GETTING STARTED

Writing the first letter can be intimidating, but you probably have lots of interesting things to share. It’s just a matter of getting started. One exercise is to think about a conversation you might have with someone you had just met at a bar, a potluck, or a new job. You might talk about why you're there, or where you grew up. You might talk about an interesting article you read the other day, or what you did on the weekend. You might talk about the weather. Use these topics to start your first letter. Having this conversation with a penpal might feel awkward at first, because most of us are not used to regularly writing letters. When communicating in person, we use the other person's response tocarry the conversation, so it can feels uncomfortable to say everything at once. Don’t let this deter you. As with any new friendship, it will get easier with time.

In your initial letter, it’s also important to include some basic questions regarding boundaries that your penpal might have, in terms of what they feel comfortable talking about (in general or specifically regarding identity) and the restrictions they need to follow in their prison. For more information on this, check out the section entitled LOGISTICS below. Another important thing to include is a clear idea of how often you anticipate being able to write. If it’s one letter per month, for example, that’s fine; just make sure your penpal knows that so that expectations are set from the beginning.
It’s all right if you don’t have much in common at first You could learn a lot from someone whose lifeis very different from your own. and you might even end up discovering commonalities that weren’t apparent in the beginning. Try talking about your own life and things that you like, , and your pen pal will probably want to learn more about what you’ve been up to. Ask your penpal questions about the things they’ve expressed interest in, even if you don’t know much about them yourself. As in other social settings, it could take awhile before you get to know your penpal, but the relationships you form can be really rewarding in the long run. If you're really struggling for common ground, here are a few strategies we've found useful:
- Read the same books and use your correspondence as a long-distance book club.
- Collaborate on art: send a drawing back and forth, and add to it in each letter.
- Tear interesting articles out of magazines or print out blog posts and send them to your penpal.
- Treat your letters like a journal, where you write down what you do each day or each week. Even something that seems boring to you can spark your penpal's interest and give you something to talk about.
Starting a new penpal relationship is always awkward at first. We strongly encourage you to push through the awkwardness and exchange letters for a few months before deciding that it's not a good match That being said, if it really isn't working out, we would prefer that you get rematched rather than dropping out of the project altogether. In that case, let us know, and we will work to re-match both you and the inside penpal. You should write a letter to your penpal, explaining that you’re planning to stop corresponding, but that you wish them all the best. The more notice you can give us of your intentions to stop corresponding, the better. That way we can start working right away to find both of you a new match.
No, we do not screen our inside penpals. We have chosen not to do this for a number of reasons. People serving time have next to no control over how they are represented as prisoners or as individuals. We consider it central to the intention of the project that our inside members have autonomy over how they are represented, and what people on the outside know about them. This is in part motivated by acknowledging the extent of surveillance that incarcerated people are subjected to, and the lack of privacy afforded to them. Running background checks and online searches on our inside penpals contributes to the system of punitive surveillance that we want to resist. Further, we believe that the charges that lead to incarceration can never fully explain the complexities of any case or the systemic forcesthat land people in prison. Our mandate is to offer support for incarcerated gay, queer, trans, and similarly identified people, and this is not contingent on the reason they’re incarcerated.
This is a question we choose not to ask our penpals, and we encourage our outside penpals to wait until this information is volunteered. For many members inside, there can be personal experiences of trauma associated with their reason for being incarcerated. In our experience, this is often information that has been volunteered within the first couple of letters after greater trust has been established. Fundamentally, no matter what the reason, it is your penpal’s decision whether they choose to disclose this information.
One of the things that we hear most often from our inside penpals is how hard it is to find other queer and trans people to relate to. In response, the project has been presented to inside members as connecting them with similar communities outside of prison, even though we recognize that these communities outside are not exclusively made up of people identifying as LGBTQ. Often, sexual identies can be complicated and shifting. Any outside penpal who believes they can “provide a space for communication free of homophobia and transphobia” are welcome to participate. We ask, as we do all of our penpals, that you take the time to familiarize yourself with any of the issues affecting LGBTQ prisoners that you may not be knowledgeable about - our Resource Library can be a good place to start. Don’t be afraid to ask us about anything that comes up in your correspondence that you do not understand. Finally, some members request a penpal that identifies a certain way in their penpal postings. Please respect that.
Many of our outside penpals identify differently than the person they’re corresponding with. Most requests we receive simply ask for penpals who identify broadly as LGBTTQ, and don’t mind how you identify beyond that. Keep in mind that there is a huge range of ways in which someone might identify, and that they may not necessarily understand the terms that you use to refer to yourself. For instance, for reasons that are both generational, class-based, etc .many inside people involved with the project may not call themselves queer or relate to this kind of identity. Similarly, language that you find offensive may not carry the same connotations in a prison context. Approach it with an open mind. This process of learning and understanding is a rewarding part of correspondence and getting to know one another.
Refer to the section on SAFETY below for a more detailed answer.
We try to root our work as a collective in an abolitionist outlook. Abolition, to us, refers to a way of organizing that challenges the idea that prisons keep us safe, and works to reduce our collective reliance on prisons. That being said, we encourage individuals with a range of political perspectives to participate in the project and become penpals. We recognize that some perspectives that we hold as a collective and the perspectives among prisoners who participate in our projects will inevitably resonate more with some people than others. It’s important to us, however, that the views and experiences of our outside penpals are as diverse as our penpals on the inside. So, by all means, get involved!

