The Recovery Benefits of Being a Prison Pen Pal

By Anna James 06/27/16

How the WriteAPrisoner community helps prisoners feel connected and inspires sobriety.

Prison Pen Pals
From prison to sobriety and happiness.

Almost two-thirds of the nation’s 2.3 million prisoners are drug-addicted, and just 11% receive any form of treatment while incarcerated.

Pen pal website boasts 14,000 inmate profiles, facilitating relationships between inmates and free citizens, through which thousands of Americans support inmates in addiction and recovery via letter correspondence. 

In 2010, Sarah, now 39, joined the WriteAPrisoner community, where a friend in the forum encouraged her to write Bryan, 33, an inmate at Southern Ohio Correctional Facility, who wasn’t receiving any “hits” on his profile.

From her UK home 4,000 miles away, Sarah supports Bryan, who is serving a 28-year sentence for the manufacture and distribution of methamphetamine, kidnapping, drug trafficking and murder. “It all stems back to the drugs,” said Sarah.

“He has been a drug addict since he was fourteen or fifteen years old. After his incarceration he still took drugs on a daily basis, anything from saving up his medication, smoking weed, taking Suboxone, meth, heroin, whatever was available,” said Sarah.

“Bryan talked about how easy it was to get drugs inside and how people used them to trade for food or phone time. It just made prison life more bearable.”

Sarah described prison as ordered and uncertain, chaotic and stiflingly routine, believing Bryan used drugs to break the monotony of years suspended in time.

Almost three years ago on his birthday, Bryan made the decision to “go cold turkey.” 

“He laid on his rack (bed) high on Suboxone, and thought, what the hell am I doing? He came to the conclusion that after I'd stood by him and supported him as a friend, that I deserved the same kind of respect and friendship in return, and he could never be the kind of friend I deserved while he was still using,” said Sarah.

“He made the decision to quit drugs there and then, and hasn't taken any since. It hasn't been easy. He gets a lot of ribbing from fellow inmates about being a pussy. He is still offered drugs on a daily basis.”

The prison drug trade is relationship-forming, establishing alliances and hierarchies. Paradoxically, relationships with those on the outside facilitate recovery.  

“The main thing that keeps him saying ‘no’ is that he doesn't want to lose daily phone calls, emails and contact visits,” said Sarah.

“He often tells me that the high he used to get from drugs would disappear after the drugs wore off, but the high he gets from feeling loved and loving me doesn't wear off. He doesn't feel like he has an empty space to fill anymore, so he doesn't feel the need to get high. He doesn’t get any support from the prison.”

Last August, Bryan proposed to Sarah on bended knee in the visiting room. They plan to wed this October. 

“He won't go back to drugs. Staying clean in prison is a lot harder than staying clean on the outside because there are so many drugs available to him in there,” said Sarah. 


“My hobbies are working out and listening to music. I’m looking for a pen pal to converse with and to pass time,” reads Kenneth’s WriteAPrisoner profile.

“I was eating Xanax and I blacked out and I woke up in somebody’s house. They charged me with burglary. I got six years for that,” wrote Kenneth, 29, from Lebanon Correctional Institution in Ohio. 

“There’s not a lot of support in here from anybody. The CO (correctional officer) talks to you like you’re a kid, and most of these dudes think they are better than everybody else,” wrote Kenneth. “I have three buddies in here that encourage me, and we help each other to stay in line and do the right thing.” 

“To get into programs you have to sign up for them, and most have a long waiting list. Here, they offer ‘MoneySmart,’ ‘Thinking for a Change,’ ‘Victim Awareness,’ and they have one drug program,” wrote Kenneth.

“You go to class for two hours in the morning and two hours at night, five days a week. You have to go to AA or NA while you’re in there and after you complete it.” He explained the six-month intensive program “will really help you if you try, but people on drugs got to want to stop using them on their own.” 

“Loved ones is the biggest motivator in here to stay on track, because if you get in trouble you go to the hole (solitary confinement) and you lose contact with everybody,” said Kenneth, who favors letters. “You still get paper mail in the hole.”


“This terribly depressing system is the type of thing you only learn about if you are exposed to it,” said Dianne, 62, who writes to her grandson, Dylan, 26, at Fox Lake Correctional Facility, where he is currently in “the hole” for smoking marijuana. 

“He has been in the system since he was in grade school,” said Dianne. Dylan’s current incarceration is for violating his parole from a five-year conviction for selling his mother’s Oxycontin. 

A self-identified recovering addict, Dianne is Dylan’s “only link” to family, who describes herself as working alone within a prison system that ignores addiction. 

“I cannot believe that because someone broke a law, they are automatically denied any kind of humanity. As for ‘rehab’ for drug problems, there is none. The political culture does not allow money for sincere rehab. It’s by will alone,” said Dianne. “All they hear about is recidivism and the likelihood of them showing up again.”

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the re-arrest rate for drug offenders is 77% within five years of release. In 2010, a Columbia University study found that for every former inmate remaining drug and crime-free and is employed, the economy would benefit by $90,953 annually (approximately $99,326 by 2016 inflation).  

To remedy the lack of in-house support, Dianne has become Dylan’s drug counselor, by “sharing how I quit and how I stay sober. I have sent him materials on NA and AA and hooked him up with the head of the local NA chapter and they exchanged letters.” 

Dylan—who will be released in August—did not qualify for the only rehabilitation program at Fox Lake because they are reserved for long-term inmates.

“Wisconsin prisons are stretched so thin and their resources are so limited, but when I heard Dylan was sitting in a cell—again—and not being offered any tools or strategies to cope with real life on the outside, I wrote them a letter,” said Dianne. 

The assistant warden responded by putting Dylan's name on the list for 'Thinking for a Change,' a cognitive behavioral-based program, which he completed in May. 

“We often talk about his continuing struggle with drugs. He has been in and out, in and out [of prison], and within a short time he is right back on the stuff. He seems to be incapable of stopping,” said Dianne.

For the two weeks following a drug user’s release, their risk of fatal overdose is at an all-time high because of reduced tolerance.

“I actually cherish, and always will, the time I’ve spent talking to him about his goals, plans and dreams because once he is out, he could, and probably will, change.”

“For now, I hold on to the words he says and hope. There’s nothing else to do.”

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