Being a Pen Pal
1. How to start a correspondence with a pen pal
Do I need to meet any prerequisites if I want to write to an inmate?
You need to be 18 years old to be accepted as a pen pal by lifespark and to receive the address of an inmate. It is necessary for you to have some life experience, stamina, and empathy in order to keep a penpalship going. Inmates usually write in English, some in Spanish. Anybody who decides to become a pen pal will receive advice and assistance from lifespark. If you are not sure that you have enough time for a regular correspondence, you should not start a penpalship.
How long does it take for me to receive an inmate’s address?
When you want to become involved with lifespark, you’ll first be sent some material by mail which will provide you with much information about being a pen pal to an inmate on death row. The next step is a telephone interview which will provide you with the opportunity to ask open questions. Only when all questions have been addressed and you’re positive about starting a penpalship, you’ll receive an address and further information, such as our statutes and some hints on how to write the first letter to your pen pal.
Will my pen friend definitely answer my first letter?
Unfortunately, sometimes an inmate doesn’t write back. There are several reasons for this: He has either been relocated to another prison due to a court hearing, or he is suffering from depression and doesn’t answer any letters. Additionally, he may well have not received the letter, or his life situation has changed in a way that he is not interested in a penpalship anymore.
It is very frustrating when the first letter to an inmate is not answered. We suggest that after three weeks you send a second letter, in which you mention that you didn’t get a reply to your first one. You can also ask the inmate if he is still interested in a penpalship. If you don’t receive a reply to the second letter either, you can request the address of another inmate.
It is important, however, that both the sender’s and the inmate’s addresses, including his number, are clearly written on the envelope. Otherwise, the letter will not pass the prison’s mail room.
What if I am afraid about the execution of my pen friend-to-be?
Very sadly, most penpalships are terminated by the inmate’s execution. You must be aware of that when you begin a penpalship.
However, many of our members have already experienced this. You can contact them at any time to get help and support in this bloody reality. We also have special information about executions that can answer many questions concerning the topic.
It is possible to attend the pen friend’s execution, if he so wishes. Some members of lifespark have attended an execution and are happy to talk to you and help you prepare yourself if you are going to attend your pen friend’s execution.
The execution of a pen friend who became a true friend is a crisis in life. However, this painful experience doesn’t necessarily have to become a trauma, but can be a turning point in life which leads to a more mature and conscious biography.
Please have a look at our reports on execution at reports and interviews.
What problems can turn up in a penpalship?
The documents we send to any new member of lifespark contain information and helpful advice regarding various difficult situations that can take place in a penpalship, e.g. sexual allusions by the inmate, jealousy, claims for financial support, psychological problems, etc.
2. Questions concerning the pen friend
How does an inmate get on lifespark’s waiting list for a pen pal?
Inmates know about lifespark from verbal propaganda. Prison employees do not tell them about us or help them to get in touch with lifespark. The inmates write to lifespark themselves and ask for a pen friend. They receive a response from the pen pal coordinator confirming that they are on the waiting list. Usually, it takes about a year for an inmate to get a pen pal.
How can I choose my pen friend?
You cannot choose your pen friend. You can choose the state if you have friends or relatives there. That being the case, you should write to an inmate in the same state. If you speak Spanish, that is also a factor. Otherwise, you simply receive the first inmate on the waiting list.
Lifespark has good experience with this way of arranging penpalships. Neither inmates nor our members can choose whom they get as a pen pal. We’re not a dating agency. We simply arrange for a penpalship between two people.
Can I choose whether I get a man or a woman as a pen pal!
We very rarely have women on the waiting list. So in all likelihood, you will receive a male inmate’s address.
Will I be the only person outside the prison my pen pal will be in touch with?
We don’t know if an inmate has friends or family with whom he is in touch. All inmates on our waiting list, however, will only get one pen pal, as the list is very long. Meanwhile, many inmates have several pen pals they write to.
Can I quit the penpalship if the inmate and I don’t get on well with each other?
If at all possible, a penpalship should not be terminated. In most cases, questions can be solved and problems settled in a personal conversation with one of lifespark’s board members. Getting in touch with another member of lifespark can also be very encouraging and helpful.
In certain cases our penpal coordinator is able to intervene as a moderator between inmate and pen pal. We have written information regarding many questions and problems which can arise in a penpalship.
Please contact the pen pal coordinator as early as possible should you have a problem with your penpalship.
In many cases, a correspondence which seems difficult in the beginning will become interesting and stimulating over time. So you should be somewhat patient if the penpalship should not turn out to be what you expected.
If you quit the penpalship, it is necessary to inform lifespark, as the inmate is able to receive another pen pal.
Does the inmate that will be my pen pal regret what he did?
We arrange penpalships for inmates who want to have a pen pal. “Death row” and “wanting a pen pal” are our only criteria. We do not look at the crime committed or whether the inmate regrets his crime. You should be open-minded in writing an inmate regardless of whom you are assigned. If you feel uncomfortable about this, you should mention it during the telephone interview, as this is a good opportunity to settle these doubts.
Generally, it is possible to have a penpalship with an inmate who does not regret his crime. An open-minded and supportive pen pal can even help him to experience remorse. However, that should not be the intention of beginning a penpalship. For, in the end, it is everyone’s personal decision as to how one wants to personally develop.
