5 Ways Allies on the Outside Can Support People in Prison


1. Become a pen pal.

Corresponding with a pen pal helps cut through the isolation of prison and keeps an incarcerated person connected to the outside world. Dozens of websites facilitate pen pal relationships between folks in prison and folks on the outside, but many charge incarcerated people as much as $100 per year just to list an ad on their website. The websites listed below meet the following criteria: a) seem to be well-maintained, b) don’t seem financially exploitative, and c) don’t seem primarily intended for seeking romantic/sexual relationships.

Once you’ve found a pen pal, Black and Pink and the Anarchist Black Cross both provide helpful guidelines on writing to a person in prison.

Black and Pink
Focus: LGBTQ
Cost to incarcerated pen pal: Free
Cost to pen pal on the outside: Free
Minimum age: 18

Christian Pen Pals
Focus: Christian
Cost to incarcerated pen pal: $24 annual membership
Cost to pen pal on the outside: $24 annual membership
Minimum age: None
Notes: Christian Pen Pals is a general pen pal website with a small subset of users who are incarcerated. Membership is not required to read the pen pal ad listings or post an ad; membership is only required to gain access to other users’ email addresses. Because many incarcerated users have published their mailing addresses in their ads, a membership may not be necessary to access that information. It is not required that users be Christian.

Jewish Pen Pals
Focus: Jewish
Cost to incarcerated pen pal: Free
Cost to pen pal on the outside: Free
Minimum age: 18
Notes: All of the incarcerated individuals in the registry are Jewish, but it is not required that pen pals on the outside be Jewish.

Lost Vault
Cost to incarcerated pen pal: $5 annually
Cost to pen pal on the outside: Free
Minimum age: 18

Prison Inmates Online
Cost to incarcerated pen pal: $50 for a lifetime membership
Cost to pen pal on the outside: Free
Minimum age: 18
Notes: Prison Inmates Online also hosts an online community of family, friends, and pen pals of incarcerated individuals to share knowledge, experiences, and support.

Prisoner Correspondence Project
Focus: LGBTQ
Cost to incarcerated pen pal: Free
Cost to pen pal on the outside: Free
Minimum age: 18

2. Send books.

Reading doesn’t just help keep boredom at bay; it’s an important opportunity for personal and educational development. In fact, the National Institute of Justice has found that prison-based education is the single most effective tool in reducing recidivism. As an ally, you can donate books or volunteer for an organization that sends books to people in prison who request them. The organizations listed below meet the following criteria: a) serve prisons in at least six states, b) send books to incarcerated folks free of charge, and c) accept book donations by mail as well as in person.

Appalachian Prison Book Project
Location: Morgantown, West Virginia
Serving: Kentucky, Maryland, Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia
Notes: Also accepts donations of office or packaging supplies.

Books to Prisoners
Location: Seattle, Washington
Serving: All states except California
Notes: Due to financial limitations BTP does not send to male prisoners in California. BTP only accepts requests by snail mail. Book donors should check the BTP website before sending books. BTP’s books are all donated, so they do not always have books on every subject or genre. BTP is always in need of financial donations, which can be made online or by mail.

Books Through Bars
Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Serving: Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia
Notes: Also accepts donations of office or packaging supplies.

Chicago Books to Women in Prison
Location: Chicago, Illinois
Serving: Women’s correctional facilities in Arizona, California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Ohio
Notes: Also accepts donations of packing tape.

Prison Book Program
Location: Quincy, Massachusetts
Serving: All states except California, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Nevada, and Texas
Notes: Other items that can be donated include: packing materials, especially Tyvek envelopes; brown paper bags; packing tape; laptop computers; shipping tape dispensers; Sharpies; photocopying services; office chairs; and gift certificates to OfficeMax, Staples, and other office supply stores.

Some organizations were omitted from this list because they serve only a couple states. You can find a more complete list of book donation programs here.

3. Listen.

Whether you’re a veteran advocate for criminal justice reform, a new friend to someone behind bars, or just a well-meaning citizen of the world, don’t assume that you understand the daily struggles of being in prison if you have not been incarcerated. Despite our best intentions, cultural narratives and stereotypes about prison life and the people who live it will seep into our consciousness and manifest as assumptions unless we make every effort to educate ourselves.