SAFETY

This issue comes up more often than any of us would like. Sometimes, the scope of what we can accomplish is limited and disheartening. Know that regularly writing letters is one of the most important things you can do. It shows the prison administration and other prisoners that someone outside is paying attention to what happens. In some cases, it may be useful to try to intervene on the prisoner's behalf:
a) Ask your penpal what support would be useful for them. It is important that you do not disclose information about their situation without their explicit permission. These cases can often lead to retaliatory punishment, so it is important for your penpal to be in control of the actions taken.
b) Your penpal may ask you to contact the warden, ombudsperson, or legislator. Always send a letter in conjunction with a phone call. Always keep copies of the letters and records of the phone calls.
c) It may be useful to reach out to other prisoner advocacy or civil liberty groups active in the area. Get in touch with us if you want some help figuring out what those may be.
It’s important to note that being out in this context can mean any number of things; your penpal might be out to their cellmate but no one else, to other prisoners but not the administration, or to the administration but not other prisoners. Always keep this in mind when corresponding. For example, don’t mark the envelope in a way which might out your penpal to a mailroom worker or their cellmate; Similarly, don’t send resources from an organization with a return address that might out them. Keep in mind that, in the case of transgender and transsexual prisoners, using their chosen or “non-legal” name on the envelope risks outing them to both prison staff and other prisoners.
The best way to figure this out is to ask your penpal, even if you have to do it in coded ways at first (“people like us,” “my lifestyle”), In our experience, it is generally OK to disclose your own LGBTTQ identity or volunteer your own experience, as long as you aren't presuming your penpal’s.
Also keep in mind that ingoing mail tends to be screened and censored with more frequency than outgoing mail, and that your penpal’s level of outness may change when/if they move prisons.
HIV + prisoners face discrimination, harassment, violence, and medical neglect from other prisoners, as well as from the prison administration. As a result, it is extremely important to respect the confidentiality of someone’s HIV status under all circumstances. If your penpal discloses to you their HIV status, be respectful in your questions. Ask about the information that they are comfortable discussing through mail. Mention that you are aware of the stigma and discrimination regarding a person’s HIV status, and you want to be sure that they are comfortable discussing this. If a person does not tell you that they are HIV+, please do not ask them. It is fine for you to talk about your experience with HIV-related issues, but asking a prisoner about their HIV status is not appropriate. If your penpal is HIV+, and you would like more information on this, the Prisoner HIV/AIDS Support Action Network (PASAN) is a good support. See the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network’s website to learn more about the systemic issues surrounding HIV/AIDS and HCV in prisons. If your penpal is HIV+, and you would like more information on this, the Prisoner HIV/AIDS Support Action Network (PASAN) could be a good support. If you want to learn more about the systemic issues surrounding HIV/AIDS and HCV in prisons see the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network’s website. Also never hesitate to get in touch with us if you have questions or concerns about ensuring your penpal’s safety.
It’s important to keep in mind that any materials of a sexual nature sent to LGBTQ prisoners may face extra scrutiny. Before sending in porn/erotica or any materials with overtly LGBTQ sexual content (or LGBTQ content in general – please see My penpal isn’t out as gay or queer or trans above), make sure to check with your penpal. Only fill resource requests that they explicitly ask for. Be aware of any representation that might make your penpal vulnerable--for instance, any material that could violate prison policy. Something that seems acceptable in your reading of the prison mailroom policy could still be denied and bring repercussions for your penpal. Be particularly cognizant of anything that could be interpreted as referring to minors. Fundamentally, it’s your penpal’s choice toreceive these materials. They will make their own choices about level of risk they’re prepared to assume.
Be aware of the potential repercussions that disclosing incriminating information might have for your penpal. For instance, people who are awaiting release or under parole conditions are commonly under restrictions that prohibit communication with other individuals who participate in “criminal” activity. In some cases, incriminating correspondence could delay release dates or result in rearrest for those on parole. If you realize that you’ve disclosed information in a letter that could incriminate you or compromises your safety in some way, there is not much that can be done to intervene. However, remember that not all letters are read by prison officials and even those that are read will be disregarded in many cases, because the issue is often beyond the scope or mandate of the prison. Contact us if you’re really concerned and we can refer you to appropriate legal advice.
You should first disclose this information to your penpal, since it could have repercussions for them (see I disclosed something incriminating in a letter above ). Corresponding with someone in prison could potentially violate your own parole, so keep this in mind. If you’re not sure about the specifics of your parole conditions, check in with your social worker or another source to get the details. These terms are case-specific and depend on the nature of your release, your relationship to your inside penpal, the reasons for which they are incarcerated, etc.

