Penpal-ing in Prison

Penpal-ing in Prison

I would like to take a bit and tell you about something that a large number of prisoners do, and have done for a very long time, each for their own reasons. It’s something that has helped me in more ways than I can express, yet it is something so simple and pure, it’s pen paling.

I first learned about pen paling when I served my 29-month sentence in prison work camp. Mail call quickly became the highlight of my day, hoping that I would receive a letter from someone I was writing to. I’ve written to people from all over the world, and I’ve created some very special lifelong friendships with some amazing women who have stuck by my side for the past 15 to 20+ years. It’s those dear friends who have always made sure I have not been forgotten in here, and who have reminded me that I am still a human being, even though I live in such an inhumane place. One of my biggest fears has been to be forgotten in here and lose my reason to exist. I’ve seen so many people in prison over the years who have nobody out there in the free world and it’s caused their existence to be limited to the inside of the prison walls and fences. I may be in prison for a very long time, but this is not where I will stay! I have had one constant goal set since the very beginning of my sentence, and that is to reach my release date and enter the free world once again. The many different people I’ve met over the years of pen-paling have helped to always keep my goal focused and clear in my mind as they are a constant reminder of a world I’m striving to get back to.

Over the years the networking system for inmates to meet pen pals has changed in many ways. It’s gone from word of mouth, to posting ads in magazines and newspapers, to FB’s (Friendship Books), friendship sheets and things like that ‚ÄĒ to placing ads online. Now that the internet is such a daily part of everyone’s lives out there, many companies have created online pen pal sites where inmates can post profiles in the hopes of meeting someone to write to. Technology has also changed the way we are able to correspond with our pen pals. It used to be old fashion snail mail (pen, pencil, writing paper, envelopes and stamps). But now the prison systems have allowed a handful of companies, such as “Jpay.com,” to set up kiosks throughout the living units which enable us to correspond through a secure form of e-mail. We are also now able to purchase touch screen 7″ tablets that allow us to write our messages then upload and send them. We can also download any messages, photos, or 30-second videograms to our tablets so we can view them anytime we want to.

Even though technology has changed the way we are able to pen pal, the purpose for pen paling will always be the same. Instead of waiting in line for mail call now, I log on to Jpay to see if I have any new messages waiting for me and it always brightens my day when I see that one of my friends has written to me, or sent me photos, or a 30-second video to watch. Even to this day, when I read something I’ve received from someone I write to, I completely forget about where I’m at as I’m caught up in the words they’ve sent to me. It’s those small moments of not having to think about this place that help so much.

*** This was written before covid hit, since covid hit I have lost contact with everyone I had been writing to ūüėĒ

Written by: Terry Chandler WA DOC #941311

Rory Andes’s Review of 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

Rory Andes’s Review of 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

After finishing “84, Charing Cross Road” by Helene Hanff, I couldn’t help but be mesmerized by the power of correspondence. Hanff, through her own personal accounts, shares the ability to know the people you’ve never met. As an incarcerated person myself, most new friendships I strike up with the world beyond are through the power of writing, so Hanff’s ability to befriend a whole bookstore staff on another continent speaks volumes of how powerful written communication truly is.

This review comes with a spoiler alert. If you chose to quit reading here any further, rest assured you will be pleased with the language, settings, and quality of character depicted on the pages of this book. Its style and prose is as quaint as an antique bookshop, complete with the commonality of typos. There is a remarkable amount of charisma to be found at 84, Charing Cross Road…

Helene Hanff, a New York writer, takes you on a written relationship with her new friend Frank Doel starting in the fall of 1949. Frank is a shopkeeper for an antique bookstore in post WWII London. Their continued communication is a historical glimpse into how they became decades old friends. Frank and his wife, Nora, along with other workers in the shop like Cecily and Megan, cheerfully struggle with the rationing efforts of a Europe being rebuilt. As a customer, Helene writes often to Frank to get great deals on genuine literary treasures only found in the old world of England and it occurs to her what these people must be going through. She begins to send packages of meats and eggs in a show of solidarity with her new war-torn friends.

