Prison Letters

I had the dubious honor of receiving my first fan letter from a guy in prison. Normally I treasure fan mail, especially letters from people who take the time to write in longhand these days, but not this time. I was creeped out that a man in jail wrote to me, especially when he said I’m attractive based on my author photo. He doesn’t realize it, but from the age he stated, I’m old enough to be his mother. I wouldn’t mind compliments about my books, but let’s not make the remarks personal, okay?
It must be terribly boring to be incarcerated. I mean, what else do prisoners have to do besides read? Do prisons have libraries? If not, prisoners would have to rely on friends and relatives to send books.
My fan mentioned that he has pictures of himself on MySpace if I want to look at them, plus he commented on one of my blog posts. That means he has computer access. Are prison inmates really allowed to participate in social networks? Should I be worried that he’s checking out the photos I post on my blog? I don’t get personal, showing photos from research trips, conferences, cruises, and other excursions. But still…someone is watching.     
I’m curious about what your response would be in this situation. I have no intention of writing back. What would you do?

24 thoughts on “Prison Letters

  1. I would write back, because he is a human being, just like me. But in prison, serving time for a crime he committed.

  2. You never know the difference you make in someone’s life because what you consider as a trivial thing for you might be something amazing to someone else. Maybe the one response back to him could be something like, “thank you and I hope you are able to resume your life once you’ve served your time in prison. As a token of my hope for your rehabilitation, please find a signed copy of my latest novel.”

    I think to a regular fan, it would be awesome. But for someone incarcerated who may be looking to better themselves, it might be a catalyst to greater things for their soul.

    But, if he attempts further contact, I would then ignore them.

  3. Nancy, not only do some inmates have access to computers, but privately run prisons work out deals with big business so that the prisoners are put in charge of regular people’s account information. This allows the inmates to make some sort of income while incarcerated that they can collect when they leave. A wise rule of thumb is to never post anything on your myspace or facebook account you wouldn’t want a future employer to see.

    As to your dilemma, I’d write back but keep the letter impersonal, like an agent’s form rejection almost. It’s completely logical, based on the information you’ve provided, to not want to fuel whatever fire this individual may have for you. And without having read the letter, it’s difficult for anyone but you to make a serious judgement call on the matter. Not responding is definitely safer since you have no idea what he’s in for. But what if you were him? It sounds like he’s quite young (early 20’s, late teens?) so social morays, like talking about how attractive a woman is while you’re in prison, may not be something he thinks about.

    And am I the only one who thinks the anonymous response above is totally creepy?

  4. I would definitely respond. There’s so little light in their day that I think a kind word could make all the difference in the world.

    I’d be careful, though, to use my publisher’s address as my return address.

    John Gilstrap

  5. Nancy, I think a fan is a fan. Keep your response strictly business, and like John said, use your pub’s return address.

  6. I second John’s statement about the address, don’t use a personal address on correspondence. On the other hand, I know three men, two former prisoners and one serving a life sentence for murder, who after incarceration became something very different than when they went in. One is a pastor and another a deacon. The life sentence other is the one who led the future pastor to Christ while inside.

    This is a person who is interested in your work and has little else to do but workout and read books/internet. Don’t give up personal details or anything like that, but correspond. Who knows what a difference you can make.

  7. On a similar note. Here are some personal security tips for web users.

    -Never put your personal address address on the web

    – Never put your home or cell phone number on the web unless you want all types of strangers to find out where you live

    – Don’t talk about vacations or long absences you are taking until you are back from them

    – Never agree to meet someone you only know through the web, even if you’ve seen video of them

    – If your stories are the type that might attract stalkers, beware…you might attract stalkers

  8. Ask him if he would consider killing someone for you. I mean, you never know. There might be a book here. I’d write back and go the impersonal route. He won’t buy enough books to take a chance on attracting. Plus, God knows what he’s doing with your photo in the privacy of his cell.

  9. Speaking of creepy, here’s something to keep in mind: your home address, personal cell phone number, etc, are probably all online already.

    Do a few searches for yourself and your friends at the various “find people” search engines, and you’ll come away shaky, and I don’t mean you’ll be shaking your head. Your hands will be shaky and your blood cold. Admittedly, most of it is accessible only to those willing to pay for it, but the free information is specific enough to enable, and then verify, some pretty shrewd guessing. I could, right now, track down at least two of the regular authors on this blog, within a few days, and I paid for nothing. (I’m not coming after you. I promise!)

