SECTION ONE: TIPS FOR THE INITIAL LETTER
It’s helpful to begin by talking generally about:
Who you are
Why you were interested in participating in the project
What your interests are, and
Where you’d like to see this correspondence go.
It’s also important to include some basic questions in your initial letter regarding boundaries your correspondent might have in terms of what they feel comfortable talking about and what kind of restrictions they have to abide by in their prison. Another important thing to include in your first letter is a clear idea of how often you anticipate being able to write. You are expected to reply within two weeks of receiving a letter.
Below are some more potential topics for discussion:
Classes you’re taking
What a typical day is like for you
Favorite books / movies / TV shows
Which sports teams you follow
Future career plans
Involvement in extracurricular activities
Travel and travel interests
Write your first letter on plain paper, in a plain envelope (no stickers, no photos, etc) to increase the chances of your first letter getting through, and to facilitate making initial contact, until you find out about the specific restrictions of the prison mailroom you’re dealing with. Letters can be as long or as short as you want them to be, but we suggest about a page. Include your P.S. ID on both the envelope and inside the letter
Make a copy of your first letter in case it doesn’t get through right away. This is sometimes the case because people are transferred frequently, etc.
Include the name of the project (Project Solidarity, or P.S.) on the return address to ensure that the letter makes it through to the incarcerated person.
Do not include your last name. Sign your letters with your first name only and put your Project Solidarity ID on the envelope return address in lieu of your name. The Pace Center P.O. Box will serve as the return address, so do not include your personal address either.
Don’t forget to include the correspondent’s prison number. Without the prison number, most letters will not go through.
If you don't receive a reply right away, be patient. Mail moves more slowly behind prison walls. If you don't get an immediate reply, give it some time. However, you are expected to write back within two weeks of receiving a letter.
Be sure that both addresses are legible. Put the last name and correctional ID number of the person you’re writing to on each sheet of paper. This ensures that pages won't get lost when the mail is opened.
We will designate a time to distribute letters as they arrive. This will include SPEAR general meetings Tuesday at 8 pm in Campus Club, Advocacy meetings Thursdays at 5 pm and certain other hours which we will specify later. We will also have monthly dinner meetings to discuss our experiences with letter writing and to improve upon the program as we go along.
SECTION TWO: SOME BASIC DOS AND DON’TS OF LETTER WRITING
We will have a small orientation about mass incarceration and solitary confinement in the United States.
However, we have included a few basic FAQs here about letter writing to people in solitary confinement.
What kind of language do we use to talk about prison?
We do not use the terms “prisoner,” “inmate,” “felon,” or “convict.” We feel these terms are degrading and demoralizing by labelling people with identities they have not necessarily chosen. We instead use terms such as “person currently incarcerated,” “person in prison,” or “incarcerated person.”
Is it appropriate to ask why they’re in prison?
This is a question we choose not to ask our correspondent. For many, there can be personal experiences of trauma associated with their reason for being incarcerated. In the personal experiences of those of us who are part of the core collective, this is often information that has been volunteered within the first couple letters after greater trust has been established. For similar reasons do not ask in your initial letter about conditions in prison or any other abuse they may or may not have experienced or witnessed.
We also request that students do not search for criminal history.
How does confidentiality work?
Please be respectful of privacy when it comes to sharing the content of letters with other people. It is great to talk about Project Solidarity with others, but you should not disclose personal or detailed information with other people about your correspondence, unless you have permission to do so. Do not publish any content of your correspondence online or in print without explicit consent, and do not request for consent to publish unless you have a strong reason for doing so and have been cleared by P.S. leaders to do so. Again, this is not only a privacy issue, but one of trust.
Third party contacts
If you are asked for help with legal, psychological, financial or employment issues, contact us to find out about resources you can recommend to your correspondent in your letters. We will be developing a list of contacts and resources to help with specific circumstances where we are able.
SECTION THREE: NAVIGATING THE CORRESPONDENT RELATIONSHIP
Receiving Difficult Letters
Many people in solitary confinement lose all contact with the outside world. You can help by providing a sympathetic ear. Oftentimes, people in prison vent in letters about other prisoners, staff, conditions, regrets, etc. If you are upset or uncertain about how to respond to something in one of the letters you receive, come to us during designated hours for discussing your correspondence (to be determined) or email us at PSprinceton@gmail.com.
P.S. will be sending a handout with your initial letter strictly defining the parameters and duration of the relationship.
My correspondent is going to be released and they want to stay in touch with / meet me. What should I do?
If they are released from prison, any forms of communication must stop. We do not recommend any correspondents meeting up in person.
Adapted in part from: