An Unlikely Friendship: A reflection on the prison pen pal experience

Every few days I get a call that starts in a unique way. An automated voice says “You have a prepaid call from an inmate at New Jersey State Prison (NJSP), press five to accept this call.” For the next fifteen minutes, I stop what I’m doing to tell my friend Jay about my day while he tells me about the resentencing motion he is working on. The automated voice comes back by saying “You have 60 seconds remaining,” and we say our goodbyes.

I met Jay (not his real name) through a prison pen pal website. When COVID first began, I wanted a way to make new friends while also giving back to the community. I had previously done Prison Ministry here at Eastern, and I fell in love with learning about prison reform. A friend of mine told me about a pen pal website, so I logged on and started my search for a pen pal.

When I first saw Jay on the website, I knew he was the pen pal for me. His profile talked about his interest in technology and business, and it showed a picture of him in the tan shirt that the inmates wear at NJSP. He seemed genuine and nice, and he was very transparent in his profile. I wrote a page-long letter to him and sent it in the mail. The thing that confused me so much about him was his sentence: life. This kind looking man in his forties had been in prison since 1996, two years before I was born, and he was never getting out.

Once I started talking to Jay, I really got to understand that he is just a normal guy who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was unjustly sentenced to life for being the driver of a getaway car. The hang-up in his situation is that he had no idea that his four acquaintances would be doing something so heinous.

Jay is passionate about the technological renaissance we live in today. He likes to get creative in the makeshift kitchen he has created in his cement cell, and he is proud of the commissary food supply he has stocked up. He loves to talk about his family, specifically his thirteen-year-old niece. He isn’t my prison pen pal anymore; he’s my friend.

If you are looking for a new way to make friends and you have an empathetic heart, I highly recommend finding a prison pen pal. Of course, there are a few things to know before you start.

First, you should always Google prospective pen pals. Most pen pal websites have their Inmate ID
number in the description, and their charges are public record. Second, you should try to use an email system before sending physical letters. It is the easiest way to keep yourself safe, plus you save time and money on stamps and shipping.

Finally, you should try to be as empathetic as possible. While they may be convicted of crimes, they are still human. Just as we are seeking connection through friendships here at Eastern, they are seeking friendship through kind strangers on the outside world.

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