A Guide by Chris Dankovich
So maybe you’ve known someone who got themselves locked up… a friend, a family member, or perhaps that person on the outskirts of your social circle whom you think about now that they’ve gone away to a very difficult place but you’re not sure how to go about writing them or what you should say if you were to. Maybe you remember that kid from school you shared a class with and found out later on that they robbed a bank or shot someone or something else surprising and you feel for him. Maybe you’ve seen a case on the news or in the paper and the situation causes you to feel a twinge in your heart for them and you want to reach out. Maybe you don’t know the person and don’t know what they’re in prison for, but you’ve heard about them through a friend or read something that person wrote online or saw a profile of them and think that you’d like a pen pal and that they might too. Maybe you’re not like any of those people, but something makes you want to write to someone in prison.
How do I go about it you may ask? What do I say? What should I not say? What to talk about? Will they try to take advantage of me or will I be in danger? Will the person enjoy hearing from me? Will I enjoy writing to them?
I have been in prison for half of my life. When I first came to prison, I was lucky enough to have a few people from my past write me, keeping me afloat while I transitioned to a new way of living. Fourteen years later, I am not in contact with all of them anymore, but in the time since I have been lucky to develop new friendships, new relationships, to have new members of a family I feel a part of. Some of them knew me, or at least knew my family or friends, before I came to prison. Some wrote me out of the blue, one saving my life in the process. Some had one form of relationship or another with someone else in my life and came to reach out to me. And I’ve been extremely lucky to have had my writing make enough of an impact on people to inspire some to take time out of their lives to write to me because of it.
One of the first things you should do is to decide why you want to write someone in prison. Know yourself. There are a lot of reasons people write to us. Is this someone you knew before they went in, or someone you at least have some kind of previous connection to? If not, are you interested in getting to know someone who piqued your curiosity in some way? Do you want to get to know them as a person, or are you looking for information about their crime? Are you offering or trying to be their friend or confidant? More? Are you thinking about trying to guide them down a different path? Are you seeking to give them advice, or change their religion?
At one time or another, I’ve had people write me for all of these reasons. I even once had a daughter of a friend of my father’s write me to list ways that she was better than me. Asking me what my interests were in order to respond how they were stupid and we were not alike at all (later writing me, after I had stopped responding, saying she felt stupid checking her mailbox waiting for a letter from me back).
Prisoners may seem different from other people. Sometimes they might seem scary. Sometimes they don’t seem, well, fully like others. But when writing to someone inside, remember that they’re a person just like anyone else. If you’re writing to offer friendship, let them know. If you’re writing for another reason, let them know that too. Prisoners respect straightforwardness.
You’ve now decided to write to someone in prison, and you’ve decided for yourself why it is you are… now write to them!
Different states have different ways and restrictions for doing so. Many states now offer an email-like service called JPay (www.jpay.com) that allows you to communicate pretty quickly and easily with someone on the inside. All still allow you to write via US Postal Service mail, though different states have different restrictions. In Michigan, for instance, we do not get to keep or even see the envelope a letter arrives in (due to a drug called Sub Oxone which is distributed in “Listerine Mouth Wash”-style gel strips that are easily concealable). We also cannot receive mail on paper that isn’t white and can’t receive pictures except printed on regular copy paper. Some states only allow you to send blank-white postcards, though many states have almost no restrictions at all. Regardless of any of these, make sure you give the recipient the ABILITY to write back by including a return address inside the letter and not just on the envelope.
To write to someone in prison, you’ll need their prison number and address. Most states maintain on their state government website, or the state’s department of correction’s website, a listing of inmates under their jurisdiction, often with their inmate photograph and the name and address of the prison they’re housed in. You may also just be able to Google them to find it. In many places, a letter will not be delivered to the inmate without his/her prison number being on it, so make sure that you include it.
WHAT TO EXPECT AFTER WRITING
There’s uncertainty when reaching out or opening up to someone new… ANYONE new, but probably especially so when that someone is incarcerated. Will they write back? Do they even want to hear from me? What will they be like?
