Please keep in mind that this blog often has comments and statements directly from the women on death row. Statements of grief, statements of innocence, statements of regret and sorrow. If bearing audience to these women's feelings, my opinions or those of commenters offends you please do not read on.
Why would you write an inmate pen pal, and where would you start the correspondence with one?
Why Should I Even Consider Writing an Inmate?
Many people are not aware of how dire the situation is in a relatively large part of the penitentiary institutions in the USA due in part to under funding and under staffed facilities. True, those incarcerated are there to do their time, pay their debt to society and that means each cell should be far from a hotel room with room service. It is prison and there are laws to say it must be humane but the cries that reach those who are listening, are horrid ones.
People with severe psychological problems (Self-mutilation, schizophrenia) can be found among the regular inmate population, instead of receiving the proper mental and medical care. Besides this, sometimes the sewers overflow, leaving a big health hazard on whole ranges. Rodents can and do come up via the toilets and on more than one occasion, people have perished while in "The Hole", which is prison slang for solitary confinement.
There are alarm buttons, should there be an emergency.However, these buttons are disabled from time to time, causing people to die from heart attacks or suicides, while the neighboring cell's inhabitant can do nothing but hear the other die.
So, in the midst of all this, one fights for his/her life and sanity, surviving by the minute rather than by day. Also consider the best way to learn how to commit crimes where you won't get caught is in jail. Life becomes nothing but sheer survival. Some honestly do believe -and actually find themselves in a situation where- no one really cares. The outside world becomes a place, which is hostile to them: bottom line, society has spit them out. For those who do get released after a period of time, this frame of mind means everything but rehabilitation. So these people are sent out into a world in which they fend for themselves as in prison, with the feeling society owed them. The debt is reversed and it is far more easily to fall back into crime than get a job and a "normal" life.
This, is where the letters come in. Someone from the outside reaches out a hand, straight through the prison bars, and touches the person on the other side of them. A stranger lets go of stereotypes and is willing to listen, willing to care, willing to befriend. There rests the entire difference and not just for the inmate. The one who corresponds from the outside, is often granted a more empathic and understanding view of the world, and their own lives in general. Counting blessings like their family and their friends they learn, and broaden a horizon they might not have even known existed.
If you're still thinking, "They're not in there just because they picked their nose in public. They committed felonies!", then yes, you're right. They're doing time for the mistakes that they made at an earlier stage. This author is not about to say people shouldn't repent, pay their debt to society and whatnot. But this correspondence can be an essential part of rehabilitation. Would you rather have an inmate who, straight out of jail, goes and steals from your granny, or one who goes out to get a job? YOU can make that difference.
But Is It Absolutely Safe?
That, in part, is in your court. You can take safety measures, to any extent: Take a P.O. box or write under an alias, if that makes you more comfortable. Some people start writing under a fictitious name but let the inmate know about this. Later on they revealed their own name, once a trust and friendship was established. I have always written under my own name and my own address. To me this does create a gap right from the beginning. Think twice.
Decide whether or not to send pictures of yourself or your family. In whatever case, do not do favours involving money orders unless you know exactly what's going on. Sometimes these are used to launder money, so be careful. Decide whether or not you want this person to have your home phone number. You might have a close friendship with an inmate, and trust him with everything. BUT, it is a jail; there are a whole lot of criminals all thrown together in a small space. Address books, letters and envelopes can be stolen, as photos and other things can be.
So if you receive a letter from an inmate saying he got the address off your friend, verify this first. Keep that in mind. When someone starts making you uncomfortable, get out, quit the correspondence and don't be persuaded by begging or emotional blackmail: give in once to someone you are not comfortable with, and they'll know you'll give in again.
Do not let yourself be manipulated: if you know you are easily controlled by another person, think before you get into this. And especially to the women out there, be sure you are over 20 or 21. I started at a young age and was lucky to write with many of the women on death row. I have met a few who weren't on the up and up. If you're young, or you're at a vulnerable point of your life(grieving or recovering from something), think again. This isn't easy. You have to be able to depend on those around you, for support in what you do.
If you are writing to someone of the opposite sex, (or, in some cases, same sex), there is a very real chance that an inmate will become romantically interested in you. It pays off to -in your very first letter- let someone know you are not in this for romantic reasons, or are in a relationship already, with no intentions to break that off. With mutual respect, this will be understood. On the flip side, some of these men are incredibly hunky, sweet guys who got mixed up in a big mess. I know many women who have fallen for inmates and even men on death row and most are very happy. There is something about this type of relationship that a particular type of person flourishes in.
So What Now? Where Do I Start?
If you are sure you want to do this, these are a few places to find inmates who want to correspond. I can always hook you up with someone. I write almost every person I have blogged about here and I am a pro at finding inmates anywhere in the world. I also know who needs a helping hand and who just has their hand out, ya know? Just ask.
Online, inmates can be found at many different sites. Most of them do not ask for a contribution, but hint at donations or clicking on their sponsor's banner. This of course is NOT something you have to do. In general, most addresses are free. They just take a bit of searching on the Internet to find. The best list for these sites, or rather, the most complete, is found by simply searching state departments of correction. However, do remember that anyone can write these men and women: it could be that an inmate has had two or three responses before yours, and since some have a limited amount of stamps per week, this might already be too much.
It really can change lives. YOUR letter really can stop a murder, halt a robber, prevent a rape. Make a change in a persons life with a few strokes of a pen.