Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ):
Most of the following FAQs were developed by the Prisoner Correspondence Project, and have been modified to fit our unique initiative. We’re grateful to them for allowing us to share their thoughtful tips with pARTner project participants, and encourage you to check out and support the important work that they’re doing in solidarity with LGBTQ+ people in prison in Canada and the US. If you scroll to the bottom of this page, you’ll find a few other lists of letter-writing best practices that we’ve found to be very helpful. We encourage you to explore them.
Q. Do you do background checks on pARTners inside?
A. No, we do not screen our inside pARTners. We have chosen not to do this for a number of reasons. People serving time have next to no control over how they are represented as prisoners or as individuals. We consider it central to the intention of the project that our inside members have autonomy over how they are represented, and what people on the outside know about them. This is in part motivated by acknowledging the extent of surveillance that incarcerated people are subjected to, and the lack of privacy afforded to them. Running background checks and online searches on our inside pARTner contributes to the system of punitive surveillance that we want to resist. Further, we believe that the charges that lead to incarceration can never fully explain the complexities of any case or the systemic forces that land people in prison. Our goal is to provide a connection to the outside for artists in prison, and this is not contingent on the reason they’re incarcerated.
Q. Is this intended to be just a one-time exchange, or an ongoing one?
A. We hope that this project will result in lasting connections, but of course you are free to opt out at any time. We recommend that if/when you do so, you communicate with your pARTner about this decision. We also ask that you are clear with your pARTner from the get-go about how often they can expect to hear from you. Do your best to avoid making any promises that have the potential to create false hope.
Q. I don’t want to disclose my home address. What are my options?
A. You can utilize a PO box rather than your home address, or any alternate address of your choosing.
Q. I don’t know how to start or what to say
A. Writing the first letter can be intimidating, but you probably have lots of interesting things to share. It’s just a matter of getting started. Because the focus of this correspondence is art, you might want to dive right in by talking about your art, or the artists, writers, or others who have influenced your work, or whose work interests you. You might want to share a few basics about yourself, just as you would when meeting someone in person for the first time. You’ll likely have some questions for your pARTner, and it might be easiest to keep them art-focused at first, as trust can take time to build. Having this conversation with a pARTner might feel awkward initially, because most of us are not used to regularly writing letters. Don’t let this deter you. As with any new friendship, it will get easier with time.
In your first letter, it’s a good idea to include some basic questions regarding boundaries that your pARTner might have, in terms of what they feel comfortable talking about and the restrictions they need to follow in their prison. You’ll find more information about this below. Another important thing to include is a clear idea of how often you anticipate being able to write. If it’s one letter per month, for example, that’s fine; just make sure your pARTner knows that so that expectations are set from the beginning.
Q. How do I make sure my mail gets through to my pARTner?
A. All letters to prisoners go through the mailroom where they are opened and inspected to ensure they follow the regulations which are specific to each prison. In your first letter you should ask your pARTner what the mailing restrictions are for that prison. They may include restrictions on sexual content, number of pages, whether they can receive pictures or photocopies, size of envelopes, etc. Again, these will seem arbitrary and silly. That’s because they are, but it is important that you follow them because they are the difference between your pARTner receiving the letter or not. For your first letter, here are some guidelines to follow to help make sure it gets through:
- Write your first letter on plain paper, in a plain envelope (no stickers, no photos, etc), using black or blue pen. Ask your pARTner about the mail room rules you should be aware of, as they can differ between facilities.
- Include your first and last name with the return address. Most prisons will not give a letter to an inmate if there is not a full name listed, though you might choose to use a pseudonym.
- Be sure to write your return address on the letter itself, in case the envelope gets damaged in the mail room.
- Your pARTner’s address must include their ID number or it will be returned. This should be provided to you when we match you up, if not, ask us right away.
- Make a copy of your letter in case it doesn’t get through on the first try. This is sometimes the case because of mailroom restrictions or because people are transferred frequently.
- If you don’t hear back from the person you’re corresponding with within 4 to 6 weeks, it is possible that they have been transferred or released. Get in touch with us so we can help try to locate their current contact information.