The friendships and relationships I’ve been lucky enough to begin and continue since I’ve been incarcerated are in many ways the most important, fulfilling, and honest ones I have ever had in my life. I chose to write this handbook in honor of those who have changed my life by reaching out to me, but also to help like-minded and good-hearted people know what to do and expect, along with how to protect themselves from any possible negative experiences. Negativity from a few essentially punishes people from taking a chance on someone to bring them positivity…
And I’m lucky if I can help prevent even just a single instance of that from happening.
If you already knew the person you’re interested in writing to, any advice and help I can offer you probably ends in this paragraph. Barring whatever brought them to prison revealing something you didn’t already know about them, chances are they’re pretty much the same person you knew before… except in a fight for their life in a frightening and difficult new environment. Having friends of mine from my past life choose to write to me when I first came to prison helped me get through my first couple years with a better mindset. Having a few friends of mine decide to write to me years and years later out of the blue meant a lot to me… I was honored that they thought about me even so much later. If you were their friend before, and you want to be their friend still, they could probably never use that more than right now.
(I will include a very rare exception but one I’ve seen before: I had a friend and cellmate, who, at 16, shot the man his sister told him molested her. He was an overall caring and happy individual despite his circumstances, but told me the only way he could deal with his time was to completely cut himself off from his life out there. He refused to visit or call anyone on the outside. He would occasionally write back friends and family who wrote him, but not that often.)
The remainder of this is for those who are thinking about reaching out to someone they didn’t know before that person’s incarceration.
Something struck you about this person. Whether you read something they’ve written, seen a profile of them on a website like WriteAPrisoner.com, saw their name on some organization’s outreach program, or you remember something about them from when they were going through court (or some other way or reason), you are considering writing them. Let’s say you decide to write and send a letter or a card, after obtaining their prison number and address, and mail it off. What can you expect?
Chances are they’ll be happy to hear from you, especially if they intentionally put themselves out there (pen pal website, getting published). Because mail may take a while to get to them, both because of distance and because of the inspection-process at the prison (and vice-versa in responding back) understand it may take a few weeks or even a month to receive a response depending on how far away the prison is. When I’ve received letters from people in Michigan who’ve written me on a Monday, many times my response will get to them by Friday. But correspondence with the wonderful Executive Director of Minutes Before Six in California can take two to three weeks. If you are writing from outside of the country, I highly suggest using JPay if available in the state that the inmate is incarcerated in. Otherwise, I’ve found that letters don’t always get to their intended recipient and if they do I’ve had it take upwards of a month and a half to get there.
There is a chance that the inmate doesn’t want to write. I’ve found that most really appreciate it, but if you’ve never corresponded with the person before, please be prepared and understand and accept if it is the case. Some people cannot handle having their mindset taken outside of prison, some may be sick and not have the time or energy, and some (at a much higher rate than on the outside) are illiterate. And occasionally, the person may be in “The Hole” and completely unable to respond.
If they respond, you’ll likely learn a lot about them from the way they do so. Introductions can be difficult in any situation, and they (or you) might not know exactly what to say, or they might go into telling you all about themselves. If you have an interest in it, asking questions about their life in general or what their interests are can help break the ice. If you have another reason for writing to them, they’ll probably appreciate you being upfront about it. Most likely they’ll ask about you some general questions back. Answer to the degree you feel comfortable. Know that they’re probably just curious about whom you are and trying to start a conversation since you decided to write to them.
They may ask you for a picture. Some people are hesitant or uncomfortable sending one. Some people send one right away. I never ask for one if the person writing me doesn’t offer because I know that some people are cautious about it while others are not. I’ve also had situations where I haven’t asked for one, and the person writing me ends up asking “Why haven’t you asked me for a picture of myself?” If I haven’t received one but we’ve developed a pretty solid friendship, then I may ask for one just because I’m curious what the person I’ve been corresponding with looks like. Not every prisoner is patient and waits, however. Generally speaking, most of the time they are asking innocently, just out of curiosity about whom they are talking to. If they do ask and you feel comfortable, send a non-suggestive photo.
