Here are some tips to help you begin a successful friendship and correspondence:
1. It can be surprisingly easy to find common ground with those in prison if you let go of any preconceptions or stereotypes you may have.
2. In your first letter, explain 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). If you have received a letter from a prisoner, there may be things in it to which you can respond.
a. Introduce yourself, describing your interests, your family, work, and where you live.
b. Feel free to ask questions about prison life, about the person’s interests, where s/he is from, whether s/he has any appeals in progress, etc.
c. Do not ask about the person’s crime; let him/her volunteer that information if s/he chooses.
d. 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.
3. Include your full name and address on the outside of the envelope (front top left corner), as some prisons will not allow mail to be delivered to prisoners without this information. Some prisons are requiring that all incoming mail be in plain white envelopes and with no stickers (not even address labels). To be safe, write your first letter on white paper and use a white envelope with no stickers. You can ask the person you’re writing what the mail restrictions are in his/her facility.
4. If you want to send items to your pen pal, please know that options are limited. There are a few prisons that allow stamps to be sent in; do not send without asking first. Most prisons require that books be sent directly from a third party book-seller such as Barnes & Noble, and most 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. Requests for money are not uncommon, as prisoners often receive very little support, and those 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.
6. You may want to visit this person in addition to writing. That would be great! Through the Death Row Support Project, we hope to encourage visiting, active concern for the person’s court case, support for the family where needed, and any other helpful efforts. As with sending items, visiting rules vary from prison to prison. Be sure to inquire before making plans.
7. If you do not receive a reply within one month, please try writing again. Sometimes mail gets lost, or a situation arises that may prevent the prisoner from responding immediately. If you do not receive a reply after two or three attempts, please contact us.
To help with the coordination of the Death Row Support Project, please note the following:
1. The person whose information we send you 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 you do not want 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 reassign the person. 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) checking in to see 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 want to continue writing to this person.
4. You don’t need to wait till you hear from Dina: If you have questions, problems, or joys to share, please write, call, 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 and money. Checks should be made payable to “Church of the Brethren,” with DRSP in the memo line. THANK YOU!
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.
RED FLAG ITEM:
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. Please know that prisoners are not allowed to have cell phones. Some have asked for help in raising funds to hire a good lawyer; that requires thousands of dollars and is unlikely to be successful, sadly. If you have any questions about a request made by your pen pal, please contact Dina, firstname.lastname@example.org, or Rachel, email@example.com.