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Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Ever get nostalgic about the days of pen pals?

TIPS for writing someone in prison!

Where to begin?!
  • contact RedBird ( and let us know you’re interested in a pen pal!
  • We will send you a list of people in prison who have contacted us and are interested in writing someone.  Our list is varied, and it includes political prisoners, politicized prisoners, people not interested in politics at all, religious people, pagans, men, women, queer, and everything in between!
  • start your first letter!  And always, contact us with questions or concerns.

What should I write about!?

It’s true that writing the first letter can be intimidating, but it’s just a matter of getting started!
  • Begin with talking about who you are, why you were interested in participating in the project, what your interests are, and maybe where you’d like to see this correspondence go.  Ask them a couple questions too, like where they’re from and what they like to do for fun.  You know, all that first date small talk chit chat!  After one or two letters it will become obvious what your pen pal likes to talk about and how, so don’t be too nervous about the first correspondence.  Just keep it simple.
  • Include some basic questions in your initial letter about what kind of boundaries or restrictions your penpal might have to abide by in their prison. Sometimes you can only send a certain amount of pages, write in certain color pens, etc., and these specifications vary from prison to prison.
  • Finally, maybe let them know how often you think you’ll be able to write.  If it’s only once a month or every few months, that’s totally fine, just try set up those expectations from the very beginning!

Formatting: What do I include in a letter?

Prisoners all have numbers associated with their names, and mail rooms WILL NOT accept any letters that do not have the prisoner’s name AND number on the envelope and on one page of the letter.  So, make sure to include your pen pal’s number in the address on the envelope and somewhere at the top of your letter.  
Here’s a sample beginning of a letter:

          Rufius McDermus (name)                          November 12, 2012 (date)
          513-462 (number)                         2 pages(# of pages in letter)   
     P.O. Box 5010(address)                                                     
     Toledo, OH
          Dear Rufius,
    My name is Aberdeen and I got your address from Red Bird.  They said you are
interested in a pen pal, so I thought I’d write you a letter . . .

Logistics: How do I send and receive letters?

  • send the letter just like normal - put a stamp on it, put it in a mail box, and let snail mail work its magic!
  • When you’re first getting to know someone, you can have them write to the Red Bird P.O. Box, which is: Box 1291, Columbus, OH 43216.  Just make sure they write ‘c/o . . . whatever your name is’ on the front so we know who to get the letter to.  If you have your own P.O. Box, your pal can also send letters there if you prefer.
  • We will contact you when you receive a letter.  

What should I NOT write about?!

  • Use your best judgement!  Pictures of guns, bombs, other explosives, etc. aren’t allowed in prison. Don’t talk about illegal or incriminating things.
  • Some people wonder whether to ask why their pen pal is in prison - just let your pen pal bring that subject up if they want to.  If they share the reason and you feel uncomfortable, we have other resources about how negotiate those reasons.  Always feel free to contact Red Bird with questions and concerns about pen pal relationships.

Safety and boundaries
  • Just like any relationship, pen pals need to decide what boundaries they want with each other.  Try to be up front about what you can or can’t provide for your pal, and stick with what you say.  If they ask you for money, legal help, or other services, don’t feel obligated to provide any of those things.  You can always refer pals who ask for these things to Red Bird, and we can try to suggest things or provide help.
  • If your pen pal is facing imminent danger and writes to you about it, there are a few things to do:
a) Be specific about what kind of support you can offer and what you mean by support; being vague can have unforeseen impacts, as support, for instance, to individuals facing disciplinary measures can be read by prison administrations in all sorts of ways.
b) Ask your penpal specifically what support would be useful for them. Don’t make assumptions about what would be good for them. For instance, intervening can sometimes mean that they face further retaliation or persecution — take their lead.
c) Ask the project – email us – with any specific requests of resources that you can’t or don’t have the time to find. We also ask that you always let us know what you hear of situations involving ongoing or continued violence or where your penpal feels they are facing imminent danger. We often have several contacts in the same prison and in situations like this, try and check in with our other penpals at the same prison.

Finally, have a great time!
This is a great opportunity to connect with someone, share about your life, learn about someone else’s, and explore and analyze new ideas and experiences.  Having a pen pal is great -- enjoy yourself!

Red Bird info:

P.O. Box 1291
Columbus, Ohio 43216

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