How to Write to People in Prison (paper letters)

Core Principles

Prison response is when an incarcerated person writes to us not as a penpal exchange, but as a part of our organizing. When someone is helping with the response they commit to making a specific letter to respond to this person and mailing it, as well as doing followup steps to connect them with future organizing. They do not commit to longterm contact with this person. If you have trouble with a response, please contact another person involved with Milwaukee IWOC. Thank you for helping this work along, it’s incredibly important to help organize information, get more information, and rapidly followup with people on the inside. By doing this, we can build up outside support, deploy our resources to fight and win campaigns, and longterm help build a world without prisons and without capitalism.

Whenever you respond to one or more letters, initially you should fill out this online form right before or right after you mail it Once you’ve been doing this activity for awhile and feal comfortable in it you don’t need to do this, but initially this helps document that people are following through on letter response and identifies challenges or problems people may have. 

Acknowledge the last letter you received from them, and its date (i.e. “We received your 12/5/16 letter…”)

Each letter is different, each response should be different. Your responses will be written concisely and quickly. (it’s recommended a maximum of 10 minutes per letter) You should still respond to what they are specifically saying. Here are some strategies for things that will be helpful in writing most responses:

1) Address the emotions of what they are saying. Express support, sympathy. State your honest feelings, that what they describe is terrible, and that they should be treated better. Be specific to what they’re saying, show that this isn’t just a stock response letter—you have read and processed what they said. (This is the hardest part about responding to prisoner intake).

2) Express a vision of solidarity, the way that the abuse and problems they describe are connected to power and powerlessness. Suggest the possibilities if people came together and recognized interconnectedness, if they practiced solidarity. Do this in general terms, avoiding obvious organizing talk. What this looks like in your writing will depend on what they write, and connections you see.

3) Ask for more information about conditions they experience, things they’ve seen and heard.

4) Ask questions that can help connect the person with others. This is how you take the solidarity vision and apply it in practice. Ask if they’d like to be connected to other people, in facilities in the state and outside, who have the same concerns. Possibly ask them about joining the IWW if they’re not a member. Ask about them writing for Voices, if they’d find research useful. Ask what keeps them isolated.

5) Give updates. There’s an active google doc used to provide different updates from inside and outside on stuff happening relating to the Wisconsin prison system. To get access to this document, ask an active IWOC member or email

What are they saying?

On the front of the outside of the envelope, write down short summary of what they’re saying. If applicable, use the following codes:

Penpal Request, Membership Application, Legal Request, Contact Request, Financial Request, Research Request, Voices Submission, Complaint, Agenda Item/Organizing Update, Mailing Blocked, New Contacts, Active Organizing. These different kinds of communication require different types of followup. Talk to a more experienced IWOC member or email us at if you have questions on what to do next.

On 4/6/19 there was a discussion among Milwaukee IWOC members on how to respond to letters from prison. To hear the audio recording of this discussion, talk to a more experienced IWOC member or contact us at

This is a summary of what was covered in this conversation:

0:01- 00:24    Intro to call

0:25- 3:05  When sending a letter into prison, who will read it? What are restrictions on images?

3:06-8:59   Does the DOC collect letters of a certain type over time?

9:00-15:56     May I send journals, articles, books etc?

15:57-22:01   How do people respond when people request individual legal support?

22:01-26:00  How do we respond to other personal requests?

26:01–27:24    Do you look up people for incarcerated people when requested?

27:25–29:11    Women volunteers writing to incarcerated people, inappropriate asks

29:12–32:30    Is there a list of groups iwoc can refer people to? (legal support, re entry, etc) 

32:31-29:29     How do people respond to homophobia and misogny in letters they get?

39:30-46:32      What do you do when people write about really brutal experiences?

46:33-29:29    What’s the counseling option like in prison?

49:30-59:19    What do you do when people say “other incarcerated people are too complacent”?

59:20-65:08    Comparison of Milwaukee IWOC and locals in other states, strategy