NAVIGATING THE PENPAL RELATIONSHIP

The initial project description sent to all inside penpals states the intention of the project as creating not romantic or sexual relationships, but rather networks of friendship, support and solidarity. We advise people to set their boundaries early in correspondence. It helps to prevent unwanted undertones from arising. If they do anyway, you can gently remind your penpal of the limits and intentions you expressed at the beginning of your correspondence. Outlined below are a few things to keep in mind:

a) There’s a good chance that your penpal has limited access to representations of queer, gay, or trans experiences. Being interested in your romantic life, even early on in your correspondence, aren’t necessarily an indication of romantic interest.
b) Setting your boundaries can maybe feel awkward or presumptuous, especially early on. One approach is to frame these boundaries in positive rather than negative terms. For instance, instead of simply saying, “I’m not looking for a romantic relationship,” follow with “the reasons I’m excited for this correspondence” or “the areas I’d be excited for us to talk about…”
c) At the same time, consider not relying solely on coded ways of implying your boundaries. Mentioning partners, talking about how much you love single life, or giving your scathing opinion of long-distance relationships can support and personalize that initial potentially-awkward conversation about boundaries. But on their own, these suggestions can hinder honest correspondence and leave you without something tangible to refer to in the future, if you ever need to have a frank conversation about romantic boundaries.

Think about how you would negotiate this relationship if the person wasn't in prison – if you were uncomfortable with romantic undertone in a friendship..

Obviously, relationships change over time, and there’s nothing wrong with letters of friendship developing in a romantic direction. There are power differentials at play that can often be difficult to negotiate, but there are organizations that offer support to partners of prisoners. Send a message if you want us to put you in touch with them.
In part because the project is aimed specifically at LGBTTQ prisoners, and in part because of the intense social and sexual isolation of prisoners, it’s not uncommon for inside members to want to correspond about sex and sexuality. We understand dialogue about sexuality to be a central part of the project and an important strategy for affirming sexual identities. Try to keep in mind the distinction between your penpal’s interest in talking about sex and sexuality generally, and sexual interest in you specifically. Your correspondence can be the only outlet they have to discuss these things. That being said, you should never feel obligated or pressured to discuss sexually explicit information with your penpal. We suggest people set their boundaries early on in correspondence. It helps to prevent unwanted situations from arising. If that happens anyway, you can gently remind your penpal of the intentions you expressed at the beginning of your correspondence.
This issue comes up a lot and, while we can’t ultimately decide for you, here are some points to take into consideration:

