Mail Call in the Prison System

Words diamonds on pages of gold
A message from heaven as their story is told,
“We love you, miss you, pray you’ll be free.”
A treasure-filled envelope just for me.
Please bring memories of joy I once knew
Family, friends and things I would do.
The darkness and pain of my cell will prevail
As my name, again, was not called for mail.

— Fran and Nigel Risner, “Mail Call,” Chicken Soup for the Prisoner’s Soul

The difference between aloneness and loneliness is that aloneness is a choice and loneliness is an imposition. Loneliness is a bitter evil, and the isolation COVID-19 quarantine lockdowns have imposed upon incarcerated individuals is unbearable. Imagine spending literally 98% of your day in a small cell, having no option to go outside or to freely partake in activities.

Ongoing social distancing measures in jails and prisons place an even higher importance on mailing books to help people on the inside combat loneliness.

What Is Mail Call?

Mail call is the process of prison officials delivering mail to an incarcerated person. It may go something like this:

  1. Mail is dropped off at the jail or prison by USPS.
  2. Prison staff open, inspect, and catalogue each piece to make sure it’s going to the correct person.
  3. At around, say, 3:00 pm every weekday, a correctional officer (CO) holding a bundle of mail walks the rows of cells, calling out the name of each incarcerated person who received mail and giving it to them.

Mail call looks different in every jail and prison.

Why Is Mail Call So Important to Incarcerated People?

APBP recently received a thank-you letter from a man named Jasop who is currently incarcerated. In a section of his letter, he describes his experience receiving mail in prison:

“I want you to know your service is a wonderful blessing for a lot of us behind bars. This may sound corny, but it is such a great, uplifting feeling to hear your name at mail call and receive a package with a book that can take you beyond the bars and further than the stars.”

To have your name called for mail means that someone from the outside is paying attention to you, something both the prison staff and other incarcerated people are made aware of as names are spoken aloud. There is a person out there who cares enough about you to send reading materials, cards, letters, postcards, photographs. Your name is called, and you are recognized as an individual—a real person with a real connection to something beyond the prison walls.

Kate Crisp, a formerly incarcerated person who is now executive director of the Prison Mindfulness Institute, cherished mail call when she was in prison. She says, “I used to write every advertiser I could just to get junk mail. It would arrive and men would awe and ooh over the daily stacks of mail and freebie magazines.” Kate did this in order to maintain a connection with the outside world. An imprisoned person’s connection with the outside world may be the only thing keeping their mental health afloat in isolating environments.

Other means of communication in prison, like tablets and phone calls, often cost money per minute of usage. Prisons may remove incarcerated people’s methods of communication by disallowing emails and visitation as a form of punishment. However, it is required by law that people in prison can continue to send and receive USPS mail.

The Declining State of Prison Mail

New prison mail policies in states like Texas and Pennsylvania are changing the way mail gets into the hands of its recipients. Incoming mail is being scanned and digitally forwarded to prison printers, and people on the inside are receiving black and white photocopies of their mail.

Complaints about this new mailing system include delays in receiving mail, missing pages, and illegible letters and pictures. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette described a 62-year-old mother trying to send letters to her son in prison who reported that his “mail has been taking two weeks to arrive, and when he receives photos he finds them distorted or of such poor quality that he can barely make out the faces.”

Stringent mail policies such as these make it all the more difficult for prison book projects like APBP to mail books to people on the inside. Incarcerated people need genuine human contact more than ever due to current social distancing measures. Receiving mail from prison book projects like APBP can be an important way for them to maintain contact with the outside.

Support the Appalachian Prison Book Project

At APBP, we rely on donations and volunteers to provide books and educational opportunities to people on the inside. Get involved today to help us continue challenging mass incarceration and change the lives of those on the inside.

If you or someone you know is interested in learning more about sending mail to jails and prisons, check out these helpful mail tips.


  1. To some especially inmates considered indigent or who have no money for phone calls and maybe who don’t get visits may think mail is their only lifeline to the outside and it is important to them.

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