Remember that those with lived experience are the truest experts and our best teachers. It’s never the responsibility of incarcerated or formerly incarcerated folks to educate us, but when someone is willing to share their story, treasure the opportunity. Ask questions and take the time to really listen. Learn what it means to be a person with a number and without a name. Listening with an open mind and heart is critical to becoming a responsible, effective advocate—and friend.

4. Help them be heard by others.

Like an ally in any other context, one of the most important things someone on the outside can do is elevate the voices and experiences of people who are currently in prison or were formerly incarcerated. If you’re someone who frequently shares articles about criminal justice issues on Facebook or Twitter, this can be as simple as making a special effort to highlight pieces written by people with firsthand experience of the criminal justice system.

You can also volunteer with Incarcerated Voices, a radio project based in Florida and Illinois that offers individuals in prison a platform to express their perspectives on a variety of issues relating to their experiences in the criminal justice system. Incarcerated folks respond to interview questions by mail (for example, “What is it like parenting from prison?”) and Incarcerated Voices broadcasts the submissions over the radio. Volunteering can be done remotely and opportunities include transcribing handwritten letters to a digital format, giving voice to the submissions as a voiceover artist, and responding to contributors with feedback. For more information on how to get involved, go here.

5. Demand criminal justice reform.

Participate in democracy! Ask policymakers to support fairer and more effective criminal justice policies. For example, you can:

Urge your Senators and Representatives to pass two important sentencing reform bills facing Congress right now:

  • Introduced in the Senate, The Smarter Sentencing Act would reduce overly harsh penalties for drug offenses, allow judges greater flexibility in sentencing, and allow individuals sentenced before the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010 to have their sentences adjusted according to the new, more equitable guidelines.
  • Introduced in the House and the Senate, The Justice Safety Valve Act would give federal judges the option of imposing sentences below the “one size fits all” minimum sentences mandated by federal law.

Call California Governor Jerry Brown and tell him you support the California prison hunger strike that began on July 8. Among other demands, the hunger strikers are calling for an end to long-term solitary confinement, where people are locked in their cells for over 22 hours per day. Learn more about the hunger strike and other ways to take action here.

Phone: (916) 445-2841, (510) 289-0336, (510) 628-0202

Suggested script: I’m calling in support of the prisoners on hunger strike. The governor has the power to stop the torture of solitary confinement. I urge the governor to compel the CDCR to enter into negotiations to end the strike. Right now is their chance to enter into clear, honest negotiations with the strikers to end the torture.

Tell your state legislators to adopt racial impact statement [pdf] laws to address the racial disparities in your state prison population. Earlier this year, Oregon passed legislation requiring that a state agency provide a statement evaluating how proposed legislation would affect the racial composition of the state prison population at the request of legislators from both major political parties. Iowa and Connecticut have also passed racial impact statement legislation. Your state could be next!


Farm Bill Amendment Imposing Lifetime Ban on Food Stamps Hits People of Color Hardest

On Wednesday, the Senate accepted a devastating farm bill amendment offered by Sen. David Vitter (R-LA). The amendment would bar anyone who’s ever been convicted of certain violent crimes from receiving food stamps—forever.

It doesn’t matter that it’s been decades since you served your sentence in prison and completed your terms of probation and parole. It doesn’t matter that you were a teenager at the time of conviction and haven’t received so much as a parking ticket since. It doesn’t even matter that you care for dependent children or grandchildren who rely on your benefits to eat. You are banned for life.

Let’s get a couple things straight about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP): 4 out of 5 families receiving benefits have gross incomes below the poverty line ($23,550 for a family of four in 2013), and the majority of those families actually earn below half of the poverty line—that’s $9,765 for a family of three. Furthermore, 87% of households receiving benefits include a child, senior citizen, or disabled person.


The approved amendment would deliver a crushing blow to communities of color, which have disproportionately high rates of poverty and food insecurity as well as greater risk of involvement in the criminal justice system. One in four black or Latino households is food insecure, compared to one in 10 white households. One in three black men and one in six Latino men can expect to be incarcerated in their lifetime, compared to one in 17 white men. As Robert Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities points out, under Vitter’s amendment, “Poor elderly African Americans convicted of a single crime decades ago by segregated Southern juries would be among those hit.”

