- Become a Pen Pal! If you’re interested in writing letters to or Pen Pal exchange with members of the SWOP Behind Bars community, please fill out our Pen Pal Volunteer Form, and we will connect you; we’ll also send you guidance about pen-pal exchange!
**Note: We have been getting a lot of letters requesting information/advice on drug and alcohol moderation/sobriety and reentry. So if you have lived experience with either, we would especially love for you to get involved!!
SWOP Behind Bars
Mentor By Mail
Updated May 19, 2018
Our Pen Pal program is changing its name! Many of our newsletters and pen pal generated mail was being reused by facilities that were cracking down on prison pen pal programs! Please continue to write to any previous pen pals but be sure to mention you are responding to their request to be a MENTOR and NOT a pen pal! DO NOT USE THE WORDS PEN PAL IN YOUR LETTERS.
Address the envelope as follows
First Name, Last Name, DOC Number
City, State, Zip
Put your RETURN ADDRESS in the top left hand corner.
Try to remember to put the prisoners name and address on the actual letter you send and you return address MUST be on the envelope or postcard. It’s not a bad idea to put it on the letter itself too.
If you don’t feel comfortable using your own return address and would like to consider a PO Box – we recommend getting a virtual mailbox. Our favorite is My VPM. The return letters are scanned and you can check your email anytime you like to get your handwritten responses. If you like – you can even have the physical letters mailed to you at a slight additional charge. This service is far less expensive than a traditional mailbox.
● You may use the SWOP-USA mail address to put on the return address and to have correspondence sent to you. That address is:
SWOPUSA- Behind Bars
Attn: YOUR NAME
340 S Lemon Ave
Walnut, CA 91789
You MUST notify us by email at firstname.lastname@example.org with the name you are using in your pen pal endeavors in the SUBJECT LINE so that we are able to forward any mail we receive to you via email.
We receive more than 400 letters a month so be sure you give us notice and the information we need to get your mail sent to you as soon as we receive it.
The Subject Line should say
YOUR NAME – Pen Pal return email address
2018 is a year that many prison and jail facilities are going to be signing up for JPAY electronic mail. Some of these facilities are offering “tablets” with limited internet use to prisoners at no cost and others are charging between $20 and $60. SWOP Behind Bars is trying to negotiate a free or reduced cost for our members. Please ask your pen pal if they have access to electronic mail and if they already have a tablet or access to a kiosk in their prison.
You can sign up for an account at www.JPay.com using an email address and then you can search for your pen pal by using the State they are being held in and their DOC number. You do NOT have to use your regular email account – you can create a specific email for the purposes of electronic mail. You can then purchase electronic “stamps” for slightly less than 50 cents and you can send an email with a return electronic stamp that can only be used to reply to YOUR emails. They do occasionally have “sales” on stamps where you can get and equal amount of free stamps for every one that you buy and then transfer some of those stamps to your pen pal. You can also transfer stamps to the prisoners account for them to use for other emails to their family or friends.
For some of our outside pen pals that might be concerned about using their “work” email addresses, we recommend that you create and use a separate email address than the one you use for your work or regular email.
JPay has an app that you can get on your smartphone or tablet so you will never miss an email from your pen pal. So far we have seen that it is possible to send emails through the TOR browser and we have not yet heard of anyone having trouble using secure email sites like protonmail or hushmail.
DON’T GET REFUSED BY THE
Unless Otherwise noted:
Check the facilities website for mail restrictions such as sending stamped envelopes or writing materials. Every facility is different and their rules change frequently.
The following things seem to be true for all facilities.
● No stickers, glue, confetti or glitter.
● Use white paper
● no larger than legal-size
● Do not draw on envelopes
● If you are able to send envelopes – Do not send envelopes that are “peel and press”. All envelopes being sent into the facilities have to be “lickable”.
● You must have a COMPLETE return address on ALL mail items, including post cards.
● Letters will be returned without full names, addresses, & return addresses:
● You need to include your full name and an address [can be to YOU + ℅your organization/job address; or a P.O. Box.
● Or, for one-time support letters, the SWOP-USA address.] You also need to include their full name & ID #, which is included in the spreadsheet/info we send you!
● Postcards MUST have a complete return address on them. Prisoners LOVE postcards – especially picture postcards from your travels!
INCLUDE IN ALL FIRST
1. How you found out about this person: “I learned about you through SWOP Behind Bars.”
2. Your Boundaries/Your Capacity: It’s 100% okay to only be able to write a one-time support letter, or write once/month. You don’t have to send the person you are writing books or add money to their commissary. But it’s super important to clarify this in your letter! Some ways to phrase this:
3. One-Time Letter “I’m at [event]. Just wanted to drop you a quick, cheerful note. You rock & I’m rooting for you!”
4. [For letter-exchange] “My financial capacity is really limited, but I’d love to [correspond with you & get to know you better / or clarify your $$ boundaries] “I don’t want to set unclear expectations, I’m fairly busy, but am definitely able to write on a monthly basis”
5. A bit about yourself! You’ll include more in a letter that is intended to be an ongoing pen-pal exchange, but even if you’re just sending a support letter, people like to know a bit about who the letter is coming from! Some things might be – age, job, an experience that connects you, a random fact, and/or one or two activities/hobbies.
