Here are some answers to questions asked by potential Penpals, our advice is to read through them all, it will save you having to send an email to the BTG office. But if your question is not here then please do email it to firstname.lastname@example.org and we will answer and it could very well appear on here for others. Thank you.
Q: What kind of outmates are you looking for?
A: People who are prepared to be committed to write to people in prison.
Q: What kind of things would I write about?
A: Just be a friend. Talk about your interests, profession, family, or hobbies. Encourage them to talk about themselves. Inmates have dreams and interests that often go unheard.
Q: How often should I write?
A: That is decided between you and your inmate. Some inmates will write quite often and some less frequently. Usually you reply to a letter from your penpal and they reply to yours, in a kind of ping pong way.
Q: How long does it take to get a letter from an inmate?
A: We are often asked this question, and sadly there is no straight answer, you could say ‘How long is a piece of string’. The inmate will reply when they are good and ready to reply, some will reply straight away and some will perhaps wait until the weekend to write their reply. Sadly some wont reply at all.
Q: How do I use the BTG safe/office address?
A: Simply write your letter in the normal way, but at the top put your name, (please remember, if you have told us you are going to use a different name, we need to know that name), then put our address – BTG, C/o SMCA, Cobham Court, Haslemere Avenue, Mitcham, Surrey, CR4 3PR, then post your letter direct to your inmate, NOT to us, he/she replies via our address and we send it onto you. Please remember we only forward mail to UK addresses, we do not have the funds to forward mail to addresses outside the UK.
Q: How often do you post the letters onto the outmate?
A: All normal letters are sent onto the outmate, either the day that they are received, yes that does include the weekends, or at the very latest the very next day. We have no need or the facilities to hang onto any letters. The only letters that are delayed are those we have problems with, i.e. name not on our books, perhaps the outmate has used a different name to that which they registered with and not told us, or it is a recorded or registered letter, which we don’t normally accept, or it is an extra large letter, and it has to wait until we can get someone to spare the time to go to the post office with it.We ask the inmate NOT to send any recorded, special delivery or large letters, there is no need because this is a penpal scheme, nothing else.
Q: Is there an age requirement to an outmate?
A: YES. In the light of our experience, we know that persons under the age of eighteen can find themselves in a very vulnerable position. It is fair to neither outmate nor inmate. Outmates must therefore be at least eighteen years old. In any case USA prison rules state that you must be eighteen years of age to correspond with their inmates.
Q: Can I participate in the Penpal Scheme if I live outside the United Kingdom?
A: Yes, we also have a small number of inmates requesting outmates from outside the UK. You will firstly be given a UK one, but if you want to be considered for one outside the UK, please do let us know. But remember, we CANNOT forward any letters to outmates who do not live in the UK, your inmate must either write to you direct (not advisable), or you set up your own safe address.
Q: Will I know the crime the inmate committed?
A: No. We suggest that you do not ask an inmate this question. Leave it up to the inmate to tell you when he or she feels comfortable enough.
Q: What happens after I apply for a penpal?
A: Once you apply for a penpal, our penpal co-ordinator will, as soon as an inmate is available allocate one to you. You then write DIRECT to the inmate you have been allocated. You DO NOT send your letter to us to forward, we will only send it back to you. If you are in the UK and are using our safe address, recommended, once we receive a reply from your inmate, we send it onto you.
Q: Once a penpal match is made, what information does the Penpal Scheme give the inmate about the outmate?
A: No information about the outmate is ever given to the inmate.
Q: Do I have to give my home address?
A: NO! We highly recommend that you use a post office box or church mailing address. If you live in the UK, and your mail can be redirected to a UK address you can use our office address, we will then send your mail onto you, as many of our outmates do.
Q: What rules should outmates and inmates follow?
A: Outmates have on-line guidelines on do’s and don’ts. These are to help ensure that outmates and inmates have realistic expectations of the relationship. Inmates know the rules for the prison system about what they can and can’t do. They are also sent the BTG Penpal Scheme rules when they are sent an application form.
Q: Do you open mail that comes from an inmate?
