Why write to offenders?
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As always with the world of true crime, some topics are quite controversial. Writing to offenders is one of these, but it is also the question I get asked about the most. Why do we want to be pen pals with offenders?
I cannot speak for everyone, but I can tell you my motivations for beginning some correspondence with serial killers, school shooters and other offenders. Initially I did not have the first idea where to start - until I discovered Jmail, that is. Jmail offer a variety of packages, including a PO box system, making it a safe option for communicating with offenders. (see picture below)
Because my book was called ‘Bullet Journaling for Serial Killers’, I decided first to write to a number of offenders, explaining what the book was about, and asking if they would like to take part. Many serial killers especially, have personality disorders, so I figured I would offer a transactional exchange. I asked them to let me know if there was anything they wanted, in return for taking part. Funnily enough, no one really asked for anything, apart from Herbert Mullin, who simply wanted two pictures of the Queen from two specific years.
I ended up with a variety of responses and now I regularly communicate with offenders. I started with a set reason for writing and even now, with anyone I write to, it’s still for a specific reason. I am not interested in exploiting the offenders I talk to. I learn so much from the conversations I have.
The offenders I have spoken to come from a variety of backgrounds, have committed a wide range of offences and all are vastly different. But the one thing they all have in common is their mistrust of pen pals. Many have had bad experiences, so some simply do not communicate any more with the outside world. Being a writer, I had to work especially hard to convince the people I corresponded with that I was not trying to get their stories so I could write about them. I simply do not discuss their crimes in my writing – that’s not my motive in approaching them, and it’s none of my business - and that’s what I tell them. We talk about life in jail, their beliefs about the world, politics, you name it, we talk about it. That way they are not revealing their secrets, so they feel more comfortable talking.
I do not believe people are monsters. Offenders are very human, but in general they seem to process things very differently. By treating them with respect, in return I believe I get the best from them. It is not my place to judge their actions. My interest is always in how we can prevent the creation of another violent offender. This approach means that there are no victims and the offenders, already incarcerated, give me all sorts of insights that would never occur to me. From a research point of view, it is invaluable.
So, my advice to anyone wanting to write to offenders is that they are very human, they do not come across as monsters - but that does not mean that they are not dangerous, even though they are incarcerated. If you are not familiar with Jason Moss, and are thinking about writing to offenders, then I would recommend that you research Jason’s story. He corresponded with serious offenders, and visited one, interactions which later ended up with him committing suicide. Please take care when speaking to offenders.
The other side of this is, of course, the benefit it provides to the offender when they have contact with the outside world.
A prison pen pal scheme, operating in 52 prisons in England and Wales, is contributing to prisoner wellbeing. It offers early warning of potential suicide of prisoners, and improves the chances of successful rehabilitation.
"We found that something as simple as a pen pal relationship can lead to tangible benefits for prisoners," says researcher Professor Jackie Hodgson. "Given the recent rise in prison violence and suicides, increased prison overcrowding and the current resource pressures on the prison system, letter-writing seems an extremely valuable way to provide greater support for prisoners, based on genuine relationships of care and trust, at remarkably little cost. "Prisoner pen pals, her study (conducted together with PhD student Juliet Horne) shows, are typically male, serving long or indeterminate sentences and experiencing little or no contact with anyone else outside of prison. A quarter of prisoners surveyed said they had no contact at all with anyone outside the prison walls before they started writing to their pen pal.
Prisoners said having a pen pal helped them to:
• feel less isolated;
• make changes to their self-identity;
• boost their happiness through having a distraction from the routine of prison life; and
• raise their hopes for life beyond prison.
"Prisoners told us about growing feelings of engagement with 'the outside world' and, as a result of being 'accepted' by their pen friend and experiencing friendship with someone who believes in their capacity for change, they began to see themselves as more than just a prisoner," Professor Hodgson, from the University of Warwick School of Law, states. "All of this raises the prisoners' chances of successful rehabilitation."
Obviously when we are talking about death row prisoners in the US, or other serious violent offenders, rehabilitation is not on the table; but that does not mean that they cannot be productive members within their current jails.
Shawn Grate, who is currently on death row in Chillicothe Ohio, spends his time creating paintings, roses from toilet paper and a whole manner of other arts and crafts. He has not had one disciplinary for behaviour as his art provides an outlet. We have spoken on numerous occasions about pen pals and how he feels they benefit him.
But also, they can become a headache. I have been on the receiving end many a time from women angry that I have posted about Shawn. I must explain, every time, that I am not his girlfriend. I am just a writer who talks to him about my book. Shawn even edited his pages in the book via his lawyer, as I wanted to make sure the account was factual. He has women writing to him who want his advice on their love lives and all sorts of other things. It is really fascinating to hear from Shawn and other offenders, about the kinds of letters and photos they receive.