6. PICTURES ARE APPRECIATED – the prisoners love to be able to “see” who they are writing to. No naked pictures or pornography. Prisoners LOVE to get picture postcards of your travels so don’t hesitate to send postcards from vacations or trips. Don’t forget to include the return address!
7. A personalized touch! You can add a doodle or a handwritten p.s. Why? Because everything in prison is standardised, typed, and institutional, and a personal touch means a ton!
8. Do not forward letters they send you to mail to other people. Especially to other people in prison. THIS IS ILLEGAL. This could get your mail denied permanently and could cause your pen pal to get punished and could even result in additional charges against them and against you.
9. They may ask you to get pictures from their facebook pages and print them out and send them to them. This is fine. Just be sure the pictures are of them or their family members. They may use pictures of themselves to send to other pen pals.
10. They may ask you to contact loved ones that are not in prison. Use your own discretion when doing this.
PLEASE DO NOT SEND POLAROID PICTURES
If an individual asks you for something beyond your capacity (whether commissary support or direct help on reentry or ongoing correspondence or information you don’t have), just be honest that you can’t help with that. It’s okay! If you’re no longer able to pen-pal with someone, that’s also 100% okay! But please tell your penpal. And let us know so we can rematch that person with someone else!
Email us at email@example.com If you get a letter that you find concerning or don’t know how to deal with, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org ! Pen Paling should be a positive experience for everyone — including YOU! And we’re here to help!
You are NOT obligated to send money or books. Sadly – because of the nature of prison life – folks are disconnected from the rest of the world and often have very little support from the outside. In prisons that allow it – and if you are financially able – send stamped envelopes and blank paper. This can make it possible for them to write back to you.
Prisons no longer provide any kind of “free” items for indigent (very poor) prisoners. Pen Pal programs are a “hustle” in prison and although we constantly tell our inside pen pals that we do NOT arrange romantic pen pals, they have been known to continue to try and pressure you to send them money for commissary. Please only do what you feel comfortable doing. If they ask for something specific that you do not know how to respond – suggest they write to SWOP Behind Bars to make their request.
TELL YOUR PEN PAL what you are able to provide and what you are NOT able to provide.
OTHER USEFUL GUIDES:
Christian Pen Pals – FAQs:
Bent Bars Project Guidelines:
Black & Pink Penpal Guidelines:
OTHER NOTES & TIPS:
Mail is screened, so be cautious about how you describe any of your own experiences and any involvement illegal activities. Generally, mail is skimmed but not read in depth unless there is something about your letter that raises a bright red flag.
Connecting is important, but so is keeping yourself safe. We believe in Harm Reduction . So follow your own risk tolerance around this & trust your gut.*
If you want to connect with someone because you share experiences, some ways to do this might be:
Talking about your own work or substance use in past tense. Describing your own experiences/work as that of a friend or family member.
Describing the legal aspects or equivalents of your own work or experiences — whether that is fetish/adult modeling, adult film work, webcamming, stripping, no-sex BDSM or What’s Your Price social-only dates, or having sugar daddies/older wealthier boyfriends for criminalized forms of adult work; or overeating/over-drinking/over-use of or dependence on legal prescriptions prescribed to you/overuse of caffeine.
Say what you do, but don’t go into depth about it.
Yes, we know how incredibly stupid this is. *DO NOT offer someone a job in something that is criminalized or offer to let someone use your space, rent your space, help someone create a website, learn how to advertise, work with someone, or learn how to engage in sex work or find or sell drugs.
We really do not want anyone to be arrested for interstate sex or drug trafficking.
There is a fine grey line between “harm reduction advice” and “non-judgemental attitude” and “promoting drug use/prostitution.” Err on the side of harm reduction/non-judgement. In particular:
It’s always okay to express non-judgement, that you don’t think certain things should be illegal or stigmatized. It’s also always okay to express your opinions, knowledge and beliefs about knowing that doing XXX isn’t the horrific experience people learned about in DARE, or whatever.
Do NOT give specific advice about where to work/how to work/how to evade law enforcement/how to make (more)money doing something illegal. If the person is not asking for “safer” escorting/sex-adult work/drug selling/using advice, DON’T give it. If the person expresses or you sense ambiguousness/lack of desire for “abstinence,” acknowledge challenges and frame it ask keeping safe regardless of whatever they do.