Pen Pal Project
P.O. Box 9867
Marina del Rey, CA 90295

To sign up to be a penpal, click here for an application.

Action Committee for Women in Prison
December 2005 report

December, 2001, we began a campaign to find pen pals for women serving long terms at the California Institution for Women in Corona, California. In 2003, we expanded our project to two more prisons located in central California (Chowchilla) and we have added women in prison in Texas and Idaho. As of November 2005, a total of 219 incarcerated women have been hooked up with pen pals. Our “outside” pen pals range in age from 21 to their mid 80's. They live all over the U.S. with 2 from England, 2 from Canada, 1 from Croatia and 1 from Amsterdam! We hope you will consider joining them! There are currently 46 women in prison on our list who are waiting for a pen pal, plus many other “inside” women who we would like to invite to join this program. Please contact us so YOU can choose YOUR pen pal from our list. (Note: We only accept women as outside pen pals)


"Writing to a woman in prison is a very meaningful act. I believe that both she and I are blessed by our communication, gradually creating a bond which is very precious to both of us. In the midst of her limited life and in the middle of my often frenetic one, our exchange of letters is a small
island of caring exploration. Little by little we offer each other pieces of ourselves and our daily lives like tiny windows on another world."

"Being a pen pal with a woman in prison has been life changing for both of us. I have begun to research the American prison system. Through my pen pal, I am learning that one person can make a difference."

"We continue to have a lovely relationship. It is almost like Christmas to find her letters in my mail box. She just sent me the paperwork to fill out so that I may go and visit her in person."

" This is a phenomenal pursuit of basic love of one's neighbor."

"Enriching, provocative, spiritually enlightening, a multitude of positives for us both (I hope!)"

"God truly guided me in finding my pen pal. She was not my first choice, but wow ! We have commonality already. God will bless our pen pal relationship."

"My pen pal's simply written letters never cease to inspire me. She has given new meaning to the words: courage, tenacity, and remarkably, faith."

"I am truly enjoying the experience with my pen heart goes out to the poor inmates, whatever they are in for, a horrible place to be. It's amazing that there are such positive things taking place in an environment with so much negativity. A tribute to the power of the human mind and spirit."

Pen Pal Project
P.O. Box 9867
Marina del Rey, CA 90295

Some practical information:

Send your pen pal a few stamps on a regular basis! (Ask her first if she needs them….some prisons do not allow inmates to get them, others do). We have told inmates NOT to ask for, or expect, any "gifts" more than stamps.

However, YOU may offer to do more for an inmate after a real relationship has developed. You may contact Pen Pal Project if you have any questions about this. Some pen pals may eventually ask you for a phone number. Do not hesitate to refuse giving this information IF you are not comfortable giving it. Calls from prison are usually collect calls (although I believe that some inmates do have MCI phone cards) which YOU must accept in order for them to go through. During a phone conversation, an "automatic voice" interrupts your conversation every minute or so to remind you that this is a call from a state prison.

Our outside pen pals MUST be female and at least 21 years old. Being a pen pal to a woman in prison requires maturity as well as a good balance between "compassion" and "detachment." You need to be open to what your pen pal tells you, while at the same time aware that what either of you write may not always be the complete or objective truth. Your purpose is to be a friend, not a savior or a judge. We at Pen Pal Project do not personally know any of our pen pals (either those on the inside or the outside). While we assume you both will be honest and truthful with one another, we have no way of knowing anything about either of you. How this relationship develops depends entirely upon each pen pal. Either one of you can stop it at any time. But we do ask that you tell your pen pal, and Pen Pal Project, if you decide to stop writing for any reason.

You are welcome to use the Pen Pal Project’s P.O. box for your return address if that makes you feel more comfortable, and we will forward the letter to you when we receive it from your pen pal. However this may slow down your receipt of letters, and is really not necessary, particularly if your pen pal is serving a long sentence.

If you decide to use our P.O. Box, be sure you have your pen pal put your name FIRST on the envelope also, and tell us you are doing this, so we can forward the letter to you unopened and in a timely manner.