It’s hard enough for folks with former convictions to secure housing or find jobs; discriminatory policies and practices often leave those with criminal records bereft of options. In many states, federal welfare law already bans anyone who has ever been convicted of a drug-related felony from receiving SNAP benefits or cash assistance (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, or TANF). SNAP helps the most vulnerable members of our communities put food on their tables, and a lifetime ban based on a prior conviction only makes it harder for returning citizens trying to make a fresh start. Households that rely on food stamps frequently have to make tough choices between paying for food, rent, medicine, and other critical expenses; what happens when their benefits are cut? It certainly won’t make our communities any safer. In fact, when people struggling to feed themselves and their families feel like they’re out of options, it may very well contribute to recidivism.

We need to let our Senators know that the farm bill cannot pass with this amendment intact. There are 11 Democrats and 9 Republicans on the Senate agriculture committee; their contact information is below. You can also use the Senate’s online directory to find your Senators’ contact information by state. Not a single Senator objected to the amendment. Contact your Senators and tell them that cutting SNAP benefits for people who have already served their time is a low blow. Tell them that it will likely prove counter-productive to public safety. Tell them that amendment #1056 needs to go.

Members of the Senate agriculture committee:

Debbie Stabenow, Chairwoman (D-MI)
(202) 224-4822
Email her here.

Thad Cochran, Ranking Member (R-MS)
(202) 224-5054
Email him here.

Max Baucus (D-MT)
(202) 224-2651
Email him here.

Michael Bennet (D-CO)
(202) 224-5852
Email him here.

John Boozman (R-AR)
(202) 224-4843
Email him here.

Sherrod Brown (D-OH)
(202) 224-2315
Email him here.

Saxby Chambliss (R-GA)
(202) 224-3521
Email him here.

William Cowan (D-MA)
(202) 224-2742
Email him here.

Joe Donnelly (D-IN)
(202) 224-4814
Email him here.

Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY)
(202) 224-4451
Email her here.

Chuck Grassley (R-IA)
(202) 224-3744
Email him here.

Tom Harkin (D-IA)
(202) 224-3254
Email him here.

Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND)
(202) 224-2043
Email her here.

John Hoeven (R-ND)
(202) 224-2551
Email him here.

Mike Johanns (R-NE)
(202) 224-4224
Email him here.

Amy Klobuchar (D-MN)
(202) 224-3244
Email her here.

Patrick Leahy (D-VT)
(202) 224-4242
Email him here.

Mitch McConnell (R-KY)
(202) 224-2541
Email him here.

Pat Roberts (R-KS)
(202) 224-4774
Email him here.

John Thune (R-SD)
(202) 224-2321
Email him here.

What is the purpose of bail?

This post was originally published 9/27/12 on the Just Policy blog.

Let’s clear something up right away: Bail and money bail are not the same thing. Bail refers to any condition of pretrial release. Lots of conditions of release have nothing to do with money; supervision and monitoring, for instance. It’s money bail, specifically, that requires someone to pay an amount of money to get released pretrial, making a person’s financial resources a determining factor in whether or not that person sits in jail.

The bail system in Baltimore relies almost exclusively on money bail. Last spring, I interviewed thirteen experts on the Baltimore bail system, and I asked all of them the following question:

What is the purpose of bail?

What I heard over and over again was this: Bail is supposed to do two things. One, make sure that someone comes back to court for their trial. Two, protect public safety.

Wait a second. How does a system that relies on money bail protect public safety? Money bail doesn’t keep violent people locked up; it just keeps poor people locked up. People who may pose a threat to public safety can still get out of jail; they just need to have the money to do it.

And that’s just one of many problems when it comes to bail in Baltimore.

Seven of the thirteen people I interviewed were individuals whose lives had been directly impacted by the Baltimore bail system. The offenses that they were charged with ranged from probation violations to attempted murder. Some of the folks I spoke with had sat in jail for six weeks or six months before going to trial. One person had waited an entire year. One whole year in jail before he was even tried in court. What happened to “innocent until proven guilty”?

The people who shared their stories with me talked about the impact that waiting in jail for so long had on their lives. They lost their jobs; they weren’t able to continue their education; they couldn’t provide for their families.

One person said that although he has broken the law before, most of his arrests have been for offenses he didn’t commit. Still, he has almost always pleaded guilty, even for the things he didn’t do. Why? He knew that he couldn’t come up with the money for bail, which would mean he would be sitting in jail—indefinitely. Taking the plea meant getting out sooner. A money bail system like Baltimore’s makes people choose between defending their innocence and keeping a job, staying in school, and feeding their kids. Which would you choose?