The Prisoner Correspondence Project (PCP)—a group that connects LGBTQ2S+ incarcerated people with LGBTQ2S+ pen pals on the outside—is attempting to mitigate the mental health challenges these prisoners may face. The project is based in Montreal and involves prisoners and letter-writers across the continent; its volunteers believe in the power of communication and relationship-building to combat the loneliness experienced by incarcerated people.
According to the American Psychological Association, 64 percent of incarcerated individuals in prisons across America experience serious mental health concerns—this is compounded by the isolation inmates feel while being locked up and separated from loved ones and people to talk to.
“The whole point of prisons is to separate the supposed ‘bad people’ from the rest of us, as a way to use isolation to punish them. Having a letter come in to a prisoner every few weeks is an effective way of breaking that isolation, making them feel less alone,” says Ivory, a member of the PCP, who prefers to go by first name only.
The project began in 2007 as an offshoot of another prisoner pen pal writing project that was based in the U.S. at the time. The PCP took surplus letters from the U.S. project and became committed to finding pen pals for the writers.
Their operations eventually fully transferred to Montreal, while initially keeping a still mostly U.S.-centric population of incarcerated pen pals. They eventually did more outreach to Canadian institutions. In the beginning, the pen pal matchmaking was done manually—they would receive handwritten descriptions prisoners would write of themselves. They’d file these descriptions, and whenever a volunteer would seek a pen pal, they’d go through the descriptions one by one to see which prisoner would be a match.
“Over the 16 years, it snowballed and we now have four thousand unmatched prisoners in our database—it became very unfeasible to continue doing matchups manually,” Ivory says.
Volunteers are spread across Canada and the U.S., and are separated into two groups. The outside collective is made up of volunteers who are unincarcerated and mostly facilitate the pen pal connection process by responding to inquiries and by matching pen pals with prisoners. The inside collective is made up of volunteers who are incarcerated and mostly provide insight on how prisons operate to the outside collective. The two collectives regularly communicate through mail about the overall functioning of the project.
“It’s really useful to have people on the inside who are a part of our team, because the rest of us don’t really have the knowledge or experience of being in prison. Having people volunteer for us who have that first-hand knowledge is essential,” Ivory says.
In the U.S., queer people are overrepresented in prisons, jails and the juvenile justice system. One survey shows 40 percent of incarcerated people in women’s prisons identify somewhere on the LGBTQ2S+ spectrum.
The PCP bases itself on abolitionist principles and sees incarceration as a fundamentally unacceptable response to crime. Beyond running the pen pal program, they also publish a newsletter and curate an online resource library filled with printable materials that can be sent out to queer prisoners. These resources include pamphlets on topics such as HIV and safer sex, safer drug use and “gay smut” zines.They’ve also sent out printed legal resources so incarcerated queer people are able to advocate for themselves, as well as important educational materials on feminizing hormones.
“Queer prisoners are especially more likely to also be isolated from their families and therefore have no support in prison,” says Ivory. “So being able to provide a pen pal connection with someone who hopefully is at least familiar with the struggles of being queer and with whom they can talk freely about their queer identity is really helpful for them.”
Research has shown abuse of queer people is commonplace in prisons. A 2021 study by the Coverdale Courtwork Society reported on by CBC News noted that queer prisoners are often subject to harassment, discrimination, misgendering and offensive language from prison staff.
One survey by the U.S. Department of Justice found that while four percent of prisoners overall reported experiencing sexual abuse in prison, the proportions were much higher for sexual minorities. Over twelve percent of non-heterosexual inmates and 21 percent of non-heterosexual inmates with serious psychological distress have experienced sexual victimization. Another survey by Black & Pink National, a queer abolitionist organization, found that LGBTQ2S+ inmates across jails in the U.S. were over six times more likely to have experienced sexual assault in prison than the general prison population.
Though the PCP isn’t intended to mitigate abuse from staff, Ivory says it has had the unintended effect of doing so.
“When prison staff see that an inmate is receiving mail, they’re more likely to assume that that inmate has someone on the outside who cares about them, and would advocate for them if they ever faced mistreatment. It makes prison guards more cautious around certain prisoners. It makes sure they don’t mess with them, in a way,” they say.
The PCP also combats the common poor mental health outcomes associated with being incarcerated. One case study showed that prisoner pen pal schemes like it offer early warnings of potential suicide while also increasing the chances of successful rehabilitation.
“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,” said the lead of the study, Professor Jacqueline Hodgson, in an interview in a press release by the University of Warwick. “All of this raises the prisoners’ chances of successful rehabilitation.”
Among other effects, prisoners highlighted that having a pen pal helped them boost their mood through having a distraction from the mundanity of prison routine, and also raised their hopes for life beyond prison.
Ivory says the most rewarding element of the project is prisoners writing in to say how much they appreciate the project, how glad they are that there are people on the outside who haven’t forgotten them.
“We get messages even from prisoners who don’t have a pen pal yet, who say they’re just grateful enough knowing we exist, because it makes them feel safer and seen,” they say.
What is also rewarding are some of the more material positive effects; Ivory recounts one time when a prisoner told the PCP that, after they showed the PCP’s food newsletter to one of the prison wardens, they were able to get lunches served on weekends—which hadn’t been happening previously.
The PCP regularly receives messages from outside pen pals who say the pen pal relationship has become a really valuable connection in their lives. “Knowing we’ve facilitated a lot of connections that are really meaningful for people on the inside and outside is something I cherish,” Ivory says.
One major challenge, however, has been scaling up—while the operation began small and had a rapid growth in pen pal numbers as time went on, the team’s size did not grow simultaneously. Since 2007, there has always been a low number of volunteers. Attracting new volunteers has been a prominent challenge, and handling a large database with a very small staff has been strenuous.
“But the amazing and affirming response from everyone who’s benefited from the project very much makes up for all the hurdles,” Ivory says.