Contacting political prisoners/prisoners of war (PP/POWs) is often 'hit or miss.' Some prisoners answer all their correspondences regularly and are interested in beginning new correspondences and further direct support. Others may not answer even repeated requests to begin a dialogue and a support relationship for whatever reason. One thing is certain-- if one does not write back, try another, because someone, somewhere needs and would like to receive and develop a principled support relationship. Some PP/POWs receive a lot of mail and cannot possibly answer it all.
-Date all your correspondences.
-Include a return address on the envelope as well as your letter, because the envelope is sometimes discarded before the prisoner receives it. Some prisons don’t allow letters without a return address. A P.O. Box, for instance, can remain a stable contact point between you and PP/POWs even if you move or travel frequently.
-All letters are opened and looked through and some get copied, delayed or stopped. Don’t write anything that could cause significant repercussions if it were passed to authorities.
-Numbering the pages may ensure that all of the pages make it to the prisoner (or at least they will know if one is missing).
-Standard black ink on white paper and white envelopes are the best option to ensure it will meet regulations (when possible we have noted if the particular facility for instance doesn't allow colored paper, envelopes or greeting cards and if you see this information missing on a prisoners profile feel free to add it).
Some people, when they write to prisoners, are afraid to talk about their lives and what they are up to, thinking this may depress prisoners, especially those with long sentences, or that they are not interested in your life. However, any news, whether it’s about people they know or not, is generally welcome. Especially if you didn’t know them before they went to prison, they typically want to know about you, what your life is like, etc. For people imprisoned from our movements and struggles it’s vital to keep them involved in the ongoing resistance– telling them about actions, sending them magazines if they want them, discussing ideas and strategies with them. Some people will just want to keep their head down and not engage in politics until they get out. Feel free to ask if there are any particular subject(s) they’d like to talk about.
Instead of simply volunteering your support, or asking them a broad question like “what kind of support do you need,” try to suggest some things you think you can do to help. PP/POWs, for the most part, need all kinds of support. List resources you have available, contacts you can offer, or talents you possess that could be useful. This will help the both of you to more easily and quickly discover the best kind of support you can offer, and that they also want. Whatever the case may be, it is very important to be honest and upfront about what you can, and are prepared to, do. If you can only offer some kind of support on a limited or inconsistent basis, tell them.
MATERIAL OR MONETARY SUPPORT
Most prisoners can receive photocopied or printed articles as well as photographs (not Polaroids). Sometimes the prison has a page limit, so check the mail regulations before sending a lengthy article. The only prisons that, to our knowledge, currently accept stamps with letters are private prisons run by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). Always include a list of enclosures when sending articles or stamps with the letter. Different prisons always have different restrictions on what can be sent in. If you send something and do not list it in the letter, it may never be seen again. If for some reason it is “unauthorized material,” having it listed in your letter will offer a better chance of having it returned to you and/or giving the prisoner the opportunity to challenge its denial of acceptance.
In your correspondence, you can ask if they could use stamps or funds to buy stamps and how best to get it to them. Most State prisons will allow you to send only postal money orders (available at any U.S. post office), or in some cases have online payment options; check the website for that particular state's prison system or ask the prisoner for more information.
The U.S. Federal prison system (prisoners have an 8-digit ID# with a dash between the 5th and 6th digits) allows money orders to be sent to a central processing facility as well as online deposits using Western Union and Moneygram:
1) U.S. Postal Money Order: Do not send any correspondence with the money order, and checks and cash are not accepted. Make the money order out to the prisoner's name and ID# and send to the processing facility at:
Federal Bureau of Prisons
[Prisoner Recipient's Name, ID#]
P.O. BOX 474701
DES MOINES, IOWA 50947
The Bureau of Prisons will return funds that do not have valid prisoner information to the sender provided the envelope has an adequate return address. Put your name on the “FROM” space so you can cash it in case the money order is returned to you for some reason.
2) Western Union: via in-person location, over the phone (dial 1-800-634-3422 and choose option 2), or online at www.westernunion.com and select “Quick Collect.” A credit/debit card will be required. While there is a fee to this service, funds will post no later than the next morning to the prisoner’s account.
3) Money Gram: via in-person location or go to www.moneygram.com/paybills. Enter the Receive Code for the Federal Bureau of Prisons (7932) and the amount you are sending (up to $300). For the recipient’s account name, use the prisoner's ID# and their last name with no space in between. First-time users will have to set up an account and a MasterCard or Visa credit card is required. While there is a fee to this service, funds will post no later than the next morning to the prisoner’s account.
Most prisons allow magazine subscriptions, as well as books sent directly from distributors or publishers. For example, you can order books from online sources and have them shipped directly to the prisoner. Some radical publishers, such as 4 Struggle Mag, the Earth First! Journal and PM Press, will offer free or discounted items to prisoners.
Some State prisons allow food or clothing packages to be sent or brought in. If you can afford to and are able to bring a package with you on a visit or send one in the mail, check with the prisoner for restrictions on what they can receive, and what they would prefer for you to get. Because prisons usually have restrictions on the amount of clothes or pounds of food a prisoner can receive per month, and at a time, never surprise a prisoner with a package, as it may conflict with packages they are expecting from someone else. Again, the prisoner may not receive frequent packages and may tell you to bring them anytime you can, but until they give you the freedom to do so, be principled, be considerate of them and their conditions.
PHONE AND EMAIL CONTACT
After you get to know each other, you may consider asking the prisoner to call or email with you. Just as the mailing address, and everything else involved in support work, consistency is always a great advantage. Offer a reliable phone number and suggest convenient times for them to call. Often phone calls are limited to 15 minutes and the prisoner has to pay for them by the minute. They typically have a limited number of minutes per month as well. Prisoners are usually limited in the number of contacts they can add to their phone or email list, so do not be offended if they do not have space on their list at the time you ask. Some control unit prisons offer extremely limited phone time, and this may prevent this form of connection from occurring. If the case is that the prisoner cannot afford the “luxury” of making calls, you can send them the prisoner some financial support they can use to put on their phone account.
Connecting with the prisoner(s) you support by phone or email can greatly reduce the time it takes to get things done, and details of support work can often be discussed more easily this way making it at times preferable for both parties. Having that direct line of communication is more expedient than a dialogue through postal mail, however, due to the cost of email and phone a prisoner may still prefer to conduct most of their communication in postal mail.
We hope you find this information useful, and please feel free to edit it with additional suggestions or contact us with your comments or suggestions!