Prison BuddhaPal Program
SZC receives letters from inmates at our local county jail and other state correctional institutions asking for BuddhaPals. This is a wonderful opportunity for sangha members to help lift the spirits, offer encouragement, and perhaps give Buddhist guidance to inmates who are hungry for help. We have all levels of requests. Most requesting BuddhaPals express interest in Buddhism. A few of them practice Buddhism on their own or with a Buddhist prison program. Some have read about Buddhism enough to be interested in practicing it. Some are merely curious and some aren't even curious but are looking for human kindness.
If you are interested in participating in the Prison BuddhaPal program, you can receive some scans of current inmate letters requesting a pen pal. You will be able to choose from the letters that are available. There is a elist of prison BuddhaPals to which you can be added if you become a BuddhaPal. You can ask questions, share ideas and experiences, and receive notifications from the coordinator that you have mail.
If you are interested in writing to a prisoner, please read the following guidelines and send a message to firstname.lastname@example.org to get more information about being involved in prison teaching. Go to the SZC Prison Volunteers Google Groups page to join the elist.
GUIDELINES for Prison BuddhaPals:
- It is highly recommended that you not reveal your address to the prisoner you are writing to. If SZC is conveniently located for you, then you can use the SZC postal mailing address. The incoming letters are put in the SZC letter tray by the front door and you are notified via email that you have mail to pick up. You don't even have to use your full name if you'd rather not — but let Reverend Thompson know what name you are using so he can find you.
- Prisons identify prisoners not by name but by the long number which follow their names. Don't leave that off when you write or your letter will probably not find its way to the recipient.
- If a prisoner gets transferred his mail is usually not forwarded so you could be left 'hanging' through no fault of the prisoner.
- Look into using "jpay" (www.jpay.com) as a possibility. First it includes a search to find what facility your prisoner is in. Second if you decide to write your letter online at their site it only costs 45 cents per 'page'—same as an actual postage stamp. So far I have only once managed to write a letter that was long enough to use more than one stamp/page. Anyway the way it works is you compose and send the letter online through jpay—it goes directly to the mail room of the designated prison and they print it off and pass it to the prisoner. Be sure to include your return mail address because your reply will come via snail mail not email. Of course whatever gate you use your mail going in and theirs coming out will be read, at least cursorily, by some prison employee.
- Prisoners can feel very disconnected from the outside world. So don't feel like you have nothing to say — share a little of your life with them. They will be glad to hear about it.
- If you think you aren't "Buddhist" enough to 'teach' them anything—just remember that they have no access to the web and probably have no Buddhist friends. All you need to do is mention a spiritual book you've read and why you liked it—if you found something on the web that is inspirational you can print it out and send it to them—you can tell them how you came to practice. Just little things—nothing profound is necessary. Perhaps they need inspiration and advice about meditation—if you have a meditation practice you can give them some inspiration in that area. Perhaps they just need to know that someone cares.
- Though you can send short articles, you cannot send prisoners books directly. Prisons do not allow it, will not deliver the books, and won't send them back to you. Many prisons will allow prisoners to receive books sent directly to the prisoner from a legitimate bookstore. Some will allow you to send a book to a prisoner in care of the Chaplain. If you want to get a book to your pen pal, check with the inmate pen pal to learn the rules at their particular prison.
- There are many Buddhist/spiritual materials available to prisoners for free: Malas are one item that Buddhist prisoners are allowed to receive. But the inmates rules for them are very specific. Malas must be 108 bead malas (not the short 29-bead ones), they must be made of black beads no wider than 3/8 of an inch (9.4 mm in diameter) and must be strung on cotten thread. You would probably send a mala to a prisoner who wants one in care of the chaplain.
- A book you can recommend to them that is free to prisoners is We're All Doing Time by Bo Lozoff. Tell them to write to: Human Kindness Foundation, PO Box 61619, Durham, NC 27715. There are copies of this book in the SZC library if you want to look at it.
- A free subscription to Shambala Sun may be requested by prisoners, upon receiving a written request from the inmate. Inmates must write Shambala Sun directly at the following address:
Shambhala Sun Foundation
1790 30th St., Suite 280
Boulder, CO 80301
- There are Buddhist correspondence courses which are available to prisoners. Here’s a link to one that has been used by several Lockhart prisoners:http://www.ratnaprisoninitiative.org/