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!


What’s beyond step six?

In general, I don’t know what I’m talking about, so I appreciated all the love and support from my first post about steps toward allyship.  Rereading through that post, I continued to pat myself on the back for articulating myself clearly and for inserting humor (treating yourself to compliments from yourself is encouraged – so I ask you give yourself a compliment right now).

I left a cliffhanger more cliffhangery than the Lost Season 1 Finale, so I’m back a whole eight months later with not four, but TWO additional steps to being an ally. You heard me, I cut my promise in half because this self-identifying dude is still trying to figure his s*** out.  If this stuff was this easy, they’d be teaching it as an elective in middle school. In all fairness, I loved middle school and had a hard time in math class learning PEMDAS, so props to middle schoolers for being legit and super smart.


So a quick recap of 1-4:

Step 1: This step is unrecognized privilege.

Step 2: you’ve gotta do some self-work realizing your privileges and its affects on your relationships.

Step 3: beaming yourself down from some holy social justice pedestal.

Step 4: listen, support, and understand you still are clueless.

A bit of a reflection on steps 1-4, if I may.  I still like these steps because they don’t really give you an answer besides checking yourself. Based on my interactions, people still need to check themselves.  I still check myself every day.  A fun/sad activity I indulge in every day is to write down one way that my privilege showed itself that day.  It’s a good reminder to myself that just because I consider myself a social justice gladiator (thanks, SCANDAL), doesn’t mean that I’m perfect (steps 1, 2, 3, and 4 are reminders of that). So try that out and let me know how you do.


**refer to the photo above for suggest facial expressions to each step**

Step five: Stay updated on the news front. Being an ally isn’t some party trick that impresses people and it’s not a way for you to feel closer to an oppressed group.  Being an ally is about understanding your privilege and dismantling that privilege.  Did you read about the SCOTUS decisions on DOMA, Voting Rights Act, or the Indian Child Welfare Act? Following the Trayvon Martin trial? Did you follow the Wendy Davis filibuster (so badass)? How about the Paula Deen situation? For me, reading this stuff isn’t on the checklist for being an ally, reading the news about social equality/equity/justice is my sports section. Luckily, I’ve created a network of friends who also love “sports” and send me articles/news.  You should develop that network! 

Step six: Start having conversations with your fellows privileged people. I know 1-5 are very internal steps, but what I have learned in the past few months is that working with other people in your privilege group to talk about your identity and its effect on others is enlightening. It’s funny how when I first started this whole ally journey that I found myself only talking about race with people of color or only talking about gender/sex with women.  This has to stop if you want to be an ally.  It’s not a person of color’s responsibility to hear you babble about your struggles with being white or explain to you what it means to be a person of color.  Go have those conversations with other privileged people and try to gain some understanding about yourself/your group.  That’s not saying you can’t have those conversations with people of color, just ask yourself why you want to talk to them about race.  

Beware, step three (standing on the pedestal) will bite you in the ass in this step. For some reason, people wanna dance around in their sashes of tolerance, acceptance, and knowledge when talking to others.  All conversations should be equal, even if the person does not have as much training or experience as you.  You’re trying to get people on the bad ass side, not scare people from your turf. So when you have conversations with people, have the courtesy to respect their opinions and thoughts and realize that you were both/all born into this world with whatever privilege and it takes people shorter/longer times to understand the scope and needs to dismantling their privilege.  It’s not a race, y’all, and the more people we support in becoming more tolerant, the faster equality is going to get here.

In closing, we’re starting to get more into the action-oriented steps, but I never believe that you should be leaving steps 1-5 behind.  Never get ahead of yourself and always be checking yourself – because that’s the most important step of all.  I also ask that you remember that people are individuals first and are not defined by the identities they hold.  Love them, support them, and dance with them. Dance with them to Robyn.

I have a good idea about steps 7, 8 (omg, this is getting excessive) – but I need to think on them a little bit more.