a) Don’t send in dozens of unsolicited pictures. Wait for your penpal to request one, or ask them before sending one. You never know if you could inadvertently out your penpal. Follow mailroom restrictions on the material, number, and content of photos.
b) Prisoners are under surveillance all the time. In many states it’s possible to get a picture of any inmate in the system, either online or by contacting prison officials. Sending a picture can be a small gesture toward minimizing the power differences created by this surveillance. It can be a way of establishing trust and familiarity. Your penpal’s interest in knowing what you look like shouldn’t necessarily be read as an indication of romantic or sexual interest.
This is a question that comes up pretty regularly, from outside penpals who want to help but don’t want to find themselves stuck in a difficult situation. In prison, having money on your account is used to buy things like stamps and envelopes, hygiene products, snacks and, in some cases, magazine subscriptions, typewriters, and radios. A lot of things that we consider to be basic necessities are deemed luxury items by prison administrations. Having access to these items helps your penpal maintain some diginity, stay in contact with the outside world, and share around to make friends. Prisoners put money on their account either through working (prisoners in Canada make up to $6.90 for a full day of work) or receiving money from family and friends. LGBTQ prisoners are often at a particular financial disadvantage.Those in protective custody--solitary confinement as “protection” from being targeted by homophobic or transphobic assaults--are often ineligible for work programs, and many of our members have very little contact or support from family members.

We would encourage you to think about how you interact with other friendships that are marked by large financial differences - sometimes you’ll pay for a coffee or a meal, but if a relationship becomes exclusively about constantly paying for someone, it probably won’t last too long. You should never feel the pressure to provide finanical support that makes you uncomfortable. In our experience, these situations have been relatively easy to address by simply telling someone that you are unable to provide the financial support they’re requesting. If you do decide to offer financial support, we suggest being really clear with your penpal, as well as yourself, about the extent of your support, establishing clear parameters about what you’re able to provide and whether or not you’ll can do this again in the future. If you’re having trouble navigating this, get in touch with us.
Sometimes you might not have time or resources to write as many letters as you receive from your penpal. This is okay! To avoid feeling guilty,check in with your penpal, explaining that you are only able to write x times (e.g. once per month, once per week or however often it is you feel comfortable). Say that you are happy to receive their letters but they should not expect to hear back as regularly. This way, no one will be disappointed and the pressure will be off for you to write more than you can. You will avoid burnout by being realistic about the frequency of your letter writing. Sometimes feelings of guilt are hard to avoid, but being clear with yourself about what you are able to take on makes your support stronger and more accountable. It also helps you avoid feeling resentful about your participation in the project or your role as a penpal. It helps to prevent turning letter-writing into an obligation.
In all cases, we rely on participants, both inside and outside of prison, to determine their involvement in the project through self selection. If your penpal identifies differently than you thought,, you can decide whether you want to continue corresponding. There could have been any number of administrative mistakes or lack of clarity somewhere along the process that resulted in this situation. Also keep in mind that people’s gender or sexual identification is often shifting and fluid, and that many members – including your penpal – might experience shifting identities as your correspondence continues. Also keep in mind that sexual identities often function differently in prisons. Many people participating in the program do not necessarily identify within LGBT or queer frames of reference as these exist on the outside, but they are nonetheless still within the mandate of the project. Some people might not even have an identity that fits easily into one word. If you feel uncomfortable continuing correspondence with your penpal for whatever reason, please let us know and we will match up both of you with a different penal.
You don’t have to disclose your home address in order to become a penpal. If you live in Montreal, you can use our address as the return address. We will notify you when you receive a letter and you can pick it up at QPIRG Concordia. If you don’t live in Montreal, you canuse a work address, set up a P.O. Box, or make contact with an organization that would be open to receiving and holding mail from your penpal (e. AIDS service organizations, gay/lesbian community centres, etc).
At the project, we strongly believe that the charges and convictions can only go so far in explaining why someone is in prison and their ability to change. Maintaining a regular, supportive connection with someone outside can often be a source of transformation. That being said, we understand that outside people’s personal histories will mean that they may not be the best person to provide this support. We would rather rematch you with someone else in the project than for you to stop writing. If you’re having trouble d deciding whether to keep writing with someone, don’t hesitate to get in touch - we are here to talk through your concerns before you make this decision. Check out the Further Reading for Outside Penpals section for more information about the broader context surrounding criminalization and being a support person to incarcerated people.
If your penpal is released and you want to stay in touch, great! The re-entry process can be just as difficult as the prison sentence, so don’t assume that your support is no longer needed or wanted. It is often incredibly valuable at this difficult juncture. If you do decide to stay in touch with your penpal, definitely let us know if there are ways we can support you or your penpal during there-entry process. If you no longer wish to stay in touch with your penpal, gently communicate this to them and outline your reasons (lack of time, other commitments, wanting to prioritize other people serving time, etc). Use your best judgment and what you know about the person to determine how you want to communicate this. Let us know if you want to be matched up with someone else, and please ensure that your initial penpal has access to all the re-entry support they need. We can point you or your penpal towards resources, so don’t hesitate to ask!

