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The U.S. Postal Service: A Prisoner's Lifeline

Writing and mailing hand-written letters: some might say this practice is outdated and inefficient—a remnant of times long past. In 2021, most of us opt instead for firing off a quick text or email, connecting almost instantaneously to our neighbor across the street or to a friend around the world. For incarcerated individuals, however, “old-fashioned” letters and the U.S. Postal Service are critical not only to ensuring communication with the outside world, but to staying sane and retaining a sense of humanity. Indeed, the real punishment of prison is not in locking men and women in cages or condemning them to die, but starving them of love, compassion, and respect. Correspondence with the outside world is integral to fulfilling these individuals’ desires to feel human and heard.

Because there is typically no access to texts, emails, or faxes in prison, there are few prisoners who aren’t in search of a stamp. Everything that is sent out from prison — a letter to your lawyer, a drawing for your daughter, or a College Guild lesson response — must be mailed through the facility’s mail room and postal system. Each and every letter must be adorned with a stamp. Easy enough, right? Fifty cents a stamp? A dollar?

Maybe, but even $0.50 to a prisoner can mean sacrificing necessities from the commissary just to get a letter out. Regardless, as money is prohibited in correctional facilities, common prison currency is either postage stamps or foil packs of mackerel, which can be purchased from the commissary. Stamps as prison currency is understandable - they carry a high price-to-size ratio and are easy to conceal.

Rules and regulations surrounding the mailing of letters, books, newspapers, etc., vary from prison to prison. Some institutions want all mail received by prisoners to be composed only of black and white writing or pictures--often photocopies of the original work--while others allow writing only on one side of a sheet of paper. All mail, however, regardless of the prison, is inspected for contraband - most types of which can be agreed on by all federal and state institutions to fall into prohibited categories: no staples or paperclips, no writing that can be construed as a secret code, no ciphers. And absolutely no glitter, stickers, or anything else that could personalize your letter and differentiate it from any more standard fare. Gang and security threat group communication with the outside is censored by barring gang signs, codes, tattoos, and imagery. Correspondence between persons incarcerated at different facilities is prohibited to prevent criminal collusion, though exceptions may be made for family members.

Mail censorship is commonplace in correctional institutions. Limits are placed on the amount of mail a prisoner may receive, and as mentioned earlier, the materials he or she may obtain are restricted. Even then, all mail--incoming and outgoing--is read by a prison official. Following several Supreme Court cases in the 70s and 80s claiming that prisoners’ first amendment rights were being impinged upon, mail censorship has become somewhat more relaxed. Certainly, the amount of actual censorship today is limited in view of these same First Amendment rights. Some inmates (again, dependent on the facility’s mail rules) can have magazines and photographs, unless they feature total nudity, genital exposure, female toplessness, or are sexually explicit. Censorship of reading material has also become more flexible. For example, some prison mail clerks allow radical and anarchist literature, browsing through it only to ensure it isn't calling for prison riots. Take a look at the state of Pennsylvania's mail rules and rights for its prisoners--they contain stricter contraband restrictions than, say, Hawaii’s.

Families and lawyers aren’t the only people who must follow these facilities’ every-changing rules and regulations. As these regulations vary state by state (and federally), College Guild works to stay informed of each State’s requirements for mail correspondence. By staying up-to-date on each state’s rules, CG is able to offer correspondence and lessons to more than 500 students annually.

Written by: Charlotte Wulf - CG Intern

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