Q. Can I send my pARTner original artwork?
A. Drawings (pencil or pen), yes. For all other mediums, we recommend sending prints or photographs. Using large flat envelopes is ok, but do not send packages.
Q. Can I send my pARTner a care package?
A. Generally speaking, no. Some prisons allow books, but no note included. Packages from family and friends are not allowed into most prisons. Books should be sent directly from the publisher or Amazon (not a third party seller). Many prisons have contracts with outside companies who send care packages, and you must order them through these companies. Check with the prison for the exact restrictions.
When sending packets of art resources remember what restrictions are placed upon art: no frontal nudes, no naked children, no women in chains and no guns are the primary restrictions. Some prisons have restrictions on how many pages are permitted in packets. Prison libraries have very few art books, so photocopying art in color is generally valued. Art history is another source of information that pARTners might appreciate. Another source of material is contemporary art – very little information about what is happening in the outside world of art is accessible from inside.
Remember that the focus of the correspondence is generally art. Think about how you might expand another’s knowledge and experience of art – particularly if that person is living in an information and experience-depleted world where art is deleted from the landscape. As one doctor friend, an opthamologist, who attends to the eye problems of prisoners said – “There is no color anywhere in prison! It is a visual desert.”
Q. Is it ok to ask my pARTner why they’re in prison?
A. This is a question we choose not to ask our pARTner, and we encourage outside pARTners to wait until this information is volunteered, and if and when it is, to allow their pARTner to determine the amount of information they feel comfortable sharing. For many people inside, there can be personal experiences of trauma associated with their reason for being incarcerated, and there are numerous other reasons for wanting to keep it to themselves. In our experience, this is often information that has been volunteered within the first couple of letters after greater trust has been established. Fundamentally, no matter what the reason, it is your pARTner’s decision whether they choose to disclose this information.
Q. My pARTner disclosed to me their reason for being incarcerated, and I now feel uncomfortable or unable to continue corresponding. What do I do now?
A. We strongly believe that charges and convictions can only go so far in explaining why someone is in prison and their ability to change. Maintaining a regular, supportive connection with someone outside can often be a source of transformation. That being said, we understand that outside people’s personal histories might mean that they won’t be best person to provide this support. We would rather rematch you with someone else in the project than for you to stop writing altogether. If you’re having trouble deciding whether to keep writing with someone, don’t hesitate to get in touch – we are here to talk through your concerns and share resources before you make this decision.
In interacting with the prison system, we are always challenged in our views of the world. We could feel inclined to be strong advocates against the system, and yet at the same time believe that the harshest measures should be taken against certain people. This dichotomy is natural but it gives us an opportunity to explore and understand how we really feel.
Q. We’ve been corresponding for a while now, and I don’t think we’re a good match.
A. Starting a new pARTner relationship can be awkward at first. We strongly encourage you to push through and exchange letters for a few months before deciding that it’s not a good match. That being said, if it really isn’t working out, we would prefer that you get rematched rather than dropping out of the project altogether. In that case, let us know, and we will work to rematch both you and your pARTner. You should write a letter to your pARTner, explaining that you’re planning to stop corresponding, but that you wish them all the best. The more notice you can give us of your intentions to stop corresponding, the better. That way we can start working right away to find both of you a new match.
Q. My pARTner is facing danger or violence where they are. What should I do?
A. This issue comes up more often than any of us would like. Sometimes, the scope of what we can accomplish is limited and disheartening. Know that regularly writing letters is one of the most important things you can do. It shows the prison administration and other prisoners that someone outside is paying attention to what happens. In some cases, it may be useful to try to intervene on the prisoner’s behalf:
- Ask your pARTner what support would be useful for them. It is important that you do not disclose information about their situation without their explicit permission. These cases can often lead to retaliatory punishment, so it is important for your pARTner to be in control of the actions taken.
- Your pARTner may ask you to contact the warden, ombudsperson, or legislator. Always send a letter in conjunction with a phone call. Always keep copies of the letters and records of the phone calls.
- It may be useful to reach out to other prisoner advocacy or civil liberty groups active in the area. Get in touch with us if you want some help figuring out what those may be.