Most inmates I’ve talked to really appreciate pictures of any kind. One of my close friends used to send me pictures of things she would see that were interesting… even if they were just a part of her every day life (an oversized Plexiglas chicken… a mountain… a beautiful pond called “The Eye of Heaven”). Being in here, my world can often feel gray, and boring at best. Pictures of any kind, even if the person isn’t in them, bring a little color and a feeling of being included. Though I must say that if someone sent me pictures all the time and never once were they in them, it would make me curious as to why. I just want you, reader, to understand the feelings of the person you’re writing to.
THINGS TO CONSIDER IF YOU ESTABLISH A REPEATED CORRESPONDENCE
Should you decide to write someone in prison, my goal is to help both parties get the most from the interaction as possible. My life has changed drastically for the better because of those who’ve become part of it SINCE my incarceration, and I hope that in some way I’ve been able to give back to them too. Those are the kinds of interactions I want to help promote. In this section, I want to share some things I’d like you to consider, and in the next section, I’ll outline some potential things to watch out for coming from the person on the other end.
The word you hear thrown around in prison more than any other is “respect”. Prisoners live in a world where respect –being a person of your word, dealing with others in a straightforward way– can make the difference between surviving this harsh environment or not. Even among people who didn’t have this attitude before coming to prison; it becomes part of their lifestyle, culture, and viewpoint on the world. An inmate is likely to get cautious or even suspicious if you begin immediately giving advice, asking about the crime they were charged with, get TOO personal, or lay out all of your life’s problems. If, however, these interests are your sole intention, let him/her know right away, and they can choose to respond accordingly.
I have been offered money on occasion to help pay for stamps (and, as friendships have developed, for phone calls). At times I have accepted a little help (I only earn the equivalent of $0.20 an hour), but usually I don’t. If you feel an urge to offer, then do. If you don’t, then don’t. I never ask for anything other than friendship when I’m lucky enough to have someone write to me, though if something is offered I may not decline assistance where I really could use it. Again, please don’t offer anything if you’re not actually willing to give it. In prison, we have little, and when someone tells us they’re going to do something for us we often plan accordingly. Another former cellmate had a friend tell him that $50 was on its way as a birthday gift which was more than my bunkie made in an entire month. So my roommate spent every dollar he had (which was about $25) on commissary… and didn’t hear from his friend for about three months. In the meantime he got a black eye in a fight because he owed a few dollars he couldn’t pay since he had spent all of his own — a fight that happened on his actual birthday. So please, if you’re not sure about offering something, please don’t. A good friend will understand and not expect anything unless you offer it in the first place.
In prison most men are lonely, and the biggest deprivation we face is the mere opportunity for companionship from the opposite sex. If you are a woman writing to a man, I’m going to be honest with you: he is probably going to take anything mildly suggestive as a potential opening. When we completely lack something we can become hyper-attuned to anything that even seems like a glimmer of what we miss. If you are flat-out opposed to the thought of this, please think twice about sending pictures of yourself in a bathing suit, or talking about sex, complaining about your own lover(s), or anything else which could legitimately lead his mind to wander in that direction. Regardless, if you are a woman writing a man in prison, he’s likely at some point to try flirting with you. Either ignore it, or let him know that you’re not looking for that– whatever makes you feel comfortable. Just be aware that many guys miss that type of interaction more than anything else in the world, and so they’re likely to at least try test the waters if it’s possible. And it does happen: relationships can bloom from the cracks in pavement. Men in here often learn how to listen better than they ever would have out there. I’ve been the best-man at two weddings in here, and the chaplain reviews marriage applications every month. I’ve fallen in love in here before, and have held hands with a woman nearly every week for 6-12 hours each visit without letting go (except for bathroom breaks). I’ve had friendships with women that weren’t like that at all. My goal is to merely prepare you for things to consider.