84 Charing Cross Road (1987)

Frank ensures that he works diligently at providing her with quality, timeless works and a uniquely British charm. In time, London heals and as Helene’s relationship with Frank and his family ages, Helene gets to become amazingly close with the lives of his wife and children, also. Through the 1950’s and 60’s, Helene keeps a hope that her fortunes will materialize and she could hop a ship to England to visit. As a writer, she lives from one opportunity to the next writing scripts for the newly exploding medium of television. As all things do, there becomes a point in the book where, as a reader, you realize that nothing can last forever. Bad news is conveyed regarding the loss of bookstore’s most knowledgable attendant and condolences are offered through the written word in the most heartfelt and loving manners.

This collection of letters is a short read, but with an extraordinary amount of humanity on every page. I challenge you to not become invested with this stoic cast of characters from a time when society was extremely dignified and cultured, even in its hardships. This book will touch you on a very human level.

*Note from Melissa: This is one of the rare movies that followed the book so closely – much like To Kill A Mockingbird. It is (as of today) available on Amazon Prime Video, and I highly recommend it. If you don’t have Amazon Prime, check your local library for the book and/or movie.¬†

Prisoners and the Importance of Positive Human Touch by Natalie Korman

Prisoners and the Importance of Positive Human Touch by Natalie Korman

Research has shown that physical human touch, particularly positive and supportive touch, is necessary for a healthy emotional state. While many people may be familiar with babies needing to be held and cuddled to develop healthily, humans in general must also receive and give positive physical contact to maintain a healthy emotional state.

Many adults, even¬†those¬†with numerous family and friends may be lacking in positive physical¬†contact.¬†However, incarcerated people are not just among the most socially isolated in our society, they are physically isolated ‚ÄĒ specifically, isolated from positive human touch.

While it may be common knowledge that violence ‚ÄĒ including sexual violence ‚ÄĒ¬†occurs in prison, the gravity of the issue may not be as widely considered.¬†Whether at the hands of their fellow inmates or of prison staff, incarcerated people may only know for years what it‚Äôs like to be touched by people who either have no interest in their wellbeing or outright wish them harm or death.

Some prisoners may be lucky enough to enjoy the spontaneous, positive touch of fellow inmates who are also friends. However, when some nonviolent touch occurs  it may be calculated and particular. Friends or allies may shake hands or even embrace. But every moment of physical contact may be measured in some way to initiate or preserve alliances, or break them, in order to maintain the inmate’s status or survival in prison. And if inmates do engage in nonviolent, consensual sexual activities with each other, it is always illicit, per prison rules.

Incarcerated people are, of course, also denied the ability to touch their loved ones: their family and friends. While some prisoners can touch visitors, if they have visitors at all, some are separated by thick glass. Others still might find visiting hours cruelly unaccommodating. Additionally, highly invasive strip searches are standard procedure before and after a prisoner receives a vist. Millions of opportunities for positive physical contact are poisoned or vanish altogether as soon as a person enters prison.

Shrinking visiting hours and poor opportunities for communication plague inmates and their families. Private companies provide prisons with services for phone calls, video calls, and email (at a profit) and there is growing concern that these extremely expensive digital and phone connections are replacing in-person visiting at some facilities, further distancing prisoners from positive human touch.

While many prisoners may have the dogged support from and frequent contact with family and friends, there are many who do not. Some prisoners, for a variety of reasons, receive few or no letters, phone calls or visits. This can have a devastating effect on the person in prison.

Solving the issue of the lack of positive human touch and supportive human contact for people incarcerated in the United States is a matter of a greater scope than this post can address. But there are ways individuals and institutions can support prisoners within the current context of incarceration even as organizers and activists resist against a system that so thoroughly dehumanizes millions of people.

Writing to a prisoner, for example, is one of the easiest ways to give support. Receiving their calls, sending supplies and books, or visiting them in person is vital to any given prisoner, too. But a letter is usually the easiest way for someone on the outside to reach in. And while letters cannot replace face-to-face contact or ease the lack of positive touch prisoners face, letters can provide an emotional lifeline to someone in dire need of one.

Adopt an Inmate facilitates the connection between incarcerated individuals and the people who wish to lend their support. AI is always looking for compassionate people who want to be there for someone who may have no one else on the outside. Submit this form to start the process.


