Flying Over Walls Prisoner Letterwriting Project –
We meet monthly in the SF Bay Area to support current free world letterwriters, distribute letters that have arrived to our po box and orient new free world penpals. Check out our “Upcoming Events,” like our facebook page or email us to join our email list in order to stay updated.
***Please take note that we don’t take direct penpal requests from the inside due to our limited capacity. Please do not give our address directly to folks on the inside if they are not in Northern California, as we will have to send them a letter redirecting them to our national office (address below). We match folks through the b&p list, focusing on these Northern California prisons:
Folks not on the b&p list can send their name, mailing address, a short bio, a short description of what they are looking for in a penpal match and any identity descriptors they want to share to:
Flying Over Walls Guidelines for Free World Penpals
Based on guidelines for Black & Pink, Write to Win Collective and Prisoner Correspondence Project
Thoughts to consider when writing to someone who is incarcerated:
- Why do I want to write to someone in prison? It’s really important that we all take some time to ask ourselves what we want to get out of this pen pal friendship.It is absolutely okay to not have a complete answer, but it is good to ask yourself what your motivations are. We all carry our own assumptions and need to continuously challenge them. Ask yourself what assumptions you might have about people who are incarcerated and how that might impact the way you write. Read this great article – The Radical Power of a Prison Pen Pal
- What is my capacity and commitment?For many prisoners receiving one or two letters from someone promising to correspond regularly, but failing to follow up with further correspondence can be incredibly difficult. Being a pen pal doesn’t have to be an intense time commitment; letters can be as long or as short as you want them to be, so please be upfront about the regularity that you will be able to write —if it’s only once a month, say so. Just don’t set up expectations you will not be able to meet. And if at some point you decide to stop writing, for whatever reason, tell them (and us).
- How might I deal with hearing about the prison system? Writing with folks in prison can often lead to a deep education about what incarceration means that one might not have been expecting. It’s important to have support systems to deal with the stories of trauma you might hear. It is very helpful to do this work in community so you can discuss what you are learning and how you might engage the system as well. Individual pen pal relationships can sometimes lead to a desire to do more advocacy for that individual or to abolish the system as a whole.
- Mail Call often happens in public spaces in the prison. When someone hears their name called by a prison guard during mail call it isa reminder that people on the outside care about that person. It is also message to guards and other prisoners that this person has support and is not forgotten. This can be a vital harm reduction strategy for people who are locked up, especially queer and transgender folks.
The Nitty Gritty: Important Things to Know and Do!
- Do not speak down to, discriminate against, shame, or condescend any penpal you are communicating with. We are about building relationships and validating that our struggles as people of color, activists, sex workers, youth workers, immigrants, anti-capitalist, trans, queer, gender-nonconforming people are intricately connected with prison abolition and prisoner liberation. Please be conscious and aware of power dynamics and actively seek support around the acknowledgment and eradication of these dynamics in your correspondence.
- Remember to be aware of and transparent about your own boundaries.This includes being intentional about what personal information you disclose about yourself in your correspondence (i.e.—immigrant status, age, history of incarceration, sexual preferences, etc.). It is not unusual for mail to be screened in by prisons and jails, so please keep your own safety in mind! Also, there might be some letters which feel flirtatious or sexual. Your safety and comfort are your own, so if you’re okay with sexy letters, keep writing them! If you aren’t, please respond respectfully and firmly to your pen pal. Please voice any concerns you have & your own boundaries with your correspondent in a loving and affirming way.
- Use a first and last name in your letters and when you write the return address (it doesn’t have to be your legal name – for some who work in prison, it may be better to choose a pseudonym). Say in the first letter how you found out about the person. Be sure to place your name and y/our address both in the letter and on the return address piece of the envelope, as some prisons do not allow the envelope to be given to the prisoner.
- Many people that you will be corresponding with are in facilities that are not gender affirming, and some prisons will refuse to accept letters addressed to people if they are using a different name then what was legally assigned to them. Generally, we put legal names and CDCR# on envelopes and preferred names and CDCR# when addressing letters. Please clarify the name and pronounsyour penpal prefers when addressing letters so your letters will not be confiscated.
- On the same note, while many of the people on our lists are living at least somewhat openly about their trans/queer/LGB/ gender-nonconforming identity, ask them first if you can openly discuss these identities and whether or not it’s okay to send them resources and information directly and overtly linked with these communities. Guards routinely read and censor incoming mail.
- If you don’t hear back from the person you’re corresponding with within 4 to 6 weeks, please let us know. It is possible that they have been transferred or released.You can also look up their current address online through the inmate locator (in CA this is at http://inmatelocator.cdcr.ca.gov/. You may wish to do this before writing for the first time, to ensure they have no been moved since sending a penpal request.
- Decide if you want to use your address or ours. If you use yours, be clear about whether your address may be shared with others on the inside who are looking for penpal relationships. If you use our PO Box, you must make sure we know how to reach you to let you know when mail has arrived for you! Please also join our project’s email list and stay connected through events. If you are in the SF Bay Area and regularly attend our letterwriting nights, we can get your letters to you no problem. Otherwise, consider making a small donation to cover stamps so we can mail your letters to you.
- Sadly, no glitter, glue, tape, staples, stickers, paint, whiteout or ribbon is allowed in our letters. Regulations vary by prison, so check the specific prison regulations once you have connected to your penpal.
FAQ for Penpals from Prisoner Correspondent Project.