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Pen-Pal Advice---

Here are a few words of advice, when writing prison/jail inmates.:

1.Ask yourself if you feel comfortable about giving your physical home address to the inmate.  If you do not, you might want to establish a P.O. Box number. In today's world of identity theft, it is a good idea for everyone to utilize a P.O. Box.  

2.Call the prison/jail and ask to speak to the inmate's case manager.  Tell the case manager that you will be corresponding with that inmate and ask if they can enlighten you about him/her.  Find out when their projected "out" date is.  -You might also call visitation, to find out what the visitation rules and hours are. (Remember, that the rules can be different for each custody level.)  Also, call the mailroom and find out what the rules are for receiving and sending correspondence.  Can the inmate receive stamps, or does he/she have to buy them from the commissary? (Speaking of the commissary, you may even want to ask the inmate to send you a copy of the commissary list.) In my state (Virginia), IF you want that information you need to call Classification Department of the DOC at the state capital.  The case managers are not supposed to give out information about an inmate without a specific release of information for that person from the inmate. Almost all states have this information on the internet.  Type in the words, "inmate finder" on any search engine, along with the inmate's state.  Some states will put the inmate's crimes and pictures on the net, so look first, on the internet, for almost all states on the
"Corrections Connection"
web site.  

3.Do not begin your correspondence with the inmate by asking, "What are you in prison/jail for?"  --That is considered tacky.  Let the inmate tell you.  -By this time, you may already know (since you have talked to the case manager).  This will let you know if the inmate is prepared to be honest with you.  

4. You may want to ask for a copy of the prison "Commissary List," just to familiarize yourself with the cost of "extra" items, at the prison where your friend/significant other is. A book of stamps and small amounts of money (i.e.: around $20.00), once, or even twice, per month, can be cool, since "the State" usually pays each inmate around $8.50 per month. If the inmate has a prison job, it may only pay from .25 cents- .75 cents per hour! Remember that stamps are used as "currency" in most prisons, so a book of 20 stamps that is sent to your inmate friend does not necessarily mean that you will receive 20 letters! However, if the inmate starts asking for large amounts (for "legal expenses," "I owe this guy some money," etc..) or small amounts of money with regularity, call the case manager and let them know that you are suspicious about their activity. Don't ever let an inmate persuade you to deposit money into another inmate's commissary account or send money to a person that is unknown to you. (This could be an indication of a group-scam.)  --Call the case manager, if you notice any suspicious activity. Do not IMMEDIATELY start sending money.  WAIT BEFORE YOU DO THIS! See the above information.  Don't send money to C/O's, case managers, counselors or personal homes, etc.  

5.  If you are looking for an emotional relationship with an inmate, realize that the person on the outside needs to help the person on the inside. Until the inmate has been reestablished as a productive member of society, you will have to be the person that will need to take the lead.  You will need to make sure that the inmate finds suitable employment, counseling and housing, once they are released.  As much as an inmate might want to take charge in a relationship, you need to realize that you need be the "helper."  

6.      If you are seeking a relationship with the inmate, are you prepared to wait until they get are released?  Remember that a date with the Parole Board does not necessarily mean an "out" date.  Your wait may be lengthy.  

7.      Collect calls from prisons and jails ARE EXPENSIVE!!!  --Can you afford to accept these calls?  Inmates cannot use phone cards or "800" numbers!  The only way that they can call is "collect," through the prison or jail phone system, which charges .50 cents per minute and up.  -A 15 minute phone call can run from $12.00-$15.00, at a minimum.  Most phone systems will cut off, at the 15-minute mark.  The inmate may be given a chance to call back.  Some prison phone systems (like Missouri) do not cut off, so you will have to watch the time, if you want to keep that bill down.  You might want to establish a time and date that you would like the inmate to call. In some areas there are ways to lower the phone bills, but before you try ANY of them make sure you get a copy of the Inmate Telephone policy from the State Department of Corrections (or what ever the department is called in your state).  You can then find out whether the way you are considering is approved by the DOC.  People have been prosecuted, received extra time; forced to pay back "saved" money, lost visiting and phone privileges.  

8. Some inmates are looking for someone to take care of them and are not looking for relationships.  -Learn to differentiate between the two! Some inmates believe that the only way to get financial support is to become emotionally involved with a pen-pal. Let the inmate know that you do not have to be in a relationship in order to care about them!  

9. Be suspicious if an inmate does not want you to visit them.  The reasons for this could be a number of things.---They might find it painful to visit people who are not incarcerated.  They might also be involved in another relationship (gay, straight or whatever..).  You may want to question the case manager if the inmate tells you that "he can't get you on the visitation list" or he/she "has a tattoo that will be discovered at visitation."  

10.  The bottom line is to remember that we are involved in this activity because we care and we want to help our brothers and sisters behind the walls.  If we are going to help them, we cannot let ourselves be manipulated.  Sometimes, we have to practice "tough love," by being the leader and not the follower.  Most people are in prison because of lack of social skills and need to learn new ones.  It is up to us, who care, to teach them.  People who are incarcerated are the "poorest of the poor."  --They will be released into the world with NOTHING.---No housing, no clothing, no job and not even any identification.  When dealing with them, think with your head, but let your heart be your guide!  

Michael S. Anderson