Q. What are the potential repercussions of disclosing incriminating information about myself in a letter to my pARTner?
A. Be aware of the potential repercussions that disclosing incriminating information might have for your pARTner. For instance, people who are awaiting release or under parole conditions are commonly under restrictions that prohibit communication with other individuals who participate in “criminal” activity. In some cases, incriminating correspondence could delay release dates or result in rearrest for those on parole. If you realize that you’ve disclosed information in a letter that could incriminate you or compromises your safety in some way, there is not much that can be done to intervene.
Q. I’m recently released/on parole myself and am not sure if corresponding violates their terms of incarceration, or my terms of release.
A. You should first disclose this information to your pARTner, since it could have repercussions for them. Corresponding with someone in prison could potentially violate your own parole, so keep this in mind. If you’re not sure about the specifics of your parole conditions, check in with your PO or another source to get the details. These terms are case-specific and depend on the nature of your release, your relationship to your inside pARTner, the reasons for which they are incarcerated, etc.
Q. The letters I get from my pARTner have a romantic undertone that makes me uncomfortable. What should I do?
A. All inside pARTners are made aware that the intention of the project is to create networks of friendship, support and solidarity among artists, not to spark romantic relationships. We advise people to set their boundaries early in correspondence. It helps to prevent unwanted undertones from arising. If they do anyway, you can gently remind your pARTner of the limits and intentions you expressed at the beginning of your correspondence. Outlined below are a few things to keep in mind:
- Setting your boundaries can feel awkward or presumptuous, especially early on. One approach is to frame these boundaries in positive rather than negative terms. For instance, instead of simply saying, “I’m not looking for a romantic relationship,” follow with “the reasons I’m excited for this correspondence” or “the areas I’d be excited for us to talk about…” Remember that the focus is upon an exchange of art, so it might be helpful to frame conversations within this focus.
- At the same time, consider not relying solely on coded ways of implying your boundaries. Mentioning partners, talking about how much you love single life, or giving your scathing opinion of long-distance relationships can support and personalize that initial potentially-awkward conversation about boundaries. But on their own, these suggestions can hinder honest correspondence and leave you without something tangible to refer to in the future, if you ever need to have a frank conversation about romantic boundaries.
- Think about how you would negotiate this relationship if the person wasn’t in prison – if you were uncomfortable with romantic undertone in a friendship.
Obviously, relationships change over time, and there’s nothing wrong with letters of friendship developing in a romantic direction. There are power differentials at play that can often be difficult to negotiate, but there are organizations that offer support to partners of prisoners. Send a message if you want us to put you in touch with them.
Q. My pARTner wants me to send a picture and I don’t know what to think.
A. This issue comes up a lot and, while we can’t ultimately decide for you, here are some points to take into consideration:
- Because the focus of the correspondence is art, the request for a picture of you can be redirected to a discussion of self-portraits. Send a self-portrait that you created. Talk about why you created the portrait in that medium, style, and composition. It can be the opportunity to discuss self-portraits in general and give examples of self-portraits by other artists that you like
- Don’t send in dozens of unsolicited pictures. Wait for your pARTner to request one, or ask them before sending one. Follow restrictions on the material, number, and content of photos
- Prisoners are under surveillance all the time. In many states it’s possible to get a picture of any inmate in the system, either online or by contacting prison officials. Sending a picture can be a small gesture toward minimizing the power differences created by this surveillance. It can be a way of establishing trust and familiarity. Your pARTner’s interest in knowing what you look like shouldn’t necessarily be read as an indication of romantic or sexual interest.
Q. My pARTner is asking for financial support and I’m not sure what to do.
A. This is a question that comes up pretty regularly, from outside pARTners who want to help but don’t want to find themselves stuck in a difficult situation. In prison, money on your account is used to buy things like stamps and envelopes, hygiene products, snacks and, in some cases, magazine subscriptions, art supplies, typewriters, and radios. A lot of things that we consider to be basic necessities are deemed luxury items by prison administrations. Having access to these items helps your pARTner maintain some dignity, stay in contact with the outside world, and share around to make friends. People in prison put money on their account either through working (click here for state by state info on hourly wages) or receiving money from family and friends. Those in solitary confinement are often ineligible for work programs. Many people in prison have very little contact or support from family members.
