Frequently Asked Questions

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What is the Bent Bars Project about?

The Bent Bars Project is a letter-writing project for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, gender-variant, intersex, and queer (LGBTQ) prisoners in Britain. We match LGBTQ people inside prison with LGBTQ people outside prison so they can write to each other. We aim to develop stronger connections and build solidarity with queer/trans communities inside and outside prison walls.

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How do I become a penpal?

Please read the information on our Get Involved page including our Guidelines for Penpals. We ask you to read the guidelines thoroughly before you decide to become a penpal and please think carefully about whether it is definitely a commitment you can make. We are always looking for more outside penpals, and really value how many great people are part of the project, but we want to avoid creating disappointment for penpals inside prison by matching them up with someone who does not continue to write.  If you would like to be a penpal, please then fill out our questionnaire.

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Can anyone become a penpal? I'm interested, but not sure I'm qualified enough. 

If you are an LGBTQ person who'd like to become a penpal, then we are happy to have you as part of the Bent Bars Project, and to match you up with a penpal.** We think everyone has something to offer, and you don't need to be in any way qualified. You'll probably find that your life experience of being an LGBTQ person will help you write to your penpal, and offer mutual support and solidarity.  

** The only exception to this is, if you express oppressive attitudes or if we think your reasons for being involved are not in keeping with the ethos of the project. 

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Why do I have to fill out a questionnaire to become a penpal?

We ask you to fill out a questionnaire to help us find out more about you so that we can match you up with a suitable penpal. Please don't see it as a scary application form as there are no 'right answers'. 

You can provide as much or as little information as you want. But the more information you provide, the better the chances of us finding you a good penpal match.

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I'm not lesbian, gay bisexual, trans, or queer. Can I still be a penpal?

We are sorry but being a Bent Bars penpal is only open to people who identify in some way as LGBT, queer or gender non-conforming. This is because penpals on the inside are looking for specific support and solidarity in terms of issues such as coming out, or experiences of homophobia. We're really pleased that you'd like to support the Bent Bars Project though, and if you'd like to help out in other ways please get in touch.

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How long does it take to get matched with a penpal?

We aim to match penpals within one to two months. However, it often takes longer because we usually have a long list of people to match, with various different requirements.  If you have very particular requirements about who you are willing to write to, it will probably take longer. Please also bear in mind that we are an entirely volunteer-run project, and we usually only have time do the matching process once per month.

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How often should I write to my penpal?

It's up to you how often you want to write, but we ask that you write at least once per month. The main thing is to be upfront with your penpal about how often you can write, so you don’t build up expectations that you can’t fulfil. If you are finding it hard to write, you don’t need to write loads; it is better to just write a short letter, card or postcard then to never finish that epic long letter you've been meaning to write. If you're feeling guilty about having not written for a while, just get in touch with a short letter letting them know you haven't forgotten. If things in your life have changed and you really don't have time to write anymore then please just get in touch with us at Bent Bars and let us know so we can re-match the inside penpal.

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I've been matched with a penpal, but I’m not sure what to write! How do I start my first letter?

Try beginning by saying a bit about yourself, your interests, and why you wanted to be a penpal.  Ask questions about what your penpal is interested in, what they'd like to get from the penpal project etc.  It's also good to check if there's anything they don't want you to write about or receive information about.  Don't worry if it takes a bit of time to get going and build up a relationship - as with any friendship, you'll probably find you have lots to write about once you've got to know each other better.

Important note: When sending your letter, don’t forget to include the prisoner number on the envelope, otherwise it may not arrive. Please make sure you also include a return address (either your own address or the Bent Bars PO Box address), as some prisons will not accept mail from unidentified senders.

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I'd like to be a penpal, but I don't live in Britain or Northern Ireland. Can I still be a penpal?

The Bent Bars Project is for prisoners in Britain, and generally our outside penpals live here too. Due to the additional cost of international postage and longer time delays, writing to an international penpal is not something everyone inside is happy or able to do. So unfortunately for the most part we are unable to match people from abroad. However, some prisoners do wish to write to international penpals. So if you live elsewhere, feel free to drop us a line and we can see what is possible. There may be other groups we can connect you with. For example there is the Prisoner Correspondence Project in Canada, and Black & Pink in the USA.

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My penpal isn't out as LGBTQ. How much should I write about LGBTQ issues in my letters?

