When a family member is incarcerated, whether its for a few months or several years, it becomes vital to the inmate, as well as other family members, to maintain strong communications. If your family member is housed in a prison out of state, or if you don’t want to take your children to visit their parent while incarcerated, you can build those family bonds through simple letter writing. (Please note, this information is intended for family members, such as spouses, children and parents, of prisoners. It is not intended for inmate pen-pal relationships or other writers. If you are not a family member, there are specific safety guidelines you should research and follow.)
Check with the prison for any specific rules. Information given here are general guidelines and may be different at any prison or facility, or even vary per inmate based on security purposes. Be aware that all of your letters, cards and photos will be reviewed by prison staff, possibly recorded for future reference, and may not be forwarded to the inmate for a variety of reasons. Refrain from sending any original, irreplaceable documents, like photographs, or valuable items.
Think beyond the tangible items you can include and focus on the letter itself. Include jokes, poems, quotes, spiritual quotes and other inspirational messages in your letters. Unlike emails, which we often skim and then delete, inmate letters may be read and re-read multiple times. Quotes and phrases may be shared with other inmates or posted in the cell for daily inspiration. Someone poetry, song lyrics and spiritual verses can eloquently say things for which we can’t find the words. Use these art forms to send messages of hope, love, strength, perseverance, forgiveness and courage to your family members.
Include anecdotes, or short stories, about your daily life. Remind your partner about your favorite date restaurant or pub, describe the changing seasons, or include the funny thing your child said at dinner. These things may seem dumb and inconsequential, but they serve to include your incarcerated loved one in your daily life. Especially for parents who cannot watch their children grow up, including simple stories about your day-to-day life help them feel included.
Be consistent with your letters, even if your family member is not. Sometimes it is hard for an incarcerated person to express in words how they are feeling, or they may not feel they have anything important to say. If you are concerned that the person may not want you to send letters, ask them to respond if they would like you to continue writing.
If your spouse or partner is incarcerated, ask them before sending photos of your children. Some prisoners prefer not to have photos of their children in their cells, and you should discuss as a couple what things to say about your kids, knowing the letters could be read by almost anyone in the facility.
Prisoners enjoy vibrant, colorful letters, and many things are allowed to help you build and maintain relationships with your incarcerated family member. Include photos, a few at a time (but no Polaroids or laminated photos). Postcards of places you and your children visit or postcards of the person’s favorite vacation spots fit easily into your letters. A few magazine clips and newspapers articles in each letter are OK, as are crossword puzzles printed on single sheets of paper.
Items to Avoid
Each prison or jail facility has its own rules governing what items you may or may not include. There are some items all prisons restrict due to safety hazards or other policies. Including these items could keep your letter in limbo, so that it is never received by the inmate. Avoid laminated or padded cards and photographs, and keep cards and photos under 8×10 inches. Do not include yarn, ribbon (or cards with these materials as accents), maps, stickers or adhesives, or stamps. A few magazine or newspaper clips and photos are ok, but excessive clips will cause your letter to be detained. Do not send letters in foreign languages, remove all Internet URL references and email address from materials, and avoid any gang references or symbols, and pornography or nude photos. If you send notebooks, they must not have a metal or spiral binding and all books or magazines must be directly from the publisher (i.e. no black or grey market publications). Finally, no cash or anything that could be considered a weapon may be included.