LOGISTICS

There are a number of reasons why your letters might not be getting through. “NH”stands for “not here”, indicating that your penpal was either transferred to another institution or released. Try calling the prison to see if they can tell you where your penpal was transferred or if they were released. (This is also something you can ask us to do, though our workload means that it might take us awhile to get to this task). If your penpal is held in an American prison, you can use the online inmate locator for state or federal prisoners to see if they have been transferred. If the envelope is marked “PO”, this means “parole office” and indicates that your penpal was released, and is now on parole. If you want to get in touch with them, you can try contacting the parole office to which they are assigned (this is sometimes marked on the envelope, or you can call the prison to ask). If the envelope is marked “RTS” this simply means “return to sender” and could indicate any number of reasons that the letter didn’t get through. If the envelope is marked “Refused,” this means that the contents of the letter somehow violated the mailroom policy. There is usually a letter inside explaining why your correspondence was rejected

Here are some tips to ensure that your letters get through as frequently and quickly as possible:
a) Double check that you correctly wrote the address and any number (like a prisoner ID number, bed number, or unit and cell number) assigned to your penpal. You can always ask us to verify this information with our database.
b) Check the specific mailroom policies that exist at that prison. They are usually available on individual prison websites, or on the Correctional Services Canada site.
c) Use a plain envelope, without any stickers or images on it.
d) Make sure that your full name and return address is marked on the envelope (feel free to use a chosen name or pseudonym, and an address different from your home address. See I don’t want to disclose my home address above.)
e) If you are sending any printed resources, sexually explicit materials, etc, include them in a separate envelope from your letter. If those get refused, at least your letter will get through.
f) When sending resources and sexually explicit materials, it’s best to check in with your penpal to ensure that they are able to received them. Do not send unsolicited resources or materials (see I’ve been trying to send porn / erotic materials above for more information).
g) If you find out that your penpal’s address has changed, let us know so we can maintain contact with your penpal ourselves and continue sending resources, our newsletter, etc.
i) If your letter is rejected, appeal to the prison administration only on your penpal’s request, since this could have consequences for them. Don’t hesitate to ask us to intervene if your attempts fall through or if you can’t follow up yourself.