Ask your penpal what is ok to write.  Be aware that just because they have written to you being open about their gender/sexuality doesn't mean its safe for you to write back referring to this. Mail is often screened more on the way into prisons.  Please don't 'out' your penpal by writing anything on the envelope, as this will be seen by mail room staff, and possibly other prisoners. So be careful if you are sending something from an LGBTQ organisation.  If your penpal has told you that they go by a name which isn't their legal name, please ask before you use this on the envelope, as this could 'out' them as transgender/genderqueer, (and the letter might not get to them if they do not have permission to use this name).

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I'm not sure about giving out my home address. Do I have to use my own address to write to a penpal?

No, you can use the Bent Bars PO Box to write to your penpal. When you send a letter to your penpal, just put your full name, c/o BB Project, PO Box 66754, London, WC1A 9B as the return address. When your penpal writes back, their letter will come to us and we will then forward the post on to you. Please bear in mind that this process does take longer than writing directly using your own address. The Bent Bars Organising Collective is only able to check the mail once per week, so we forward mail on a weekly basis.

You are also welcome to use own address if you feel happy doing that. Sometimes penpals begin by using the Bent Bars PO Box, but then when they have built up a relationship with their penpal, they give their own address. It's completely up to you and just depends on what you feel most comfortable with.

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Is it ok to ask my penpal why they're in prison?

We advise you not to ask your penpal why they are in prison, and to wait and see if this is something they feel comfortable sharing. Especially when you are first writing, you will not have built up trust with them, and they may see the question as intrusive or judgemental.

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I was sent information about my penpal and wrote them a first letter but have never heard back. What should I do?

We recommend that you let us know and then write a second follow-up letter. Unfortunately, there are many problems with mail going ‘missing’ in the prison system, so it is very possible that they didn’t receive your letter. (Sometimes both an outside and inside penpal will tell us that they’ve written but neither have received the letters). It is also possible that the person was transferred or released. If you still don't hear from them then please let us know, and we'll match you up with a new penpal. 

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My penpal hasn't written to me in a while. Why is this? What should I do?

Prisoners regularly report to us that they didn’t receive mail that we know was sent, so it is most likely that your penpal didn’t get your letter.  However, there are many other reasons why you might not hear from your penpal. Prisoners can be transferred or even released unexpectedly with very short notice, and would not have time to let their Bent Bars Penpal know. Prisoners may also stop writing if they are facing problems within prison or are having a difficult time. If your penpal has been transferred to a different prison, hopefully they will still have your address (or the PO Box address), and will get in touch again once they are settled.

If you think your penpal has been transferred, but you don’t know where, you can also try locating them through the Ministry of Justice’s ‘Prisoner Location Service’. Just bear in mind the process is quite slow.

http://www.justice.gov.uk/offenders/prisoner-location-service

Either way, we recommend that you write again to your penpal. Please keep Bent Bars updated with what's going on - as we like to keep track of how the penpal matches are going. If you haven't heard from your penpal and would like to be matched up again, please let us know.

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I've really tried to write to my penpal but it's not working, I don’t think we’re a good match.

If you don’t think that it's working out with your penpal, that’s totally fine. Just let us know as soon as possible, and we'll re-match you both as soon as we can. You might want to write a letter to your penpal, explaining that you’re not going to be writing anymore, but that you wish them all the best. If you don’t feel comfortable writing to tell them, then please let us know and we'll write to them instead.

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I haven’t written to my penpal for ages, what should I do?

It is best to stay in regular contact with your penpal, but if things have changed in your life or you've been busy, please don't worry - just send a letter as soon as you can.  It’s good to send a short card to say hi, as often the pressure of not having written for ages makes us feel like we have to write a long letter, and then we put it off for even longer!  Your penpal will probably be understanding and will just appreciate hearing from you again even if its been a while.

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My penpal will be released soon. Should I stay in touch/meet up with them?

The Bent Bars Project is primarily a letter-writing project, but if you feel like you've made a good connection and want to continue this when they are released then you are welcome to do so. It is entirely up to you, so please feel no pressure either way. It is completely ok to let your penpal know that you signed up for a letter-writing project and you would prefer not to meet up.

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My penpal is writing about issues I find very difficult to deal with. Can Bent Bars help me with this?

Please let us know if you are having problems, or are concerned about your penpal, and we'll offer any advice and support that we can.  Bent Bars is about solidarity, mutual support and making links across prison walls.  You are not expected to take on all the problems of your penpal, and you aren't at all obliged to support someone with something you are finding too difficult.  It's ok to set boundaries and limits, and to tell your penpal that there are certain topics you find too much to deal with etc.

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Does Bent Bars screen the penpals who are in prison, or ask questions about their convictions?

