually include benign photographs (like family portraits), drawings, and newspaper clippings. You should absolutely never include stamps, maps, graphic images depicting violence or sexual imagery, or any other physical object (such as money, jewelry, SIM cards and phones, etc).
- Do not include threats or obscene language (including swear words) in your letter.
- To be on the safe side, it is best if you do not discuss the crime the inmate committed at all, nor any ongoing court case.
- Do not mention the names of any other inmates in your letter.
- Do not criticize the correctional facility's staff or policies.
- Do not pass on correspondence from third parties in your letter, unless you are the inmate's relative and you are including messages from minor children related to the inmate.
- Do not include gang images or anything that could be interpreted as such in your letter.
- Have no expectation of privacy — not only will your letter be read by the facility's staff, but as inmates live in close quarters with other inmates, you should also keep the possibility that your letter will be read by other inmates in mind. For this reason, it is always a good idea to avoid mentioning ongoing conflicts that "your" inmate may have with other prisoners in your letter.
Keep in mind that, in addition to your letter being vetted, inmates are also able to accept or reject any letter you send after correctional staff approve it. Should that happen, the letter will usually be returned with a note informing you of this.
People who intend to carry on ongoing correspondence with inmates, whether in a Federal or State Prison or in a County Jail, should also remember that they will need to be placed on an "approved correspondence list" to be able to do so. The procedure for this varies, but will certainly include some type of background check — correctional officers will want to know what your relationship with the inmate is, your reason for writing letters, and, above all, whether the correspondence would pose any security risk.
3 Ways of Sending Letters to an Inmate
Now that we are well into the digital age, most Federal Prisons, State Prisons, and Jails facilitate email correspondence between inmates and people within the "outside world". This does not mean that the inmate you are communicating with has unrestricted access to the internet. It does not mean that your email correspondence will not be vetted in the same way as handwritten letters, either — because it will.
Sending letters to inmates by email does, however, offer several distinct advantages as compared to handwritten letters that are mailed via the postal service:
- Your letter may arrive more quickly.
- You may be able to send longer messages more frequently.
- In some cases, you will be able to include (approved and allowed) attachments such as photographs or even links.
- Sending emails to inmates can be easy, facilitated by dedicated avenues on the prison's or jail's website. (Do not send emails to the inmate's personal email address, as they will not receive it.)
Rules regarding email correspondence with inmates varies. The San Diego County Sheriff's Department, for instance, requests that you send no more than two messages per day, that the email is no longer than one page, and that no attachments or photographs are included. Check with the facility in question before you proceed to email an inmate. Should the inmate want to write you, they will likely have to do so via handwritten letter.
By Post Mail
All prisons and jails allow inmates to receive postal correspondence, subject to established rules. When writing a handwritten letter or a typed and printed letter, you will have to keep the rules governing general correspondence in mind. Always check with the facility before sending anything other than a letter. Most jails and prisons allow for photographs to be mailed, but few allow for items such as dried flowers or small keepsakes to be sent.
Pen Pal Sites or Apps
Prisoner pen pal sites and apps have become an increasingly popular way to communicate with inmates. These are, on the whole, aimed at correspondence between inmates and people they have never met — such as people carrying out missionary work. With the help of these apps and sites, corresponding with an inmate becomes easy, as the platform will take care of the administrative side of things.
How to Write a Letter to an Inmate
How do you start a letter to an inmate? How do you write to a prisoner you don’t know?
If you already know the inmate, this part is fairly easy. If you are corresponding with an inmate via a pen pal service, it is best to begin your letter with a traditional greeting, such as "Dear [name]" or "Hey [name]". From thereon out, you can handle the letter the same way you might have handled writing to a foreign pen pal as a child, while keeping the fact that your pen pal is an inmate in mind:
- Explain why you are writing and what you are hoping to get out of the correspondence.
- Offer general information about yourself that may allow your pen pal to decide whether they are interested in writing back, but don't offer intimate details that might risk your security.
- Provide interesting content — you could discuss music, spirituality, philosophy, or sports, for instance. This will help the inmate connect with the outside world.
- Close the letter and provide contact information.
How to address the envelope?
To ensure that your letter reaches its destination, you will have to:
- Write the inmate's full name, followed by their inmate ID number and the unit they are held in.
- Write the address of the correctional facility.
- Provide your return address, which may be a PO Box number.
Do not decorate or apply perfume to your letter. There may also be restrictions regarding envelope sizes; check this with the facility in question.
What are some encouraging words you can say?
If you are spiritual or religious, you can share some scripture. If not, you could choose to share quotes you came across that you, yourself, find genuinely inspirational and relevant to the inmate's situation. If you are writing to an inmate you know personally, especially as a relative, you should definitely share encouraging words about loved-ones who have faith that the inmate will have a productive life after their release. Saying you believe in them and are there for them always helps inmates feel better.
Safety Precaution Tips
In writing to an prisoner pen pal, sharing some personal information is encouraged — it will help you bond with the inmate. However, never share excessively intimate details of your life, such as:
- Your children's names.
- Your employer's name, or the address of your workplace.
- Specific details that could lead the inmate to identify your location.
- Anything that correctional staff could construe as criminal activity, including, for instance, riddles that sound like they could be a secret code.
Is it safe to write to death row inmates?
Yes, so long as you adhere to the same safety precautions discussed earlier. Death row inmates will not ever be released, but they may be in contact with other prisoners who will be. Keep this in mind.
How do you send a letter if you don’t know where an inmate is located?
To write a letter to a specific inmate, you will first have to find their location. If the inmate is housed in a Federal Prison, you can use the website of the Federal Bureau of Prisons to discover more. If the inmate is within a State Prison or a County Jail, you will likely have to call around to find out where the inmate is located.
Can you send money to an inmate?
You cannot send cash to an inmate. You will likely, however, likely be able to send money to their trust fund account. The inmate will be able to use this to buy food and other items from commissary.
Can you type letters to inmates?
Yes. Typed letters are treated in the same way as handwritten letters. You will have to be mindful not to add decorations, photographs, or any other disallowed content, however.