A: Normally if you are using the BTG safe address, your mail is sent onto you without it being opened. There are though circumstances when mail could be opened. If the inmate has sent a large letter, we have to try and see if we can reduce it, safely to a standard size letter. If a letter arouses our suspicion we can open it. The penpal scheme is as it says a penpal scheme; therefore there is no need for any large letters, recorded delivery letters, parcels, packages etc (inmates are given a copy of the rules with their application form) to be sent. If we get recorded delivery letters then there is a good reason for us to open the letter. This is usually carried out in the presence of a trustee. We do reserve the right to open any letter but if we do open a letter we let the outmate know the reason why.
Q: Is the Penpal Scheme open to all?
A: Yes. If you are over the age of 18.
Q: How long does it take to be allocated an inmate?
A: We will allocated an inmate to you as quickly as possible, but please remember we are ALL volunteers. It can take up to 6 months, so please be patient.
Q: How many inmates may I write to?
A: We ask that you begin with no more than three inmates. If you can then handle more, we will be happy to match you with additional inmates. The joy of having a penpal (for you and the inmate) is having the opportunity to feel a personal connection with someone.
Q: How do I become a penpal?
A: It’s easy. Just complete our online application on the Penpal page. Once we have approved your application, we will be able to match you with a inmate as soon as possible.
Q: Should I use a pseudonym when writing to an inmate?
A: That depends on what makes you feel comfortable. Using a pseudonym does help to minimize whatever risk is involved in corresponding with a inmate, but if you are comfortable with using your real name, that is fine. We want this experience to be as positive as possible for both the outmate and the inmate. BUT you MUST let us know what name you are using. This is because if you are using our safe address, and we don’t know that you are using a different name, we won’t know who to send your mail onto!
Q: Can I choose to correspond with a female inmate?
A: Yes, all female outmates can choose to correspond with a female inmate. However, there is a very long waiting period due to the fact that only a very few female inmates request pen pals. This shortage of female inmates is due to the fact that only a small percentage of the prison population is female, and many of them have shorter sentences than male inmates, which reduces their need for pen pals.
Q: My penpal has written to ask for money. Should I send him a little money?
A: This is a question we receive from time to time, as inmates often make this request. The basic necessities are provided for prisoners. And in our guidelines, we strongly recommend that gifts of money not be a part of the penpal relationship. The purpose of being a penpal to an inmate is to provide a friend with whom to exchange letters and words of encouragement. A good response is: “That is against BTG guidelines.”
Q: My inmate has asked for my home address, what should I do?
If your inmate has asked for your home address, it means that you are writing via the BTG safe address. Our advice is to remind your inmate that in the rules sent to him/her it does state that they are not to ask for the home address of their outmate. If you do give out your home address we at BTG cannot help you if something should go wrong. Sometimes an inmate will write for quite a while, and gain your trust, and then spring the idea on you to write to you direct rather than via the BTG office. Please be aware that this is often a tactic of an inmate grooming their outmate and could lead to major problems. Stay safe, do not give out your home address.
Q: I have received a letter from an inmate that has not been allocated to me via the BTG office, is this alright?
A: NO, if you have received a letter from an inmate, and you have NOT written to them in the first place, it means that your address has been either passed on by the inmate at that prison that you are writing to, or another inmate has got hold of one of your letters to an inmate and decided to write to you.
Our advice is to let the BTG office know immediately, this is because they have already broken the rules and bypassed the safety systems that we have set in place. These safety systems are there to protect YOU, and by taking up correspondence with the inmate you are leaving yourself wide open to problems.
Q: I wrote my first letter to my penpal, but it was returned. Why didn’t it make it?
A: After careful deliberation, you finally write your first letter to your penpal. You pop it in the post wondering what your penpal friend will be like. A week later the letter comes back with some unintelligible message stamped on the front. When mail is returned stamped “paroled,” the person is no longer in prison. Let the Penpal Scheme office know, and we’ll match you with another inmate. If any other message is written or stamped across the front, send the letter one more time in another envelope. Sometimes the initial message is inaccurate. If it is returned to you again, let The Penpal Scheme office know, and we will offer you another inmate. Many inmates wait up to six months for an outmate; sometimes they’re moved to another prison while they’re waiting.
Q: I’ve been corresponding with my penpal for several months and my last letter was returned to me. What should I do?
A: First, try resending the letter. There may have been a mix-up at the prison. If that letter is also returned, you can call the facility to see if your inmate has been moved. Unless the inmate contacts BTG, we won’t know his or her location. Regretfully, prisons do not typically forward mail.