Give yourself some self-love. You deserve it.

What’s beyond step four?


In general, I do not believe there is a manual to human condition and relationships.  Because of this, I have a hard time mapping how I interact with others based on manuals, step-by-step guides, etc.

With that being said, obviously I’m going to give a guide to being an ally, however unconventional and non-defining it may be.

**Refer to the photo above for suggested facial expressions to each step**

Step One:  Most everyone is already a bad-ass at step one.  It’s the clueless, unaware, we’re all equal, not-spending-a-second-on-it step.  It’s the step that causes a lot of people NOT to be an ally.  This step is unrecognized privilege.  If you’re white, you don’t recognize your benefits of being white. If you’re able-bodied, you don’t appreciate your privileges of being able-bodied. If you’re rich, then you’re not thinking about what it means for those who are low-income not to have the same luxuries.  If you’re male, you’re not taking time out of your day to think about what you did today that gave you privilege.  If you’re straight, same story. If you did not experience abuse, same story. If you are documented, same story. If you have an identity that’s not marginalized, same story.

Step Two:  WHHHHAAAAAATTTT? I’m privileged and just because I’ve accepted that doesn’t mean that I can move on to being an ally? Fuck no.  Before you can call yourself an ally, you’ve gotta do some self-work realizing your privileges and its affects on your relationships.  Personally, I just spent a year talking about power, privilege, and oppression and I still haven’t totally realized what it means to be privileged. Constantly checking yourself takes time and is a constant process that no one can ever say they’ve aced.  To start to be a good ally is to start doing self-work. Then doing more self-work.  Then doing some more self-work.

Step Three:  Honestly, I believe I’m still in step three a bit.  I’ve had some discourse, I have a stronger hold on what it means to be white, to be male, to be able-bodied, to be privileged, etc.  I find myself getting excited to talk about these issues with others. Anti-oppression work isn’t about a badge that you get to put on your sash.  It’s about understanding and working toward equality. Step three is beaming yourself down from some holy social justice pedestal.  Yes, do most people of a privileged identity not know what the hell is going on?  Probably, but that doesn’t mean that you get to vomit knowledge on them constantly.  That doesn’t mean that just because you have mastered the jargon (obviously I’m still on this step because I’m throwing out privilege, oppression, and ally more than I’m breathing air) you get to be angry at your fellow white/straight/able-bodied/male/etc. folks.  Take a look back at step one, friend.  It’s not an intentional step to be in all the time.  Relax, continue your journey, and don’t preach.

Step four:  This has to be my favorite step so far.  It’s simple.  Listen, support, and understand you still are clueless.  Step four is kind of a step one in my book.  Step one is one of ignorance, step two is one of self-understanding, and step three is one of calm-the-fuck-down.  Step four is one of effective action.   You should never be all, “oh, I’m an ally, spill your heart” or “oh, I understand that you don’t get equal rights, let’s be besties.” That’s kinda arrogant…and sometimes more offensive.  Step four is being supportive however you can without being abrasive.  To me, this step is one that I’m currently in and I think I’ll be in for awhile because I’m learning so much from not being abrasive with my new-found allyships or having expectations.  You’re still clueless, but at least you’re aware that you’re clueless, you are taking steps toward becoming more educated on things you didn’t even consider before now, and you are showing support by not being a lack of support.


Step four is kinda a medium-level step two.  and step one is always going to be happening.  I went through step three, so that’s probably not across the board.  These steps are just my own steps.  There are many more steps that are coming and I’ve probably went through more than four steps.  Steps, steps, steps. steps. steps.

In closing, allyship is way more than meets the eye. People need support in different ways, people give support in different ways.  Allyship is a trail that you must blaze on your own with guided support.

Should I say privilege, step, or ally one more time? PRIVILEGE, STEP, ALLY.

Look for another post when I realize  and can articulate steps 5,6,7,8.