I asked criminologist J Sutton, what her take was, and this is what she had to say: “Letter writing and pen pal systems are not the only creative or expressive outlet for inmates. The chance to be able to write creatively and reflectively is also beneficial in other ways. Writing is a way for inmates to connect with others but also themselves. It gives them opportunities to form healthy, supportive relationships with others, and helps them to reflect on themselves and their own behaviours in a healthy way. It also gives them a chance to express and explore themselves, to be creative and learn how to think in ways they would not normally have to. It can lead to other interests such as poetry or art.” Many studies have revealed that activities and programmes centred around poetry, writing, painting and theatre, make inmates less likely to reoffend upon release and that they have aided in behavioural improvements while the person is incarcerated, such as “getting along well with other inmates”, and there were “improved disciplinary records” – Brewster (2014), Kumar (2020). A study carried out by Larry Brewster, focusing on the impact of prison arts programmes on inmate attitudes and behaviour, looked at 110 inmates across 4 prisons. Brewster found that inmates partaking in creative activities and programmes were better at emotional regulation compared with inmates who did not partake in such activities. Brewster identified this as an important change: “The longer an inmate is involved in prison arts, the more likely he will experience positive behavioural changes, including pursuing other education and vocation programs.” These altered behaviours are still applied by inmates even after release, remaining a consistent positive adaptation in their overall behaviour and meaning they are “less likely to return to prison” – Vacca. (2004). In other studies, similar results can be seen when looking at young offender groups who get involved with reflective and creative writing programmes during their time incarcerated. The adaptation in reasoning and positive behaviour changes are again present. One of the reasons this may be happening is because these programmes provide the inmate with a feeling of belonging and acceptance within their immediate community and those they write to. “This activity could assist in the breaking down of social and personal barriers, in this instance such mediators as deviant culture, fear, danger, incarceration and excessive amounts of stress, desperation, and isolation” Urie, (2006) Reform can only occur if a person feels understood and accepted. This way they can focus on change and building positive relationships. They are able to reflect on past behaviours and learn ways to allow that behaviour to manifest in more positive ways. “These reflective writing opportunities further allow people on the inside to take charge of their own narratives” – Kumar (2020) and create humanising external bonds with positive role models or people. “This humanisation also builds inter-personal connections along the way which became imperative to helping the incarcerated in being more accepted and moving towards a changed lifestyle” – Kumar, (2020). “…meaning better decision making and less deviant type behaviours in the long run.” - J.Sutton
Important things to remember when writing to inmates
If you want to become pen pals with an offender but are not sure where to start there is some important information below. If you are unsure who to write to there are sites dedicated to finding a pen pal. Victoria is currently working on a page on her website Bullet Journaling for Serial Killers specifically for this too. It features offenders she knows or offenders who have been recommended by other inmates, friends and family because they do not have anyone to talk to on the outside.
You can also (in the USA), do an inmate search via the state they are incarcerated in, and that will give you their contact details.
In the UK such information is not available; so all you can do is try and write the inmate’s full name and date of birth on the envelope, and try to ascertain which prison they are currently housed in. Some key things to bear in mind:
• Do not give out your real address or details of where you live; • Be careful of what pictures you send - an inmate will zoom in and check everything they can see in the background; • Inmates are exceptionally good at judging your intentions - you cannot kid a kidder. • It can get expensive; inmates usually get extraordinarily little income, so you usually must cover the postage • Be careful. Especially if you are writing to violent offenders.
Victoria why do you think people write to offenders? "I put it mostly down to simple curiosity. When I received my very first letter from Tex Watson, it was so exciting to get an actual reply, as it meant I would have some original content for my book. I have spent years watching and reading about true crime, so writing to some of the people I had read about is still such a surreal experience. But I am not writing to celebrities. I am writing to people who ruined lives. These are facts that never stray far from my mind. Yes, it is interesting to speak to serial killers, but it is also hard in so many ways. So, my warning to you is this - take care and remember that you are talking to some of the most dangerous human predators there are."
Reference • Brewster, L. (2014). The impact of prison arts programs on inmate attitudes and behavior: A quantitative evaluation. Justice Policy Journal, 11(2), 1-28. http://www.cjcj.org/uploads/cjcj/documents/brewster_prison_arts_final_formatted.pdf • Kumar, Sandeep (2020) "Reflective writing in prisons: Rehabilitation and the power of stories and connections," VA Engage Journal: Vol. 8, Article 5. Available at: https://commons.lib.jmu.edu/vaej/vol8/iss1/5 • Urie, C. E. (2006). The beat: Behavioral change in juvenile detention center writing workshops. • Culture, Society and Praxis, 5(1), 1-21. https://digitalcommons.csumb.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1071&context=csp • Vacca, J. S. (2004) Educated prisoners are less likely to return to prison. Journal of Correctional Education, 55(4), 297-305. https://www.jstor.org/stable/23292095 • Imagining more than just a prisoner: The work of Prisoners’ Penfriends Jacqueline Hodgson and Juliet Horne APRIL 2015