If you feel uncomfortable about your penpalship, please get in touch with the regional contact person as early as possible.
I fear that my pen pal has committed a heinous crime, one involving women or children. Would it be possible to write to an inmate who has not committed such a heinous crime?
The answer to this question is similar to the preceding one. We would like our members to be open-minded regarding the inmate they are assigned. We arrange penpalships for inmates regardless of their crime.
3. Questions about letter writing and prisons
How frequently should I write?
Penpalships can be of different intensity; it depends entirely upon you and your pen pal. It is advisable to reach a mutual agreement with your correspondent. As rule of thumb, you should answer a letter within a week after its arrival. A letter is on its way about one week each way, because it has to pass through the prison's mailroom in both directions. If the two correspondents are rapidly writing back, this results in about two letters per month. You should be able to invest that much time if you would like to start a penpalship.
What can I send to my pen pal aside from letters?
We have so-called state sheets where you can find a lot of information about the prisons in each state. Every new member receives, together with the address of his pen pal, the state sheet of the state where his/her pen pal is incarcerated.
The state sheets of all states can be found on our website in the "members only" section under state sheets. They are regularly updated and there is a contact person for each state.
Most prisons allow books to be sent through amazon.com. In many cases, you are able to subscribe to a journal for your pen pal as well. Photos and postcards are always very much appreciated.
What shall I write about to my pen pal?
The two pen pals must find out for themselves what their topics of conversation will be. Generally, the prisoners appreciate it very much when you tell them about your everyday life. It gives them the feeling of being able to follow your life or even to be part of it.
It depends upon the inmate as to whether the crime which brought him to death row will ever be a subject of conversation. Some speak about it, others don't. By no means should you urge him to tell you about it. It can also be for legal reasons that he excludes the subject.
Can I send money to my pen pal?
Yes, you can, but never directly to his address. You can find the information on how to proceed on the state sheet.
We have a list of different possibilities how to send money to your pen pal in the "members only" section under money.
Do I have to send him money?
No, nobody is obliged to send money to his/her pen pal, and the inmate has no right to demand it. However, we suggest that our members, whenever possible, to at least pay for the penpalship, i.e. transferring as much money to the prisoner as he needs for buying stamps and writing materials.
4. Questions about visits
Can I visit my pen pal?
Yes, it is possible to visit your pen pal, but you must first be on his visitation list. The instructions on how to proceed can be found on the corresponding state sheet.
Several lifespark members have already visited their pen pals and are happy to give advice. For several states, we have special travel sheets with information about visits.
A personal meeting with the pen pal is an unforgettable experience for both. For the prisoner, such a visit may be the best thing that could ever happen to him in his situation.
For reports about visits, go to "visiting", reports and interviews.
5. Questions about lifespark
Do I have to be a member of lifespark in order to get an address?
Yes. We want people to become members of lifespark in order to enable them to come across certain issues which arise with the pen pal-ship and to learn how to deal with them.
The membership fee for one year is CHF 50.- or the equivalent in EURO
Account number: see contact us.
What kind of people are the lifespark members?
We have members aged 18 to 80. They are mostly women; about one sixth are men.
For details: see "home", survey.
How can I benefit from my membership at lifespark?
Lifespark offers its members an extensive and helpful service. We attach high importance to the linking-up of our members. An exchange with like-minded people can help enormously to find an answer to your questions and to find a point of view concerning a certain subject.
Our offers can also be found under "service", what we offer.
Can I meet other lifespark members?
Apart from the annual General Assembly we offer regional meetings and other regular gatherings in different towns. Places and dates of all these meetings can be found on our website under "about lifespark", events. In addition, invitations are sent in writing.
Members who would like to organise a meeting in their town or canton can do this by creating a "doodle" and inviting other members to enter their availabilities.
From time to time, we also offer occasions to improve your knowledge such as visits to Swiss prisons.
What happens with the membership fees?
At lifespark, all active members are volunteers, i.e. unpaid. A part of the membership fees is used for our expenses which are mainly for postage and printing costs of the newsletter which comes out three times a year.
With membership fees, lifespark regularly supports US organisations which are opposed to the death penalty. In doing so, the money is better used than by initiating actions from Switzerland.
Under links, the websites of the organisations which we support are marked accordingly.
How can I get information about the death penalty?
There is some information on our website. In addition, members have the opportunity to receive information via e-mail. Our members receive specific advice on this issue in writing.
There are many other websites relating to the death penalty. Some of these websites are listed under links.
Newsletter: Lifespark issues a newsletter three times a year with information regarding correspondence with a death row prisoner. Contributions from our members are always welcome.
What else does lifespark do?
We try to inform the public as often as possible about the death penalty and to draw attention to our association.
We set up stands and organize lectures and joint projects with Amnesty International (http://www.amnesty.ch/en) and ACAT (http://www.acat.ch/de/).
Whenever possible, we provide interviews for journals and magazines to present ourselves and our work.
You can find our recent media activities on our website under lifespark in the media.
We recommend that all our members find out more about the expansive subject of the death penalty and to take part in petitions and mailing campaigns.
Where can I get answers to my questions about pen pal-ship?
Each member receives a list with people who take an active part in lifespark. When you have a question, you can contact the appropriate person directly. Basically, it is always possible to contact the regional contact person as well.