Q: My inmate has told me that he is soon to be released and needs help in getting re-established. What can I do?
A: You can have the inmate write to us requesting help and advice. BTG Office may be able to help the inmate make contact with various agencies who might be able to help. We have a sister website, which has a vast amount of useful information on it. www.british-prisons.co.uk
Q: How can I get matched with another inmate?
A: You do NOT need to register or reapply to receive another inmate. You can write to us via postal mail, call by telephone, or email us email@example.com
. It’s just that simple! BUT make sure you leave your full name and mailing address. This enables us to locate you in our database and serve you more efficiently.
Q: What type of items can I send in the mail to my inmate?
A: There are no uniform standards for what is acceptable to send to your inmate, as every prison has its own guidelines. The best thing to do is ask the inmate what is allowed or call the prison and ask the mailroom if you can send a particular item. Most prisons do not allow hardcover books, cassette tapes, etc to be sent. These have to come from a publisher or direct from the shop/supplier, like Amazon etc.
Q: Does the scheme cost the outmate anything?
A: Although it does cost money to run the penpal scheme, we do not actually make a charge to either the outmate or the inmate. We do encourage donations of money and stamps (Please DO NOT send BTG SAEs though) to help us to keep the scheme running. It costs us £60 per month minimum to keep the scheme running, so any donations are always welcome.
Q: I have sent a Bible/New Testament in to my inmate and it has been returned to me, why?
A: All religious books MUST be requested via the Chaplaincy department at the relevant prison that the inmate is in. There are strict rules on what an inmate is allowed and not allowed to have in their possession, this includes religious books.
If your particular inmate has asked you for a particular religious book, check first that he/she cannot get a copy via their Chaplaincy department.
To contact the Chaplaincy Department in any prison, just write to The Chaplaincy Team, HMP…….. and they will answer you or make sure that your inmate receives the particular religious book, if allowed.
Q: Do you have a complains procedure?
A: Yes we do. They are very few and far between, usually made by not reading the FAQs fully etc.
To lodge any sort of complaint, please write to our office address marking your letter for the attention of Jason Smythe or email firstname.lastname@example.org again marking your email for the attention of Jason. Once your letter or email is received we will look into your complaint.
Any complaint is dealt with in the following way:-
Inmates and Outmates complaints are given priority, this is due to the fact that, especially for the outmate, there could be further problems that need addressing as a matter of urgency.
All other complaints are dealt with and replied to within 15 working days of receipt of the complaint. The 15 working days is from when we receive your complaint, NOT from the day you send it. Please remember Saturdays and Sundays are not classed as working days.
Please DO NOT chase your complaint, chasing of any complaint will only result in your complaint being dismissed. If you do not follow the forgoing complaints procedure then your complaint WILL be dismissed and there is NO appeal. Please remember that we are a voluntary organisation we don’t work full time and when we are dealing with complaints we are taking resources away from our work. Irrespective of how a complaint is received the reply will where possible be sent by email and not letter, only in very rare circumstances will a letter be used.
Q. How can I get help for an inmate?
A. Please share your request with the Bridging the Gap office. One of our volunteers will get in touch with the inmate to offer friendship along with information about Bridging the Gap programs available in that prison. Do keep in mind that the specific programs in a given institution are dependent upon available volunteers and resources. This can vary from prison to prison and area to area.
Q. How can I get help for an ex-inmate (aftercare)?
A. We suggest that you contact Bridging the Gap office. The staff can provide materials and resources for assisting former inmates as they make the transition back into society.
Q. How can I get help for the spouse of an inmate?
A. We know that imprisonment can cause difficult problems, needs, and stresses within the family. We hope in some way to be able to offer moral support and encouragement to family members of inmates. Please contact Bridging the Gap office with your request. Our volunteer staff here will be familiar with any support groups or other programs available in your area through Bridging the Gap or other ministries.
Q. How can I schedule James Stevens-Turner for an upcoming event?
A. You need to call the national office of Bridging the Gap about James’s speaking engagements. The number is 02080901486, during office hours 09.00 to 17.00 Monday to Friday, or you can email email@example.com.
We have a handy Guidelines page with a number of Do’s and Don’t’s which you should look at.