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When I was in prison, one of the best moments of the day was mail call. Every weeknight, an officer would come onto the wing and hand out inmate mail.
Sometimes, I would get letters or emails from home. Other times, I would receive letters from people I had never met, but who had read about my case and wanted to offer support. Then there were times I would receive the latest issue of Rolling Stone to read or the current Eastbay catalog, so I could order new undergarments. No matter what I received, hearing my name called during a mail call always brought me joy.
Getting letters from family and friends was the absolute best. My brother would send me handwritten letters that were seven pages long, single-spaced, front and back. I lived for those.
Sending your inmate letters is one of the best things you can do during their incarceration. That connection to home is so important, and it can help an inmate get through each day.
I recently contacted my friend Mistie Vance at Chillicothe Correctional Center in Chillicothe, Missouri, to ask her about inmate mail. I wanted to know how it felt to receive letters after ten years on the inside. I also wanted her to answer today’s blog topic: What can you put in prison letters?
In this blog post, Mistie will cover the following topics:
You can’t just write anything you want in prison letters. If you put the wrong things in them, they won’t be received by the intended recipient. Obviously, you don’t want to put items like drugs or other illegal contraband in prison letters, as doing so could result in legal action being taken against you. However, there are a few other criteria that are important to consider when communicating with someone who is incarcerated.
Since it is so important for inmates to feel as normal as possible during their incarceration, friends and family should communicate as often as possible and be honest. How you spoke to the individual when they were on the streets is how you should talk to them now. After all, they are still the same person and so are you.
If you honestly care about the person, you shouldn’t want to encourage further illegal activities upon release, and should be supportive of any steps being taken toward positive change. If you engaged in illegal activities together before the person’s incarceration, you might consider making some changes to your own behavior in order to help your friend or family member in avoiding situations where they might be tempted to reoffend.
Many people are afraid to talk about their true feelings to someone in prison because they don’t want to cause the person to worry, or make them upset in any way. This is actually disadvantageous in many ways. Honesty about how the person’s actions or incarceration makes you feel is important in helping the person understand the full impact of their actions on others, and is motivation for change.
Many times, we don’t fully grasp the effect our negative choices have on others until they stop hiding their true feelings and get completely honest about the situation. Be as open as possible, but try to do so in a way that doesn’t make the person feel like a failure. Make sure your loved one knows that you only want to help them understand the impact their actions have had on others so that they can make positive changes that benefit both themselves and others.
If you are in a relationship with someone who is incarcerated, how you talk in your letters will determine whether your partner gets them, or if they are added to the infamous ” wall of shame.”
If letters are too sexually explicit, the offender is called back to the caseworker’s office and made to sign a paper authorizing the letter to be disposed of. They are also warned that receiving further letters of that nature can result in a conduct violation.
Pictures sent to inmates must be appropriate – especially pictures of children. No pictures of children without a shirt are ever accepted, regardless of the age or gender of the child.
Different institutions have differing rules regarding what is allowed to be included in an envelope with your letter. For example, the prison I just came from won’t allow a letter and pictures in the same envelope. They must be mailed separately.
In certain men’s institutions, handmade cards are only accepted if meeting certain standards. If you wish to send anything with your letter to an offender it is best to find out the rules for that institution beforehand. Anything besides letters, pictures, drawings, and cards is considered contraband and won’t be accepted by the institution.
How you speak and the type of language you use in writing to your friends and loved ones in prison isn’t nearly as important as the message you’re sending. The most important things aren’t the things you can’t say, but the things you can.
Use your letters as an opportunity to build confidence, encourage, and motivate those you care about to use this as an opportunity for growth. With positive affirmation, and an outpouring of love and support, you can help the ones you care about to become the best possible version of the unique and wonderful person they are. There’s beauty in everyone, sometimes we just need someone to reflect it for us to see it.
Do you send letters to a prison inmate? Tell us about your experience below.
Sources: Inmate essay from Mistie Vance, Chillicothe Correctional Center
Natalie earned her Bachelors degree in Journalism from the University of Kansas, and has worked in television and radio during her career. When she was a 19-year-old sophomore at KU, she got her first on-air job as a sports reporter for a CBS-TV affiliate. In 2013, she was sentenced to 30 years in prison for the possession and production of marijuana. She was released in 2017. We've kept her last name off of our website so that she does not experience any professional hardship for her contributions.
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