Natalie Korman is a poet, writer, and editor living in Northern California. She is the author of the poetry chapbook Heliotropics (dancing girl press). In 2017, after being introduced to Adopt an Inmate by a former classmate, Natalie began correspondences with two people through the organization; both are now meaningful friendships. In the spirit of Adopt an Inmate, Natalie believes ongoing healing from institutional and interpersonal harm is a necessary part of the struggle for a more just and peaceful world.


One of Them

One of Them

Dear Potential Adopter,

I want to thank you for taking this first step.

For most of my life I believed what the media and television wanted me to believe. Everyone convicted by the courts is a criminal and should be thrown in prison. The keys should be tossed into a lake somewhere and they should spend the rest of their miserable lives behind bars and barbed wire – so that the rest of us will be protected from them.

I believed them to be sub-human, not worthy of … anything, to be honest. When I would hear about them watching cable TV I was outraged. I mean, who do they think they are? Cable TV? Health care? A decent meal? Bread and water, I say! Don’t spend my hard-earned tax dollars on trying to help some … some convict. They’re nothing but a bunch of animals – sausages, all of them. There’s no reason why they couldn’t have stayed out of prison. My life hasn’t been a bed of roses. Let them suffer, I say.

Then I found myself standing before a jduge, court-appointed attorney by my side. I’ll be okay. I’ve seen the TV shows. I’ve been a firefighter for 26 years. I’m one of the good guys.

My heart leaps to my throat. Eight years. The sound of the gavel makes it official. I’m now one of “them.”

My family still believes as I once did, never having had to experience the judicial process. I’ve been deemed guilty, therefore I am. They turn their back on me and I find myself alone, in a place not meant for me, with no one to talk to. I’m afraid. I’m surrounded by “them.”

Weeks, then months pass. It can’t be. How is this possible? “They” are just like me. I’m no longer afraid. We talk and I realize we’re not so different. Am I becoming an animal? A sausage? Or had I been wrong all these years? Are these convicts actually human? With feelings? And people who care about them? I was so sure of myself. How could I have been so wrong? Me? I’m usually right.

Months turn into years. I now have friends. I share in their happiness, their pain. I read about a birthday, a graduation, a death. We smile, shed tears, but they never ask me about my family, because they know I’m one of them now.

I go into my cell. Bury my head. I don’t want them to know.

You may not think a few words scratched on a piece of paper to be very important but I want to let you know that they can be life changing. You have an opportunity to truly touch another human being in a way that most cannot comprehend. I’ve seen the power of words turn men away from hate and violence and lead them to enlightenment.

You may not think you have anything to offer or anything in common with someone in prison. Trust me. It doesn’t matter. Just knowing you took the time to write is more than enough to form a bond and cause one of “them” to come out from under his blanket and yell, “Hey, Fred! Look what I just got!”


If you would like to drop Kenneth a line, email us at volunteer@adoptainmate.org for his contact info.

Letters From Death Row: You Have Friends Here

I’m still feeling a little down about last week’s execution. They killed Mark Asay on the 24th. I had honestly expected him to get a stay. Florida was using a new drug, etomidate. Mark was the guinea pig. I sincerely believe the courts would let them shoot us full of rat poison, but this is the first time a new drug was used without hearings.

The media said Florida changed drugs because they were concerned that midazolam had the potential to cause unnecessary suffering. This is total bullshit. They changed drugs because no one would sell them midazolam. It is a nationwide problem which, unfortunately, Florida may just have solved.

The media made Mark out to be a white supremacist and this is also false. I can’t say who he was while free, but I’ve known the dude for 26 years and he wasn’t the person they made him out to be on TV. Mark walked up to my bars in ’91 while coming in from the yard. I had just been moved onto a permanent wing, and still wasn’t allowed outside. He said, “You have friends here.” That meant a lot to me.

Prison is a place full of people doing creepy shit, and some of them like nothing better than trying to take advantage of anyone new. Dudes who go out of their way to make you feel welcome, especially when you don’t know what to expect, stand out in my mind.

I also remember singing a Hank Jr. song, Family Tradition¬†with Mark in the visit park. That had to be in ’92, and it stands out as I am not a fan of country.

It took a lot out of Mark when his mom died in a car accident, and by all accounts he had lost the will to live at the end. That is why we still don’t know how the high court may feel about expanding the retroactivity, as Mark did not raise the issue. Still, it is a hell of a thing when a state can execute someone after having their death penalty statute declared unconstitutional twice in the last 18 months.