There are limited ways for US incarcerated people and people in the outside world to communicate with each other and these are made more difficult when the outside penpal lives outside the US. Snail mail, phone, and email services are the main ways. However, each of them come with advantages and disadvantages for both inside and outside people.
Snail mail is the most reliable, though it is also the slowest. The biggest upside is the level of expressiveness possible with pen and paper. From the way a person’s handwriting will change based on their feeling to doodles in the margins, physical letters are more emotionally satisfying than emails. Some down sides are the expense of postage (especially international postage), need for paper, and puzzling out handwritten chicken scratches.
One way to off set the problem of international mail taking many weeks is to use a mail service like Jmail. They receive an email from an outside person, print it out, and send it to the incarcerated person. Then when they receive a reply from the incarcerated person, they scan it and email it to the outside person. International mail can take a month a a half round trip, assuming the letter is answered immediately. A service like Jmail shortens this to three weeks.
Furthermore, some outside people may not feel comfortable with letting an inside person know where they live. Using a PO Box or mailing service like Jmail can help them to feel safe while still in the “getting to know you phase” of the friendship. These should be a temporary measure. If, after writing someone for many months, an outside person still does not feel comfortable with giving out personal info like their address or phone number, then they probably should write a ‘goodbye’ letter and seek out a new penpal.
Phone is by far my favorite way to stay in touch with outside people. Being able to hold a conversation in real time helps me to really connect with people. It is also subject to the least amount of censorship. However, time zone differences and the cost of international calls can be a huge barrier. There’s not much to be done about time zones, and prison’s rigid schedule certainly does not help. As for the cost of international calls, an internet phone service like Google Voice can help reduce the cost. From what I understand, to set one up the outside person needs to know the area code for where they want the number to be for. For example, in Washington that would be a 206 or 509 (Seattle or Spokane). There is still the cost of a prison phone call to keep in mind, so making the number as local as possible is generally a good idea. Fees for calling out of state can range from a penny a minute up to 10 to 15 cents a minute.
Again, a Google Voice account can also serve as a temporary phone number during that initial “getting to know you” stage. However, because receiving phone calls from a prison requires the outside person to disable most features that block telemarketers and automated calls, an internet phone is a good way to keep unwanted corporate callers off your main phone line while still being able to chat with a prison penpal.
Lastly, there are businesses who provide email services to incarcerated people for a most unreasonable fee like JPay and Correlinks. I only really know about JPay, because that’s what’s available in WA DOC. It works like this: outside people can look up inside people by state and DOC number and add them to their account. Then both the outside person and inside person have to buy e-stamps. One e-stamp buys one email of up to 6,000 characters or one picture. The price of an e-stamp varies by state, in Washington it is $10 for 60 e-stamps, or roughly 17 cents each.
Conversely, an incarcerated person can send an e-vite to an outside person assuming they know that person’s email address. The e-vite usually gets sorted into the outside person’s spam folder because it is an automated email from an evil korporation.
The biggest downside to JPay is the high level of censorship. They have text analysis software which flags messages for the mailroom to review and those messages usually get censored for BS reasons that don’t even make sense.
The upside is most JPay messages only take two to three days to clear the mailroom, longer if the mailroom is short staffed. JPay also allows outside people to send 30 second video clips and has a built-in money transfer service and allows incarcerated people to buy music, app games, and to rent movies. Of course, all these things are outrageously expensive, so there you go.
Keeping in touch with people we care about takes work in the best of times, but when you add the barrier of incarceration on top of that it becomes even more difficult. It requires commitment, understanding, and patience on the part of everyone involved.