If you want to send your pARTner financial support, you can think in terms of art. What art materials would your pARTner want? Most art materials must be sent to your pARTner through an approved vendor, like Dick Blick Art Supplies, and will be sent back if sent directly by you. Find out what, if anything, the prison permits in terms of art supplies. There is a wide range of differences of approved materials not necessarily dependent upon security level of prison. For instance, in some states, maximum-security prisons allow paint in the cells while other states, paints are forbidden even in minimum security prisons.
We would encourage you to think about how you interact with other friendships that are marked by large financial differences – sometimes you’ll pay for a coffee or a meal, but if a relationship becomes exclusively about constantly paying for someone, it probably won’t last too long. You should never feel the pressure to provide financial support that makes you uncomfortable. In our experience, these situations have been relatively easy to address by simply telling someone that you are unable to provide the financial support they’re requesting. If you do decide to offer financial support, we suggest being really clear with your pARTner, as well as yourself, about the extent of your support, establishing clear parameters about what you’re able to provide and whether or not you can do this again in the future. If you’re having trouble navigating this, get in touch with us.
Q. I am getting so many letters from my pARTner and am feeling guilty about not being able to keep up.
A. Sometimes you might not have time or resources to write as many letters as you receive from your pARTner. This is okay! To avoid feeling guilty, check in with your pARTner explaining that you are only able to write x times (e.g. once per month, once per week or however often it is you feel comfortable). Say that you are happy to receive their letters but they should not expect to hear back as regularly. This way, no one will be disappointed and the pressure will be off for you to write more than you can. You will avoid burnout by being realistic about the frequency of your letter writing. Sometimes feelings of guilt are hard to avoid, but being clear with yourself about what you are able to take on makes your support stronger and more accountable. It also helps you avoid feeling resentful about your participation in the project or your role as a pARTner. It helps to prevent turning letter-writing into an obligation.
Remember that time moves very different in prison, and it is hard to surmise how quickly or slowly it moves for your pARTner. Unfortunately, the mail system to and from prison is very slow.
Q. My pARTner is going to be released and they want to stay in touch with/meet me. What should I do?
A. If your pARTner is released and you want to stay in touch, great! The re-entry process can be just as difficult as the prison sentence, so don’t assume that your support is no longer needed or wanted. It is often incredibly valuable at this difficult juncture. If you do decide to stay in touch, definitely let us know if there are ways we can support you or your pARTner during the re-entry process. If you no longer wish to stay in touch with your pARTner, gently communicate this to them and outline your reasons (lack of time, other commitments, wanting to prioritize other people serving time, etc). Use your best judgment and what you know about the person to determine how you want to communicate this. Let us know if you want to be matched up with someone else, and please ensure that your initial pARTner has access to all the re-entry support they need. We can point you or your pARTner towards resources, so don’t hesitate to ask!
JAC has a community group on Facebook where pARTner project participants can share artwork, provide support to one another, and remain connected once pARTners are released.
Q. What if my letters aren’t getting to my pARTner?
A. There are a number of reasons why your letters might not be getting through. “NH” stands for “not here”, indicating that your pARTner was either transferred to another institution or released. Try calling the prison to see if they can tell you where your pARTner was transferred or if they were released. This is also something you can ask us to do, though our workload means that it might take us awhile to get to this task. You should be able to use the online inmate locator for state or federal prisoners to see if they have been transferred. If the envelope is marked “PO”, this means “parole office” and indicates that your pARTner was released, and is now on parole. If you want to get in touch with them, you can try contacting the parole office to which they are assigned (this is sometimes marked on the envelope, or you can call the prison to ask). If the envelope is marked “RTS” this simply means “return to sender” and could indicate any number of reasons that the letter didn’t get through. If the envelope is marked “Refused,” this means that the contents of the letter somehow violated the mailroom policy. There might be a letter inside explaining why your correspondence was rejected.