There may or may not be a time, should you become friends, when you want to visit. If you decide to visit, let them know ahead of time–do not try to surprise them. In most states you won’t even be able to: unless you have been previously approved as a visitor. A friend once wanted to “pop in” on me, and drove an hour and a half out of the way merely to be sent away for not being on my approved visitor’s list. I felt bad. Check to make sure what the visiting rules and policies are should you want to do so. On a side note, if you do have a good friendship with someone on the inside, they’d probably be really happy to meet you in person, and prison visiting rooms are probably one of the safest places on Earth.
Lastly, if for whatever reason a time comes when you can’t maintain your friendship, let them know. Unless they do something out-of-line or disrespectful to you, don’t just disappear. Inmates have no access to information and rarely experience kindness being shown to them. That, coupled with the sameness of their days makes it especially confusing when a friendship or relationship of any kind just completely ghosts on them. And things don’t change, so the confusion and feelings of loss last much, much longer than they would to someone on the outside. Additional confusion (especially of the emotional kind), in an already dangerous setting can lead to further danger. Even just saying “Hey, I have a lot going on in my life and can’t focus on being a friend right now. Sorry. Bye,” can prevent any hard feelings and can save stupid-decision-inducing stress. Otherwise, they may spend the rest of their sentence wondering what happened to you…
THINGS TO WATCH OUT FOR
Part of my goal is to help prevent a kind and caring person who has the desire to write a prisoner from coming to regret doing so. I am full of gratitude for those that have made my life better, but not everyone is. I’ve grown up around wolves and I’ve learned their tricks. I want you to be able to protect yourself from them if you need to. Most prisoners are completely appreciative of someone offering friendship (as they know it’s something that doesn’t happen often), and most likely you would never come across any wolves. But in case you do, these are some of the things to watch out for.
Anyone you write to will absolutely ask you some questions about yourself, your life in general, etc… Imagine receiving a letter from a total stranger: you’d be curious about them too. Beware of someone who starts asking questions that are TOO personal. With certain things, realize it may have just been an accident that they asked something that made you uncomfortable… but take it as a red-flag if this is repeated often.
If you’ve developed a correspondence with an inmate, he/she may at some point ask for a book or a magazine, especially if you’ve referenced it in your conversations. That’s pretty normal, and do whatever you feel you should do. But unless you offer it, be wary about being asked for money, ESPECIALLY if there’s an excuse for asking. Unless they’ve gotten themselves into a predicament already with the assumption they’ll have someone to bail them out, they are not going to get stabbed or beaten or killed if you don’t send money. They don’t need money to file legal issues regarding their case or their innocence (while civil suits require fees to file –which can be waived for inmates–criminal cases have no fees in court proceedings). If they have other reasons, consider the request like you would that of a homeless person asking for change–if you feel so moved, ask how you can contribute directly to the cause (for a lawyer, a private investigator to prove a claim, etc.). Apart from that, most prisons have commissary, and if you want to send someone money to help them have a slightly higher quality of life, that is your decision. I consider it tactless to ask without being offered.
Also, be cautious if you are being asked for “a favor” consisting of accepting something and sending it on somewhere else. “Can my friend send you a _____ that you can send to my cousin?” “Can I send you a painting that you can mail to my brother?” I’ve heard of people doing this, and chances are there’s something concealed in there that they want to originate from an “innocent” looking address. Ask why they don’t just do it directly. Also think twice if asked to forward a letter to another inmate, at least one of the same gender. I once wrote a female friend who was in jail for awhile, and I was only able to do so by having my father and a friend forward our letters back and forth… in that case we cared about each other and just wanted to correspond and needed help doing so. But if someone (especially one who isn’t gay) is trying hard to write someone else of the same gender who is incarcerated, they may be trying to pass gang-related or criminal information… and if a crime is involved, you may become an accessory for doing so. So be concerned if asked to forward letters to someone of the same gender, particularly if they are in the same prison system.
