In 2021, APBP launched the pen pal program to support incarcerated people in the six states we serve (West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, Maryland, Ohio, and Tennessee) as well as in Pennsylvania, where our organization is involved in higher education initiatives.
Are you interested in writing to someone who is incarcerated in Appalachia? We’d love to have you join our pen pal program!
Why Write to Someone in Prison?
There are many reasons to consider becoming a pen pal to an incarcerated person:
- Help bridge the gap between the “inside” and “outside” worlds
- Help people in prison stay connected with their communities and current events
- Help combat feelings of isolation
- Be a source of human contact
- Make a friend
- Be an activist
- Give someone something to look forward to during mail call
Writing to a person in prison is a commitment. Hearing first-hand about issues and experiences of incarceration may be different than you expect. It’s one of the best ways to support imprisoned people and challenge mass incarceration.
How It Works
You can participate from anywhere, anytime.
When you join the pen pal program, we will send you contact information for a pen pal who matches your request. Then, you can get started writing your first letter.
In your first correspondence, feel free to share something about yourself with your pen pal. Additionally, you can ask about the following:
- Life on the inside
- What they plan to do when they get out (Note: Some people may be in prison for life or potentially be facing the death penalty.)
- Their family and friends
- Their hobbies
- Rules of their prison or jail, specifically about what they may and may not receive in the mail
Keep in mind that your letters can and will be read by prison guards, wardens, or other members of law enforcement. Additionally, it is likely that letters will be opened by APBP volunteers while running this program. Be aware, and use discretion.
All letters are required to have the following information about your incarcerated pen pal on both the envelope and letter itself:
- Legal first name and last name
- Prison ID number
- Cell/bunk location (if listed after ID number)
- Facility name
- PO box, state, zip code
- Your return address (see note)
Note: You can provide your pen pal with your direct mailing address or have them send letters to APBP’s mailing address, which we will forward to you. Either way, remember to include your information on both the envelope and letter as well. These items could be separated.
Join the Pen Pal Program
To sign up for APBP’s pen pal program, fill out our pen pal survey. We will contact you with information about your pen pal as soon as possible.
How to Sign Up a Person in Prison
If you would like to have a friend or loved one who is incarcerated sign up for our pen pal program, please send us their full name, ID number, and mailing address. We will send them a survey to gather details.
Remember that we can only support pen pals in our six-state region as well as in Pennsylvania.
Resources for Pen Pals
You’re not alone. APBP is here to support you as you write to your pen pal.
We try our best to match up pen pals who have similar interests and goals for their correspondence. For example, both you and your pen pal might have said you enjoy reading fantasy novels or writing poetry. Writing about these topics might be a good place for you to begin your correspondence, but starting a conversation and friendship with a new person can still be intimidating.
Consider these conversation starters if you’re not sure where to begin:
- Books: Consider telling your pen pal about your favorite book or something you’ve read recently. Don’t forget to ask them about their favorites or for reading recommendations.
- Music: Write about the types of music you enjoy listening to (or playing/writing yourself). Why do you like this music? How did you initially become interested in it? You can ask your pen pal about their music preferences and experiences.
- Scenery: If you’re able, go for a walk, hike, or bike ride with the intention of noticing interesting things your pen pal might enjoy reading about. Did you see a type of bird you’re unfamiliar with or a funny sign in a shop window? Consider describing that scene to your pen pal.
- Hobbies/jobs: Do you have a hobby (or job) you are passionate about? Consider telling them about an interesting project you’re working on. If you know your pen pal has a hobby or is taking a class, ask them about it. (Although the topic of jobs behind bars can be fraught, your pen pal might volunteer information about a job or other task they take pride in. This can be an interesting topic for future letters.)
- Sports: If you know your pen pal enjoys working out, you can write about your fitness goals or routine and ask them about theirs. You can also discuss a sport or team you both like.
- News: If your pen pal is interested in current events, you could write to them about an interesting news story, podcast, or other media you’ve seen or listened to recently. You can ask them what sort of news and events they are most interested in keeping up with and their thoughts on these topics. (Keep in mind that each prison and jail has different rules about people receiving newspaper clippings, photos, colored ink, etc. Always check the rules before sending anything other than plain letters.)
- Animals: Write about something funny or cute about the antics of a pet or a friend’s pet. Think of it as an analog cat video!
- Art: Draw a picture or cartoon for your pen pal. (Again, always check the institutional guidelines for restrictions on colored ink, paper, stickers, etc.) If you don’t know how to draw, but your pen pal has the talent, ask for guidance to develop your skills.
- Ask: It’s okay to admit you’re not sure what to write about. Ask your pen pal the sorts of things they’d like to discuss. Tell them why you decided to write to a pen pal and ask them the same.
- Share: If you and your pen pal would like to share a reading experience, let us know. We can identify books to ship to your pen pal that you can read as well. We have a lot of great titles available.
Remember, as with all dialogues, one key to a successful relationship is asking questions and paying attention to what the other person has to say as well as sharing your own ideas and experiences.
We would like to host optional, periodic, virtual gatherings for participants to discuss their experiences and share tips for successful pen pal relationships. Pen pals will be notified about these events by our program coordinator. If you are interested in helping facilitate an event of this nature, please let us know.