Here are some tips to ensure that your letters get through as frequently and quickly as possible:
- Double check that you correctly wrote the address and any number (like a prisoner ID number, bed number, or unit and cell number) assigned to your pARTner. You can always ask us to verify this information with our database.
- Check the specific mailroom policies that exist at that prison. They are usually available on individual prison websites.
- Use a plain envelope, without any stickers or images on it.
- Make sure that your full name and return address is marked on the envelope (feel free to use a chosen name or pseudonym, and an address different from your home address. See I don’t want to disclose my home address above).
- If you are sending any printed resources, you could choose to include them in a separate envelope from your letter. If those get refused, at least your letter will get through.
- When sending resources, it’s also best to check in with your pARTner to ensure that they are able to received them.
- If you find out that your pARTner’s address has changed, let us know so we can maintain contact with your pARTner ourselves
- If your letter is rejected, appeal to the prison administration only on your pARTner’s request, since this could have consequences for them.
If your letters are still not getting through, you can call the prison mailroom to verify the reason (or ask us to call them). For instance, if your pARTner is in solitary confinement or segregation, you might have to wait until their release back into the general population. If you get overwhelmed at any stage of this process, get in touch with us.
Q. I don’t think I’m getting my pARTner’s letters. How do I find out?
A. Keep in mind that it can take a long time for a letter to get out of prison, and to where you live. If you don’t hear from your pARTner for a significant period of time but think they can still receive your mail, you can ask them when the last time was that they sent a letter to you. Include a copy of your address in the letter and ask them to double check. Make sure that your pARTner has included the right amount of postage. Your pARTner may have been released or transferred suddenly. Check with the prison mailroom to see if your pARTner is under any restrictions that delays their mail or prevents them from sending mail. Check in with us to see if we’ve heard from your pARTner recently. If you are still at a loss, let us know and we can try to troubleshoot. Please relay to us any changes in address and contact information!
Q. My pARTner and I have fallen out of touch. What should I do?
A. Inform us if you and your pARTner are no longer corresponding. This allows us to touch base with your pARTner ourselves, to see if they need any resources, and to ensure that they are matched with someone else without too much delay if they so desire. Let us know if you would like to be paired with someone else as well. Remember, though, that ebbs and flows in correspondence are normal, and if you’re corresponding with someone over the course of a long time, there might be periods when you aren’t writing to one another. We encourage you – if you’re still interested in corresponding – to write to them and see if they want to keep writing (If you do this and are having trouble locating them, write to us or see my letters aren’t getting through, above, for more information).
Q. I’m using my pARTner’s name, but the prison will only recognize their legal name, which they don’t go by. What should I do?
A. Many people will use names that correspond to their gender identity and/or their national or ethnic identity, so this is quite common. In cases that the prison recognizes this “chosen” or “non-legal” name, you should definitely honor your pARTner’s identification. Most of the time, however, you will have to use your pARTner’s legal name on the envelope –in most cases, this is the only way your letters will reach them. You can address your pARTner by their chosen name in your actual letter. Always remember that using your pARTner’s chosen name on the envelope could compromise their safety, so establish the name that you use in your first exchange.
Q. Does it have to always be letters or can we correspond by email?
A. Some prisons allow prisoners to access email, but these are through special email clients that charge money for messages sent and received. The most commonly of these systems are JPay and Corrlinks. You can check the websites to see which states and prisons have agreements with the companies. Keep in mind that electronic correspondence is also easier for prison administrations to monitor and keep on file.
Q. My pARTner wants me to put LEGAL MAIL on the outside of the envelope. Should I do it?
A. Sometimes people in prison who worry about receiving their mail will ask you to write LEGAL MAIL on the envelope. This is used to designate privileged correspondence between a prisoner and their lawyer. Mail marked in this way is not opened in the mailroom, like most other mail, but must be opened in front of the prisoner. The contents are checked for contraband, but it is not scrutinized to the same degree.
Unless you are your pARTner’s lawyer, your letters are not legal mail. In our experience, the consequences of accidentally marking LEGAL MAIL involves the letter being returned with a note saying that it does not qualify as legal mail.
If you have a question that isn’t answered here, please don’t hesitate to contact firstname.lastname@example.org.