Think carefully about getting involved with anyone who says he is an active gang member. Some states have a tremendous amount of prison gangs, in others only a small percentage of inmates are in gangs. Younger inmates are likelier to be actively involved in gangs than older inmates. One thing you can do if you don’t know is ASK; most active gang members who choose that life are proud of their gang and will tell you directly. Some people on the outside have something of a fascination with gang members… they seem to have an aura of power, and demand respect (at least it appears that way to some people). It’s your choice to be involved in their life. However, be warned that established gangs demand loyalty to the gang over anyone else… and the more you become involved in their life, very likely the more they will try to involve you (whether knowing it or not) in that aspect of their life.
While it can happen, most likely the person you’re writing to is not innocent. There’s a great line in “The Shawshank Redemption” where Red (Morgan Freeman) looks at everyone else at the table and says, “Yeah, and they’re all innocent too….” Some inmates have gotten particularly harsh sentences for their crimes when compared to others. (Take for example two 16 year olds I knew who with no prior history of crime, broke into a house. One broke in while it was occupied, the other while it was empty. The one who broke into the occupied house, which is a higher and more serious offense, received six months in prison. The one who broke into the empty house and ended up taking nothing, received five years). But in 14 years in prison, I have only met one person who I actually came to believe was innocent, and I was able to help him win his appeal. So now, at least in this prison of 1,200 people, there are not any I actually believe to be completely innocent. With very few exceptions, and unless the reason you’re writing them is because you heard of their situation and you have reason to believe they might be, the person you’re writing is almost definitely not. That doesn’t mean that they are necessarily a bad person inside, or that they are undeserving of a friend… most people who write to someone on the inside don’t do so thinking that the person they are writing to was innocent of the crime they were put in prison for. While you don’t have to completely rule it out, be suspicious if the person claims total innocence. Unless you’re writing to them already under the assumption they might be innocent, consider letting them know that guilt or innocence has no bearing on your friendship.
Most of these situations are rare, but worth mentioning. If you are fearful of writing to someone… then don’t. It would be silly and probably not very productive for either of you and not very helpful to them if you reach out to them but do so hesitantly. If you are going to write to someone in prison, I encourage you to do so with an open mind, treating them like any other person you could become pen pals with. Be aware of some of the “scams” but know they are unlikely to come up.
TIPS AND RESOURCES
* If writing to someone in prison for the first time, write your letter on white paper using blue or black ink. Some states have restrictions as to this. If you want the person to write you back, make sure you put a return address in the letter itself, as some states will not let the inmates even see the envelope the letter comes in, let alone keep it.
* Make sure to include the inmate’s prison number in the address on the envelope or it may not be delivered to them.
* Search for the website of the Department of Corrections (Department/Bureau of Prisons) of the state in which the inmate you’re writing to is incarcerated in. There is often a link on the state government’s website (for example, go to www.michigan.gov, and you can click on “Department of Corrections”). Many of these websites will provide you with a way of finding out which prison houses the inmate along with the inmate’s prison number (often also listing their “rap sheet” as well). They often also provide the rules and regulations, if any, regarding mail. They will also likely inform you if there is an alternative way of writing (via an email-like service).
* To find a particular inmate, you may be able to just Google them.
|Chris Dankovich 595904
Thumb Correctional Facility
3225 John Conley Drive
Lapeer MI 48446
DeedsMarch 2, 2023 at 8:46 am
I am considering adopting a prisoner and this article was very very helpful. I did not learn a lot that I did not expect but it is very assuring that most of my assumptions were correct. I intend to move forward with this with the hope I can help some individual now and especially when they are released to get back on a good track and NOT return to prison. Thank you again.
UnknownJanuary 2, 2019 at 3:10 pm
Very informative and non biased. This is a great article.
UnknownDecember 31, 2018 at 12:58 am
Thanks for taking the time to write this down, Chris!
MydogsamDecember 28, 2018 at 4:26 pm