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They Don't Know Anyone in Prison But Are Still Spreading Empathy as Pen Pals

Pen Pal writing letter to prison.
While letters may seem old-fashioned to many of us, for those in prison, they are a lifeline of hope and connection.

We live in a world accustomed to quick access. All of us. Just pick up your phone and see if you have a “red dot” notification waiting on you. 

Need to get a hold of a family member? Phone them instantly with a touch of a button.

Checking a friend’s ETA? One quick text does the trick.

Enjoy a friend’s meme? Liked and shared in moments. 

Need to pay a bill? Immediate transfer from the bank at your fingertips.

Preparing for a meeting? A message over Slack, the share of a document, or even leveraging your friendly AI tool to help build a strategy session. They are all happening in a few  clicks.

This instant communication has become second nature to us, and if we’re honest, these  connections are often taken for granted.  In prison, these habits which are instantaneous for us, are complex and time-consuming and usually, very costly. Despite the introduction of tablets in certain facilities with messaging and email accessibility (for a cost), the use of traditional phone calls (for a cost…again) for some, most of our neighbors in prison continue to long for connection with friends and even strangers on the outside.

Mail Call Prison Flikshop
In prison, everyone looks forward to mail call.

One timeless method of communication, often forgotten by those outside of prison walls, is the pen pal. Remember them? The people who would write handwritten or typed letters and place them in the traditional mail? They were heroes. 

The value of pen pals in prison cannot be overstated. For those incarcerated, receiving a letter from the outside world creates a lifeline of humanity, a connection to the world beyond prison walls. In a place where isolation and loneliness can weigh heavily, the simple act of receiving mail can bring hope, encouragement, and a sense of belonging. It's a reminder that they are not forgotten, that someone out there cares. “These letters fly underneath cell doors or through meal slots, signaling to the entire housing unit that you’re loved”, says Flikshop CEO, Marcus Bullock.

Prison pen pals offer more than just words on paper; they offer a beacon of positivity in an otherwise bleak environment. They offer a space for reciprocity. Through letters, individuals in prison have the opportunity to share their thoughts, dreams, and experiences with someone who genuinely cares. There are promises of businesses that will be started. There are plans to help heal a neighborhood that suffers from violence. There are asks to help understand a religion better. These letters get filled with love, despite the gap of the unknown. Most pen-pals do not have the slightest idea of who the person is that they are writing. They just know that it is a person, and that is typically enough for these superheroes to activate. 

Pen pals from the outside can offer support, friendship, and encouragement, helping to uplift spirits and inspire positive change. The power of a kind word or an empathetic ear should not be underestimated; it can make a world of difference in someone's life, especially during challenging times. It is the primary reason that we launched Flikshop.

Flikshop loves connecting with those who understand the value of mail in prison, and let me tell you, pen pals are our kind of people. We have been so fortunate to meet leaders within organizations who have created whole programs dedicated to finding pen pals for our incarcerated neighbors. We’d like to introduce some of them to you now.

Wire of Hope

Wire of Hope Pen pal Logo Prison

“With Wire of Hope, we wanted to create more than just a penpal service, " coordinators Sigrid and Elodie share, “We were looking to make a positive difference and encourage human connection, with empathy, open-mindedness, and kindness.”

Sigrid and Elodie both mention their heart to promote second chances. “It starts with us,” they shared,”  as we make every effort to treat the members of our program as people first, recognizing their dignity and worth beyond their incarceration status.”

They shared with Flikshop: “By cultivating connections with the outside world, people in prison can find social interactions, emotional support, and a sense of hope and belonging that often lack behind bars. Meeting people from different backgrounds can also encourage personal reflection, growth, introspection, and also gives them the guidance they may need on their rehabilitative journey.”

Pen Pal coordinators Flikshop Wire of Hope
Wire of Hope coordinators, Sigrid and Elodie.

This connection, in turn, becomes a place of beauty for both sides of the pen pal communication. Sigrid & Elodie affirm, “For the volunteer penpals who reach out to our incarcerated members, the experience can be a real eye-opener on prison conditions and the brokenness of our criminal justice system.”

Wire of Hope Prison Pen Pal

Kyle, incarcerated in Virginia, had some wonderful feedback for us: “The biggest difference between Wire of Hope and other services is that this isn't just a business. They actually care about us. Wire of Hope answers every letter personally, and really takes the time to respond to our questions and concerns. They genuinely want to help people make connections. That matters.”

Prison-to-Professionals (P2P) Pen Pal Program

The P2P Pen Pal Program is a branch of From Prison Cells to PhD, which offers career and college readiness and life skills education to both currently and formerly incarcerated persons.  

P2P Pen Pal Elizabeth Bliss-Burger
Elizabeth Bliss-Burger, coordinator of the P2P Pen Pal Program.

When asked why coordinator, Elizabeth Bliss-Burger, continues this work of connection, which takes time and organization, she shared, “My mom always told me to write.  She knew long before I did - the importance of being able to capture your thoughts, feelings, experiences on paper - with words - and then entrust them in the hands of someone else. Before she died, we got matching tattoos of a dragonfly with a semicolon as its body. The semicolon was her reminder to never stop writing, but rather pause and then keep going. Our story wasn't done.

“Pen-paling is a way to remind people of the power in writing, the power that comes from putting words on a page and having someone else behold them, really behold them - be with and hold them, “ Elizabeth writes. 

The P2P Pen Pal Program recently collaborated with Flikshop on a special New Year postcard campaign. Sending reminders to those primarily in federal facilities, that just as their story wasn’t done, a new year offers new hopes and new promises. 

P2P Pen Pal Program

“Pen paling is a way for people to share their stories - a reminder we all need from time to time: that our stories aren't done until we decide they are and that we get to choose what is important to say about ourselves - and no one else gets to determine that for us.”

Interfaith Action of Human Rights (IAHR)

 Some Pen Pal programs help bridge the geographical divide between incarcerated residents and their communities. The IAHR Pen Pal Project was born out of the realization that DC residents who serve their sentences in a federal prison are removed sometimes thousands of miles away from their families. 

Rabbi Charles Feinberg, Interim Executive Director shared, “Currently, there are approximately 3000 DC residents incarcerated in 122 prisons around the country, from California to Texas to Florida to West Virginia to Minnesoata.  DC residents are very isolated from their families, friends, and community.”

Pen Pal communication shows how much it means to those incarcerated to simply to know that someone on the outside cares, and that is no small thing.

Marcus Bullock Sylvia Bullock Prison Flikshop
Flikshop CEO, Marcus Bullock, with his mother Rev. Dr. Sylvia Bullock during his time in prison.

My mother’s mail saved my life. I couldn’t have imagined living like the other men in my unit who NEVER received any mail. We love our pen pals that use Flikshop!,” says Bullock. 

In an era dominated by digital communication, receiving physical mail takes on a special significance. At Flikshop, we’ve seen mail become more than a postcard, but a tangible reminder of the outside world, a piece of home that can provide comfort and solace in difficult times. By participating in prison pen pal programs, individuals not only provide companionship and support to those behind bars but also contribute to the restoration of hope, dignity, and humanity in the lives of incarcerated individuals.

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