General prison mail rules:

  1. All letters are opened and at least looked at by the prison personnel. Letters violating rules will be returned undelivered. From personal experience, it does not appear that letters are particularly read, or that you have to be careful about what you write in your letters. It also appears you may forward information that you get from the inter-net, copies of articles in newspapers, etc. However, inmates are not allowed to correspond with an inmate in another institution.

  2. You can only send up to 40 stamps (any price) and five sheets of blank paper per envelope. (Your written letter may be as long as you wish.) Stationary packages are not allowed (I assume this means writing paper, because I have Xeroxed and returned many copies of an article sent to me to be copied without any problem.) Cards, even greeting cards, must be signed. If you would like your pen pal to be able to "recycle" your card and give it to someone else, you can sign in pencil so she can erase the card. ASK her if she would like this. (Note added Jan 2005: supposedly, letters to CIW (prison in Corona) is now allowing an inmate to received 2 unsigned greeting cards with envelopes; and 5 sheets of stationary, and 10 photos…check with YOUR inmate about this before sending these, or any other items)

  3. No Polaroid Photos….Maximum size of photos is 8" x 10". No musical, embossed, laminated, or glued cards. No stickers allowed. No lipstick marks or any substance on the outside or inside of the letter.

  4. The inmate may receive SOFT COVER books only, and they must be sent by a known approved vender and include a copy of the invoice. (I assume any publisher or book store is ok) No Hard Cover books allowed. I have heard that, if asked, publishers will remove the cover. If so, they must put a note in saying "cover removed by publisher" when they send it…….when I recently ordered a book from a publisher that only came in hard copy, I was told that they always send books to prisons with a letter attached saying "remove hard cover if necessary". (P.S. the book the publisher sent for me this way got returned, so it does not appear to work!)

  5. Magazines must be by subscription only, sent directly to the inmates.

  6. No padded envelopes allowed except for books received from vender in padded envelopes.

  7. All mail must be sent by regular mail (no United Parcel Service)

  8. No cash may be sent, only Money orders and Cashiers Checks payable to the inmate with her W# number on it. If you plan to do this, you should know the inmate well and find out from her about the amount possible to send. I believe that the prison keeps 1/3rd of any money sent in and the prisoner only gets 2/3rds of it.
  9. WE ARE TELLING PEOPLE IN THIS PEN PAL PROGRAM NOT TO ASK FOR OR SEND MONEY. Obviously once you get to know the inmate well (via letters) you can do what you want about sending her things, but please don't offer to do this (even if asked) unless you REALLY want to, and feel comfortable about doing this.

  10. Inmates used to be able to receive up to 4 packages of thirty pounds each per year. This is no longer possible, and all goods must be purchased from the catalog from a prison supplier. Your inside pen pal can give you the latest information about this.

REMEMBER: No one is expecting you to send anything but stamps and a card or letter every month or so. Anything else is completely up to your personal desires.

Suggestions for being a good penpal:

  • Be Positive.
  • Don’t ask the person a lot of questions, particularly about her crime, sentence, etc. Let her tell about herself when she is ready.
  • You can talk about yourself in any way you wish.

  • As your friendship develops, let your pen pal know you care about her.
  • You might want to start your first letter by introducing yourself and telling the person something about who you are, where you live, what your interests are, etc. Since YOU will be given some information about your pen pal with her address, you might also tell her why you chose her to write to.
  • Write like you would to any other new friend.
  • Be honest. If something makes you uncomfortable about this relationship, say so immediately.
  • The women are very deprived of beauty and appreciate stationary and cards that are pretty: flowers, scenery, post cards of a place. They like to hang them on the wall. Many of them love poetry.
  • Use the entire address that you have been given. You can not put stickers or labels on the envelope. (Note: not necessarily enforced, because I have put mailing labels on 8" x 10" manila mailing envelopes, and have not had them returned). Write your return address in the corner of the envelope (not a label).
  • Remember, this is supposed to be a fun and enjoyable experience for both of you. It is up to you to help make it that way!
  • Thank you for volunteering to be a pen pal. If you enjoy this experience, please pass the word on to your friends, and have them ask us for their own pen pal.

Action Committee for Women in Prison
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