    Where does this stuff come from? Public record, for one thing. Arrest records, birth and death announcements, etc, all contain information you might not want as widely known as it will be these days, and all of it is data that has been determined to be “public,” as in “the public has a right to know.” And then there’s the grocery store, or the video rental place, or your coffee shop. How many “customer rewards” cards do you carry and use? You gave them your name and address for each and every one of those, and most of them have no compunctions at all about selling it to the highest bidder (along with your purchasing habits). The highest bidder, these days, is likely to be someone who makes a living by buying that information, putting it online in a searchable database, and running a paywall to control access to it.

    Don’t believe me? Try it. You’ll be appalled. And shaky.

  10. Levi is correct. Your information is out there no matter how careful you think you are about keeping it private. But I’ve decided not to worry about it. I’m in the hands of the Almighty God, and He knows how many hairs are on my head and has numbered my days.

    I’ve also received numerous fan letters from prisoners. Some have been heartfelt stories of why they are incarcerated. Others have been creepy. So far I have only answered one. I first called the jail to make sure the person was really there. Then I sent him some more of my books.

    I have two letters on my desk right now from prisoners. I am considering sending them some books, too.

  11. I have a kid in the joint. As Basil said, the experience will change them. They really don’t have anything to do all day (Unles they’re lucky enough to land a job in there) except work out and read.

    Books can be sent to them from a select number of sources. Also keep in mind that all they’re correspondence – whether going in or out- is screened.

    Should you decide to respond, do what others have suggested to hide your personal information. After that, I’d say ask them what they thought of the book.

    Damn, I’m double spacing again. Michelle is gonna read me the riot act…

  12. All of these are good points. Let me add only one thing: You can’t withdraw your presence from the Internet and you shouldn’t try. Your information, if it’s not already out there, will be out there soon. Protect it in all the normal ways and then move on with your life and career.

    The actual numbers of stalkers and other miscreants online is quite low. The numbers have been inflated and made sensational in the media, but the actual data says its rare. So do protect yourself and practice common sense, but realize your best defense in this case is to blend in with the crowd. e.g. Don’t withdraw from online interactions and make yourself a target by appearing afraid.

    I’d respond to the guy. He sounds lonely, but he’s a fan. Treat him like a human being who made a mistake. Respect generally goes a long way with men and getting a letter in the mail – receiving anything personal – might mean the world to him. Just leave out your personal details and use your publisher’s address as has already been mentioned. Do respond personally though.

    Remember that you also don’t know what he’s in for (unless he told you). It could be anything – as mundane as embezzlement or shoplifting. There’s a story in my state of a kid who poked another kid with a pencil and was sent to juvie for using a “deadly weapon.” So don’t assume the worst. Start from the standpoint that this is a human being.

  13. I’d write back, be professional, thank him for reading my book–and tell him my husband of 30 years loves it too. (I’d also encourage him to pass my book on to his friends! Talk about a captive audience!)

    I’ve had college kids sending me messages on FB asking if I’m available. I write back, “Hey, my son who is your age would be very upset!

    But, joking aside, my friend Julie has rec’d letters from inmates. She’s a stunning blond and sells real estate. She chooses not to respond, just because, well, they’re not in the market to buy, if you know what I mean.

    Sorry your letter distressed you. Do what makes you feel best. And hey, Nancy, it must stink to be beautiful! 🙂

    xox, Piks

  14. Thank you for your words of wisdom. I am still uncomfortable writing back to this fan, especially since he complimented more than my works. I’d rather not encourage any further communication, but that’s just me. A woman has to be careful.

  15. First I would find out what he’s in for which is relatively easy to do if you know where to look. Second, having personally known a serial killer who is in prison, I really don’t subscribe to all this “brighten someone’s day/even prisoners have feelings” crap. I wouldn’t be inclined to give this guy any attention mostly because he did comment on your attractiveness and went on to let you know you could check out pictures of him on his myspace page (prisoners get Myspace pages? Really?). He’s not interested in your work. This has stalker written all over it. No offense to other commenters but there is so little light in prisoners’ days for a reason. What if he raped or murdered someone? What if it was a child? Some people do not deserve something amazing to happen in their day. That’s the harsh reality. Sure he might be in for a small-time drug offense or identity theft in which case a form response would probably be fine but right now he knows more about you than you know about him. I wouldn’t give him any attention.

    And yeah, Anonymous’ comment was creepy.

  16. John’s suggestion (about having your publisher send a book) is a wise one for another reason: some prisons are very strict about what inmates can receive from private sources.

    At the risk of being unmerciful,I would err on the side of caution. (The guys comments about photos made me a little uneasy). Motives get twisted on the inside. Sadly, I’ve seen how acts of kindness can lead to exploitation.

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