If your letters are still not getting through, you can call the prison mailroom to verify the reason (or ask us to call them). For instance, if your penpal is in solitary confinement or segregation, you might have to wait until their release back into the general population. If you get overwhelmed at any stage of this process, get in touch with us.
Keep in mind that it can take a long time for a letter to get out of prison, and to where you live. If you don’t hear from your penpal for a significant period of time but think they can still receive your mail, ask when the last time was that your penpal sent a letter to you. Include a copy of your address in the letter and ask them to double check. If this doesn’t solve the problem, ask them to send a letter to you via the Prisoner Correspondence Project mailing address. Make sure that your penpal has included the right amount of postage (especially for penpals writing across the US / Canada border); Further, your penpal may have been released or transferred suddenly (see my letters or resources aren’t getting through above). Check with the prison mailroom to see if your penpal is under any restrictions that delays their mail or prevents them from sending mail. . Check in with us to see if we’ve heard from your penpal recently, or if they’ve been getting our newsletters. If you are still at a loss, let us know and we can troubleshoot. Please relay to us any changes in address and contact information!
Inform us if you and your penpal are no longer corresponding. This allows us to touch base with your penpal ourselves, to see if they need any resources, and to ensure that they are matched with someone else without too much delay. Let us know if you would like to be re-matched with someone else as well. Remember, though, that ebbs and flows in correspondence are normal, and if you’re corresponding with someone over the course of a long time, there might be periods when you aren’t writing to one another. We encourage you – if you’re still interested in corresponding – to write to them and see if they want to keep writing (If you do this and are having trouble locating them, write to us or see my letters aren’t getting through above for more information).
Many people will use names that correspond to their gender identity and/or their national or ethnic identity, so this is quite common. In cases that the prison recognizes this “chosen” or “non-legal” name, you should definitely honour your penpal’s identification. Most of the time, however, you will have to use your penpal’s legal name on the envelope–in most cases, this is the only way your letters will reach your penpal. You can address your penpal by their chosen name in your actual letter (also see My penpal isn’t out as gay or queer or trans above for more information). Always remember that using your penpal’s chosen name on the envelope could compromise their safety, so establish the name that you use in your first exchange.
Some prisons have pilot projects that allow prisoners to access email, but these are through special email clients that charge money for messages sent and received. The most commonly of these systems is called JPay. You can check its website to see which states and prisons have agreements with the company. Keep in mind that electronic correspondence is also easier for prison administrations to monitor and keep on file.
Sometimes prisoners who worry about receiving their mailwill ask you to write LEGAL MAIL on the envelope. This is used to designate privileged correspondence between a prisoner and their lawyer. Mail marked in this way is not opened in the mailroom, like most other mail, but must be opened in front of the prisoner. The contents are checked for contraband, but it is not scrutinized to the same degree.

Unless you are your penpal’s lawyer, your letters are not legal mail. In our experience, the consequences of accidentally marking LEGAL MAIL involves the letter being returned with a note saying that it does not qualify as legal mail.
Generally speaking, no. Packages from family and friends are not allowed into most prisons. Books must be sent directly from the publisher (or Amazon). Many prisons have contracts with outside companies who send care packages, and you must order them through these companies. Chek with the prison for the exact restrictions.
This is probably our biggest problem with returned mail. The first step is to read the prison’s mailroom policy and ask your penpal how the policy is applied. Every prison system has a slightly different policy on what is permissible, and even then it depends on who is working in the mailroom on the day that your envelope arrives. What gets refused on one day may get through on another. Here are a few strategies:
a) send items in separate envelopes so that some could get through even if others are rejected. There’s nothing more frustrating than receiving a rejected package of ten items and having to guess which was the offending piece.
b) Include innocuous papers with your package. Case law works particlularly well. Mailroom workers often just flip through a stack of papers to check for contraband, and sometimes miss otherwise “questionable” material.
c) While every prison system is different, there are some general rules: Smutty stories get in more often than pictures. Nudity rarely gets in and penetration never does.
d) Use a sharpie to black out genital areas on any nude pictures. Contoured properly, the pictures can still serve their purpose.
e) Be particularly wary of anything that can be interpreted as involving minors. Make sure that stories have ages explicitly stated, if it is unclear.
This is a problem that members of the organizing collective have as well. Here are a few things s that have helped us become better penpals:

- Sign up with a friend to get a penpal. Having someone to talk to about writing helps integrating the activity into your day-to-day life. Seeing your friend will act as a reminder to write.
- Set up a weekly time when you sit down and write, even if it’s just for 15 minutes at a time. Setting aside one lunch hour or a daily commute for writing can get you into the habit of writing more often.
- Buy a stack of postcards or greeting cards to facilitate sending something more regularly, even when you can’t write a long letter.
- Consider moving your penpal relationship to phone conversations. It will cost more to pay for collect call charges, but a lot of people find it easier to answer a call than to sit down and write a letter.

Also, penpal relationships aren’t for everybody. There are other ways to support the project, like coming to our regular volunteer days, or becoming a monthly sustainer. These are just as important and vital to the functioning of the project without requiring the same level of commitment.