Inmates come from all walks of life. More than 1.8 million Americans were incarcerated in prisons and jails in 2020.
But all inmates share something in common. They all appreciate it when someone sends them a prison letter.
If you want to make a difference in the life of an inmate, you should write an inmate. Yet you need to stay on the right side of the law while doing so.
Where can you find an inmate, and how can you write to them? What are the restrictions on the information you can include? How do you write to an inmate about their life and your mutual interests?
Answer these questions and you can make a personal connection with an inmate in little time. Here is your comprehensive guide.
Locate an Inmate
People use "jail" and "prison" interchangeably, but they are two different institutions. Jails house inmates who are awaiting trial and cannot post bail.
Some jails also house inmates who are serving a short sentence. Prisons house inmates who are serving longer sentences.
If you are sending a letter to a particular inmate, you need to find out which institution they are at. Look through city and county jail lists first. Once you find their institution, you can visit its website and get the inmate's information.
If the institution does not have a prisoner tracking function, you can look at the state's Department of Corrections. The Bureau of Federal Prisons also has a function for its inmates.
In the event that you cannot track down an inmate, you can go to a private company for an inmate search. You can also sign up with a service that connects you to a random pen pal.
Some institutions require you to provide the exact prisoner ID number of the inmate you are contacting. Make sure you write it down along with their full legal name and address.
Decide Your Medium of Communication
Nearly all institutions let you send handwritten letters. But most let you send emails as well or in lieu of letters.
An inmate may see a handwritten letter as more authentic than an email. You can include drawings or poetry in your letter, along with small personal effects.
But an email is easier for the inmate to read. Your email is not limited to the length of a page, and you can attach links to websites very easily. Younger inmates appreciate emails more than older ones.
Pick the medium of communication that would mean the most to your inmate. You can switch back and forth between the two. If you have something urgent to tell your inmate, you can shoot them a quick email.
Figure Out What You Want to Say
Take some time to plan out your letter. If you are writing to someone you know, keep in mind their mental state. 26 percent of jail inmates report feeling serious psychological distress.
If you are writing to someone you don't know, learn about their life. Very famous inmates may receive a lot of letters from people, so your letter needs to stand out.
People who are not well-known may not have received a letter in years. The very act of receiving one may make them emotional.
If you have some personal connection to the inmate's offense, you should consider why you are writing. Some family members of assault or murder victims write letters forgiving the offenders.
You can do this, but you may traumatize yourself. Talk to a psychologist and see what steps you can take before writing. If you do write, do not ask them to confess to a crime, as this will get them angry.
Do not talk about what they have been accused of. Even if you write that you think they are innocent, you risk making them upset.
Do not write anything that can be used against the inmate in a trial. A prosecutor can use any correspondence to and from an inmate as evidence.
At the same time, don't overthink your letter. A simple letter wishing the inmate well is all you need to write. You can get more elaborate if you want, but you don't have to get flowery or detailed.
Write Within the Boundaries for Inmate Letter Contents
Each institution has its own guidelines for contacting an inmate. Read the guidelines carefully and follow each one. If you violate one, your letter will get discarded and you may be forbidden from contacting the inmate again.
All prisons forbid writers from sending information that can help the inmate escape. You cannot send photographs or diagrams of the prison they are in.
You also cannot send anything that encourages a criminal offense. You cannot give the inmate advice on how to craft or conceal a weapon. If you try to blackmail or intimidate the prisoner, you may face criminal penalties.
Gang depictions are forbidden. You can include drawings, but you cannot draw gang symbols or tattoos.
You cannot send anything in code. Even if your encoded information is harmless, the prison official may throw the entire letter out.
Sexual content may be banned outright. Prisons may make exceptions for spouses or partners of inmates. But some high-profile inmates are allowed to read love letters they have been sent from strangers.
Keep in mind that a prison official will read what you are writing. If you are comfortable with someone else reading intimate information, you can go ahead and write that content.
Bigoted or insensitive language is banned at nearly all institutions. You may not be allowed to swear in your letter, even if you are quoting someone else.
Follow conventions for writing a letter in your letter to an inmate. Start with an informal greeting that includes their name. "Hello Steve" is more personal and direct than "Hi" or "Greetings."
For your first letter, you can talk a little about why you're writing to them. But try to focus your first letter on them. Wish them well and give them encouragement to write back to you.
As your letters go on, you can include more details. If they are interested in a particular activity, you can give them updates. Many inmates like sports, so you can tell them how their favorite teams are doing.
Focus on something that both of you share in common. You may have similar personal backgrounds, or you may have a hobby that you both like to do. Tell little stories that will entertain and inform your inmate.
Spend as much time reading their letters as you do writing your own. Quote from their letters in yours so they know you are reading them closely.
Try to include a lot of open-ended questions. This gives opportunities for your recipient to write back to you.
As their prison sentence comes to an end, talk about life after prison. You can discuss searching for employment after incarceration, though you shouldn't make any promises.
It is okay to talk a little about yourself, especially after you have built a rapport with your inmate. But don't go overboard providing personal details. Your inmate may be interested in other topics.
Send an Appropriate Item
Some institutions allow people to send gifts to inmates. But all of them have strict regulations on what you can send.
You cannot send anything that could help the inmate escape or that they could use as a weapon. This includes hardcover books, pens, and multipurpose tools. You also cannot send food or cash to the inmate.
You may be able to send photographs and newspaper clippings. The content you send should not be pornographic or explicit. You can send softcover books, but they cannot provide information about committing a crime.
Prisons may regulate the materials you can write letters with. You cannot use a large envelope or special paper like vellum. You cannot spray perfume or incense onto the letter, and you cannot include special watermarks.
It is okay to give personal information to an inmate you have met previously. But you should be very careful when doing so. Another inmate can see the letters you are writing, and they can use the information to hurt you.
Do not send personal details to someone you do not know. Do not respond to requests for money or special favors. You can visit the inmate if you want, but you are never required to.
If you have a falling out with your pen pal, you can stop writing. You should avoid writing to them when they are feeling emotional.
Many people feel anger and disgust at people who write to inmates. Try to avoid talking to others about what you are doing.
How You Can Write an Inmate
Anyone can write an inmate, but everyone must follow guidelines. They must get the inmate's personal ID number and address. They then should decide between emails or handwritten letters.
You cannot include information that helps the inmate commit a crime. Someone will read your letter for approval, so be careful with intimate details.
But treat the inmate like anyone else you write to. Give them updates on their friends and write about their favorite activities.
An inmate may be waiting for you to write to them. Jail Exchange lets you connect to them. Search for an inmate today.