Prison Outreach Volunteer

What is the purpose of communicating with an inmate?

The purpose of communicating with an inmate is to create a relationship with the inmate, to become friends. This in turn gives them hope, resources, and healthier communication than is available within the prison system. This exchange of friendship, the building of a relationship, can be a life-transforming experience. The purpose is not to go into this relationship with the idea of “fixing” the prisoner, but to expect to learn as much from them as they of you.


How does prison outreach work?

You may communicate by writing letters, making phone calls, writing emails, and or visiting in person. Be aware that all your communications will be censored, and there are some guidelines created by the prison facility that your pen pal will be able to tell you about (ask in your first letter, as it’s different for each prison).

  • If you wish to use snail mail, simply write your letter and send it in the mail.
  • For phone calls, your pen pal can let you know if they have phone privileges, and if you want to phone, send the inmate your phone number, as they have to call you. Decide beforehand how this will be paid for; some have phone accounts set up, others will need help establishing that, and you should decide ahead of time if and how much money you would be willing to put into that.
  • There are internet services available for emailing; if you wish to email, ask your inmate if they have email privileges and discuss it with them; be aware that this is also a paid service, so decide ahead of time how much money you want to put into this.
  • If you wish to visit, ask the inmate about visiting information; each facility will have different visiting hours and guidelines for restrictions.


What can I expect in communicating with an inmate?

You can expect that it will be unlike any communication that you’ve ever had. These are people who have been denied the normal stimuli that those not behind bars take for granted, and you have to be prepared and patient, because their world is much smaller than yours. They will probably test your commitment because they often fear abandonment. You need to know that if you create a relationship with an inmate, you have to be willing to make a commitment; otherwise you can actually cause them more pain. It has to be a serious commitment, as this is a human being who has been cut off from the world, and they need to have someone who will provide them hope by being committed and following through after starting.


How often will I be expected to communicate with my pen pal?

Before starting your relationship with an inmate, set your own boundaries and decide how much time you have to offer. Whether it’s an hour a month, five hours a month, or something else, work your expectations into your communication with the inmate so that the person knows what to expect from you. Any time you can give is better than nothing; just be sure to not over-extend yourself. Folks within the prison system are very needy, and when it comes to relationships with others in prison, there are little to no boundaries; you get away with what you can get away with. As someone living with the blessing of freedom outside prison, you are better equipped to set boundaries within the relationship for both of you.


Where will my pen pal be located?

There are inmates all over the country who are in need and desire a pen pal. If you desire a written, literary exchange, it may not matter so much to you where the other person is located. If you want the option of visiting your pen pal from time to time, you may wish to connect with someone closer to where you live.


How will I be matched with a pen pal?

Contact CGO and we’ll talk with you over the phone about what you’re looking for. We’ll network with those we know and find someone to match you with.


What if I don’t feel I’m a good match?

If you feel the communication you’ve started isn’t good for yourself and or the inmate, please communicate this first with the inmate directly. Reasons for this may include, among other things, that your time commitment has changed, the inmate is not able to respect your boundaries over the course of time, or you don’t feel equipped to deal with the physiological needs of the inmate. It may also be that you just need to cut the person off for a period of time before re-engaging so that the person understands your boundaries and you have time to take care of yourself. Be honest and compassionate. State your needs directly and respectfully, without judging. Like any relationship, this can be a painful process for both of you, and although it takes courage to say, “this isn’t working”, it may be necessary in some circumstances.


How do I get started?

Call CGO at 612-558-2672. We’ll be happy to match you with an inmate and answer any other questions you have.