Advice for Prospective Pen Pals
For Pen Pals Outside
Just like anywhere else, you will find both good people and bad people in prison. You cannot assume that every inmate is evil incarnate any more than you can assume that the milk of human kindness flows in the veins of every person you meet on the outside. Sometimes, people are convicted of crimes even though they are not guilty. Sometimes, people fear that they can’t convince a jury of their innocence, so they plead guilty to a crime they did not commit in order to be assured of a mild sentence. Some people are guilty as charged, but have grown and changed and are not the same people they were at the time they committed their crime. Until you know the specific facts of an inmate’s case, and have gotten to know them through correspondence, it’s hard to know whether the person you are writing to—today—is someone who is just waiting to work you for money, involve you in a money-order scam or whatever, or someone who will be a true friend to you. Unfortunately, frogs are far more numerous than prince(sse)s.
Until you feel you have come to know your pen pal very well, take the same care with your personal information that you would in answering any other kind of personal ad. While your prospective friend may be incarcerated and not expecting release soon, he or she may have associates outside in the free world who live close by. If by some mischance you’ve chosen the wrong person to write to, you don’t want members of a criminal gang to know where you live. You may want to rent a Post Office box or private mailbox to keep your home address private.
Be aware of differences between life outside and life inside. Many inmates have little or no money, and little prospect of earning any. Not all prison systems pay inmates for their work, and wages at those that do are usually only a few cents per hour. Even where there is paid work, there are not enough jobs for everyone who wants one. This means that such things as paper, pens and postage stamps may be more difficult to come by for your pen pal than they are for you. Also, the Postal Service may deliver your letter to the prison in a couple of days, but at some institutions, it may take several weeks for it to be processed by the mailroom and given to the inmate. Allow a couple of months before you decide that you aren’t going to get a response.
Here are a few more suggestions:
- Be aware of DOC and prison regulations regarding inmate mail. These are often available on the Internet at the DOC web site. The rules will vary from prison to prison and from time to time. It’s your responsibility to know what you can and cannot send to your pen pal.
- Keep all your promises. Someone in prison has been shafted numerous times by the system, the prison authorities, other inmates, and sometimes even family and friends. If you want your friendship to prosper, keeping your promises (and being upfront about what you can and cannot do) is paramount.
- Accepting collect calls from inmates can cost up to $25 for a 15-minute call. Some prison telephone providers will also tack on a “billing fee” of $5 or more which is charged to your telephone bill in each month that you have accepted a call from that provider. Other states are more reasonable (e.g., Wisconsin, where a 15-minute call costs about $9). Call the prison and find out who their telephone provider is and what it will cost you to accept collect calls from their institution. Give your telephone number to your pen pal only if you are willing to pay for these calls.
- Do not enter into any business or financial transaction with an inmate. It is illegal for an inmate to operate any kind of business. If you are ever asked to deposit any check, draft or money order and send the money elsewhere, don’t. A fraudulent instrument that has “cleared” can still be charged back to your account weeks or even months later and you can be prosecuted for depositing the bogus item.
- Do not send money except for very modest amounts (e.g., enough for a book of stamps, a pen and a pad of paper). Be wary of anyone who describes any need for significant amounts of cash. If you are inclined to be generous, independently verify everything: call the prison, the attorney, the school or whoever the money is supposedly going to. Ask whether the need as described is legitimate. Don’t put a large sum on the inmate’s books. Instead offer to pay it directly to the inmate’s creditor. If this produces an explanation why it’s better for the inmate to receive cash, assume the request is bogus. Be aware that individuals on the outside sometimes smuggle drugs or other contraband during visits. Keep in mind that a payment to a private individual outside the prison could be for this purpose.
- Write only to those who are seeking someone like you. Respect the stated wishes of the advertiser. If you are married or partnered, don’t write to someone who is clearly focused on finding a long-term relationship. If you are a gay man, don’t write to a man who is seeking “Women” or one who seeks “Anyone,” but makes it clear in the context that he is talking to “ladies” or “looking for a woman.”
- Return photographs unless you are specifically told they’re yours to keep. It’s difficult for inmates to get pictures taken inside, so it’s courteous to get pictures copied (or scan them onto your computer) and return the originals.
For Pen Pals Inside
Keep in mind that there are many inmates looking for pen pals. A good percentage of these are looking to make some money by taking advantage of their new friends. If you want to make it clear that you are for real, keep these points in mind:
- Don’t be too restrictive in who you say you’ll write to. The weirdo with the kinky prison fantasy fixation is going to write you no matter what you say. But if you craft your ad too narrowly, or word it as if it were addressed only to prospective marriage partners, you might miss out on some people who might be good friends, even if they wouldn’t interest you romantically.
- Be yourself. Don’t pretend to be someone you’re not.
- Keep all your promises. Especially if you promise to “answer all.”
- Do not ask for money. The is the quickest way to identify yourself as a scammer. No matter how broke you are, don’t ask. If you do ask, don’t be surprised if that’s the last you hear from your pen pal.
- Do not put your pen pal to work. That is, don’t start off by setting them a list of things to research on the Internet, type for you, or whatever. By responding to you, your pen pal is offering to be your friend, not your secretary.
- Be honest. Do not tell lies, especially about why you are locked up and for how long. If you are not comfortable going into gruesome detail about your conviction until someone gets to know you as an individual, say so. Remember that in many states, your entire file and your picture are just a few clicks away. In all others, the records are still public even if they’re not online.