Here are some tips to help you begin a successful friendship and correspondence:
1. In your first letter, share why you are interested in writing to someone on death row. Mention that you received the person’s name from the Death Row Support Project (DRSP). There may be things in the enclosed letter to which you can respond. (Please note that this letter may be addressed to Rachel Gross, DRSP director, or to another DRSP volunteer.)
- Introduce yourself, describing your interests, your family, work, and where you live.
- You can ask questions about prison life, about the person’s interests, where s/he is from, whether s/he has any appeals in progress, etc.
- Do not ask about the person’s case; let him/her volunteer that information if s/he chooses.
- Asking questions provides the other writer something to which they can respond, but do not ask too many at once. Let trust build between you, and always try to share as much about yourself as you ask the other person to share.
- If you feel comfortable doing so, it is much appreciated if you send a photo of yourself and/or your family to your pen pal. And/or you can send photos of your pets or vacation trips. These brighten up the cells and help to make their world feel bigger.
2. Include your full name and address on the outside of the envelope (front top left corner); most prisons will not allow mail to be delivered to prisoners without this information. Mail policies in many prisons are very strict: To be sure your letter reaches its destination, write your first letter on white paper and use a white envelope with no stickers (not even an address label). You can ask the person you’re writing what the mail restrictions are in his/her facility.
3. Requests for money are not uncommon, as most people on death row are not allowed to have jobs. Never feel obliged to fulfill such requests, but do respond honestly and set realistic expectations. If you decide to send money, be sure to find out in what form it should be sent, and if you need to be on a special list to send it. Requests for large sums of money should be carefully evaluated. If you can afford it, money for a tablet or a television is a generous gift, and should only be considered after you have been writing for several months. Please know that prisoners are not allowed to have cell phones. Some ask for help in raising funds to hire a good lawyer; that requires thousands of dollars and is unlikely to be successful, sadly.
4. You may feel more comfortable sending items rather than money. Options are limited. Prisons in Alabama and California are the only ones that allow stamps to be sent in. Most prisons require that books be sent directly from a third party book-seller such as Barnes & Noble, and all prisons provide options for ordering packages of food and/or clothing from pre-approved vendors. Your pen pal can give you the information you need.
5. If you do not receive a reply within one month, please write again. Sometimes mail gets lost, or a situation arises that may prevent the person from responding immediately. If you do not receive a reply after three attempts, please contact us.
To help with the coordination of the Death Row Support Project, please note the following:
1. The person whose letter is enclosed has been told that s/he will receive at least one letter per month for one year from someone. If for any reason you decide not to write after all, PLEASE let us know immediately so that we can give the information to someone else.
2. If at any time you find that you are unable to continue corresponding, TELL US. We can then assign the person a new pen pal. Also, please send us a change of address if you move.
3. In about three months, you will receive an email from our volunteer Dina (email@example.com) asking how your pen pal relationship is developing. Please respond and feel free to ask questions if you have them! She will contact you again at the end of one year to see if you plan to continue writing to this person. If you continue at that point, but later decide to stop writing, please let us know.
4. You don’t need to wait till you hear from Dina: If you have questions, problems, or joys to share, please write or call Rachel at 260-982-7480, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or find us on Facebook. You’ll find other people’s stories and answers to frequently asked questions at www.brethren.org/drsp.
5. If you want to write to an additional person, that is great! Please wait until your first correspondence is established so that you know what the flow of it will be. If your pen pal wants to write more frequently than once per month, it would be better to write to him/her more often, rather than writing to two different people once each month. If you decide to write to more than one person, you can make that request at the three-month check-in or by emailing email@example.com.
6. Contributions for the work of DRSP are needed and welcome, in the form of stamps or money. Checks should be made payable to “Church of the Brethren,” with DRSP in the memo line. Please mail checks to DRSP, PO Box 600, Liberty Mills IN 46946. THANK YOU!