So, you want to find a pen pal in prison. You may have found yourself feeling lonely and isolated during this pandemic. Now, you are looking for a way to connect to another human being. So, you start thinking about how you can make a difference in someone else’s life and writing to an inmate sounds like the perfect solution. There are many compelling reasons to write encouraging letters to prisoners, but there are also many dangers to consider before beginning to correspond with a stranger.
I work with thousands of incarcerated men and women every year. Many of them just made a stupid decision that led them to where they are today. These men and women could benefit greatly from healthy connections. Many are hungry for hope to be delivered to them through regular correspondence from people outside the gates. On the other hand, I have helped too many people who have been taken advantage of by prisoners who are still playing criminal mind games. These inmates look for unsuspecting community members and try to build a close, personal, or even romantic relationship with them to con them out of as much as they can get. If you consider becoming a Pen pal with a prisoner, you need to know the difference between these two types of prisoners.
Myths about pen pals in prison
I am blogging about this subject to help dispel both myths: 1. Every inmate will take advantage of you, and 2. Every inmate is just a misunderstood person, and you can help them. Neither of these statements is accurate, and both misconceptions lead to disillusionment and pain. I have a litmus test—a list of questions —I ask anyone who asks me if they should write to an inmate. This list and my tips below will help you decide if this is a good idea for you and shoe you how to establish a healthy line of communication with someone in prison, if you decide to move forward.
Your next step will become more apparent with each answered question. Only you can decide whether it is good to establish a relationship with a prisoner through letter writing. Please be honest with yourself as you consider each question and point below. Do not throw caution to the wind in this area. There is a time to say YOLO and a time to consider carefully the risks involved for you and your family. This decision requires complete understanding and ongoing assessment.
Deciding if it's right for you
When you write to an inmate using these criteria, you can make a massive impact on a life and bring much-needed hope. Suppose you decide to ignore this advice and rush in. In that case, you may be opening the door for much pain in your own life and contributing to someone’s cycle of self-destruction by enabling them to continue in anti-social behaviors. So, you must take the time to evaluate the relationship before starting and continue to monitor it over time.
Here are the questions you need to ask yourself before getting a Pen Pal who is in prison:
- Why do I want to write to an inmate? Be honest. Are you lonely and looking for a romantic relationship? Do you want to encourage someone and provide hope? List all of your reasons for one week.
- What can you commit to doing? Be realistic as you consider how often and how long you can commit to writing letters. Will you find the time consistent over time, or are you just planning to write a letter or two and stop writing?
- How will I communicate? There are several ways to communicate with an inmate, including writing letters, sending emails, engaging in video visits, phone calls, face-to-face visits inside of prison, and possible contact post-release. You must identify which modes of communication you are willing to use to maintain contact.
- Where are you willing to consider getting a Pen Pal from? You must decide if you want a local Pen Pal, regionally near or far away. Once you choose the geographic area, you will have an excellent way to keep your boundaries in place.
- Who are you willing to have contact with? Are you considering writing to someone you know or to a stranger? Does what they have been convicted of matter to you? Deciding who you are willing to be in contact with is a crucial decision as each of these options comes with its own risks and rewards.
Tips for a safe correspondence
If after answering each of these five questions, you have decided to write to a prisoner, here are some tips to help keep you safe. Furthermore, these five tips will allow your correspondence to be as productive as possible.
- Know your intentions. Determine why you are writing. Do you want to be a friend, a life coach/encourager, or a romantic interest?
- Clearly communicate your intentions. Whichever relationship you pursue, keep it clear and upfront with your recipient.
- Set and keep Boundaries. You have already decided what you are looking for as you answered the five questions, so keep your boundaries in place now that you are ready to engage. Do not allow sympathy to cloud your judgment. Write your intentions down and keep referring to them to keep you on track.
- Stop if you start feeling uncomfortable. Watch for warning signs that you are being conned or used, like repeated requests for money, pictures of you, or more personal information. If you are uneasy, tell your Pen Pal that you are uncomfortable and will no longer communicate.
- Take it slow. If you are looking for a romantic relationship (either re-kindling an old flame or lighting a new one), the keyword here is SLOWLY. Take your time to get to know your pen pal. Do not allow yourself to rush into a relationship that seems safe because your partner is locked up. We all put our best foot forward as we get to know someone. Prisoners have the added benefit of time to consider their best approach. Time will reveal their true intentions and feelings, so do not rush. There may be an enriching lifelong relationship in this person, but you cannot know this in a short time.
Writing to prisoners can be an excellent investment for both you and your pen pal if you choose to have a pen pal in prison and you understand your motives. Use these questions and tips to help keep up your relationship safe and your time in writing well spent.
I am rooting for you!