Through the bars: making connections

Have you ever had a pen pal? Was it a good experience? Did you learn about where they lived, their customs and culture, or perhaps their life circumstances, including the joys and the sorrows?

When I was in grade 7, our teacher decided that assigning pen pals to the class would be a great learning opportunity. He was right. I was assigned to a boy my own age who lived in Japan. His name was Takashi and his written English was very good. I learned about what it was like to live in Kyoto, the school system there, Takashi’s family and deep sense of obligation to them, and his likes and dislikes. As a result I think I developed a more realistic understanding of life in Japan. And I like to believe that Takashi benefited from my letters about life in Canada.

At CFSC we often receive mail from those in Canada’s prisons and jails. Upon reflection, correspondence with incarcerated persons has some features that are similar to the pen pal experience described above. Letter writing with those in prison helps us provide information to one another that would be difficult to find out in other ways. Through writing to one another, a positive relationship develops. More about this later. First, I’d like to share some history.

“People in prison are isolated.”

Prison letter writing is not new. Historian Elizabeth Foyster describes prison writing in England beginning in the 1680s. She says letters that peoples wrote from prisons “provided new insights into the experience of punishment… Many writers used letters to obtain practical support while in prison, but they also found writing was a means to reflect upon what they held to be most important.”1

In 1988, Jan Arriens, a British Quaker, founded an organization called Lifelines. This was in response to a BBC documentary that he saw about an execution that took place in Mississippi. The documentary showed interviews with incarcerated persons from the same prison. Jan was moved by their compassionate and intelligent perspectives and wrote letters to thank them. The letters he received back prompted him to begin Lifelines—a letter writing service that continues today. Its 1,400+ volunteers support and befriend persons serving time on death row throughout the United States.

The Prisoner Correspondence Project began in 2007 in Montreal by taking on surplus letters from another organization and agreeing to find them pen pals. The focus of this project is writing to the LGBTQ+ imprisoned population. Since 2007, as word travels inside prisons, the project continues to grow. This is an all-volunteer group. An collective of six to ten people outside of prison answers letters, sends resources, and even composes a newsletter! They work collaboratively with an inside prison advisory group. They receive about 100 letters a week.

As the staff person for CFSC’s criminal justice work, I’m the one who gets mail from prisons. I believe that the positive relationship that develops while I correspond with people on the inside is of mutual benefit.

This two-way flow of information provides a “reality check” for both correspondents. I find out what’s really going on with things like family visits, phone calls, healthcare, programming, and so on. The person on the inside finds out about changes happening to prison policies, programs, legislation, updates on rights and rules, educational resources, and more.

People in prison are isolated. Frequently they don’t get accurate information (sometimes any information) from prison staff. By writing to one another, we can each find out what’s really happening.

These voices of lived experience add credibility to CFSC’s advocacy work. During the height of the pandemic, the National Associations Active in Criminal Justice (CFSC is a member), arranged bi-weekly phone calls with Correctional Services Canada (CSC), presumably for CSC to keep us informed of how well they were managing their prisons. It was crucial during those calls to be able to challenge misinformation. For example, statements from CSC misrepresenting access to phone and video visits for families were contrasted with information received from those inside. As a result, some changes to the good were made.

Another example came from my correspondence with someone in a federal institution in Atlantic Canada. They raised concerns about dental care and policies at CSC that restrict procedures like dental cleaning and regular checkups. They sent me hard copies of memos, prison policy, and more.

At this same time, the John Howard Society of Canada was preparing a report to the government about healthcare in prisons, and supporting the principle that people who are incarcerated should have access to the same healthcare as other Canadians. With the prison resident’s consent, I was able to share the concerns and documents about substandard dental care with the John Howard Society to be included in the report.

Here is a short list about why we think corresponding with those in prison is important:

  • It provides contact and connection with the outside, which may help to lessen a sense of isolation;
  • For those inside, it provides information they would otherwise be unable to obtain;
  • It helps those outside to know what’s going on in prison and better understand needs and issues; and
  • It gives a “reality check” that’s especially helpful when communicating with Correctional Services Canada, institutions, and government.

CFSC has long provided community grants to encourage projects that engage in criminal justice issues and align with our values and ways of working. This year, one of our community grant recipients is WriteOn!—an all-volunteer organization whose goal, through correspondence, is to support those imprisoned in Canada.

In December CFSC held a virtual event about prison writing and WriteOn! and CFSC’s work in this area. To view a recording of the event and learn more see:

If you’re feeling inspired to start writing to people in jail or prison, here are three Canadian organizations that are almost always looking for volunteers:

WriteOn! Website:

Penn2Paper (Prison Pen Pal Service)

Prisoner Correspondence Project (Pen Pal Service for LGBTQ+)

Nancy Russell is CFSC’s Criminal Justice Program Coordinator.

  1.   Elizabeth Foyster, “Prisoners Writing Home,” Journal of Social History 47(4), 2014.