We do not ask inside penpals to disclose why they are in prison, and we do not ask inside or outside penpals to give any personal information they do not want to give.  We feel that prisoners already experience a huge amount of surveillance and invasion of their privacy, and we do not want to add to this. Often those asking for a Bent Bars penpal will not be receiving any support from friends, family or fellow prisoners, and will be vulnerable in prison. 

The Bent Bars Collective believes in supporting all prisoners, regardless of their charge or conviction. We take this approach because we recognise that the reasons why people end up in prison are complex and we are not in a position to judge. We also recognise that the prison system disproportionately targets people who already face inequality, discrimination and oppression.

This is not to excuse the serious harms that some people have committed; rather, it is to recognise that giving up on people or reducing them to their conviction is not a successful strategy for accountability and healing. The Bent Bars Collective is committed to anti-violence work and believes that such work requires us to break the cycles of violence rather than perpetuate them through practises of isolation and marginalisation. 

Although Bent Bars supports all prisoners who contact us, you don't personally have to write to anyone you do not feel comfortable with. We feel it is important to respect everyone’s boundaries. So if, for whatever reason, your penpal discloses information and don't feel happy continuing, that is your decision to make.

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Does Bent Bars match up penpals romantically?

Bent Bars is a penpal project for support and friendship, not for romantic relationships. If this is what you're are looking for then we're sorry but Bent Bars isn't for you.

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My penpal is writing things to me that are quite sexual and/or romantic, and it is making me feel uncomfortable. What should I do?

We inform all prisoners who request a penpal that the intention of the project is not to create romatic or sexual relationships. If your penpal seems to be looking for something that you are not interested in, it is best to re-affirm the intention of the project. Try writing to you penpal and clearly stating that you are not looking for a sexual or romantic relationship and that isn't why you signed up to be a Bent Bars penpal. You might also say directly that what they are writing makes you feel uncomfortable. If they continue to do this, or you don't feel happy writing to them, then please let us know and we can re-match you with another penpal.

It's a good idea to make clear at the beginning of your penpal correspondence that you are not looking for a romantic relationship. You can do this in a positive way, e.g. by explaining that you were interested in becoming a Bent Bars penpal because you were looking to make new friendships, and that Bent Bars appealed because it was a project not based on romantic relationships. If you write this in a letter early on, then it won't seem like it is personal to them, and gives you something to refer back to later on if the tone of the letters becomes romantic and you're not happy with that.

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My penpal has asked for money. What should I do?

This is a decision that is entirely up to you, depending on what you feel comfortable with. On the one hand, sending money can sometimes be really helpful to people inside, given the reality of the limited resources they have. If penpals on the outside can afford to do that, it can be a good thing. On the other hand, we know that that sending in money can sometimes create weird power dynamics, or create expectations that can't be fulfilled. At the end of the day, you know your penpal better than we do, so if you think it is a good idea and is unlikely to create any issues, please go ahead. But if you feel concerned about it, then feel free to say no.

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My penpal has asked for a photo of me. Should I send one?

This is entirely up to you. Photos can be a nice way for prisoners to get a sense of their penpals or to visualise the person they are writing to. Sometimes prisoners put photos up in their cells to help them feel less isolated or alone. But if you don’t feel comfortable sending in a photo, for whatever reason, that is completely fine. In some cases, we’ve had outside penpals who decided to send in a drawing of themselves rather than a photo.

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I am involved in a project supporting LGBTQ people/putting on an event/doing an art project, etc. Can Bent Bars Project get involved or help me with this?

We get many requests from groups and individuals asking Bent Bars to be part of the work that they are doing, or suggesting projects that they would like to organise involving the Bent Bars Penpals who are in prison. There are so many great ideas and projects out there, and we'd love it if we had time to get involved in all of them!  Unfortunately we are a small, completely volunteer-run organisation and it is a lot of work just keeping up with the running of the project, so we are usually not able to support all these additional projects.  If you get in touch with us with some more details about the logistics of your project, and we have time at our next meeting, we can see if it is something we would be able to support.

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I want to contact LGBTQ prisoners for my project/organisation/event/research. Can I contact some/all of the Bent Bars penpals in prison?

Normally we are not able to meet these kinds of requests but you are welcome to send us the details of your project and we will consider it.

Something we would encourage you to consider is how you will respond to all the mail you receive.  We find that any mailout/advertisement to prisoners asking for involvement in a project generates a huge response.  When we first started Bent Bars, we put one small advert in Inside Time (the prison newspaper), there were over 100 replies in the first month, all needing a response.  Any project that would involved contacting prisoners through Bent Bars would need to be able to respond to all the mail; otherwise the project could create false hope and disappointment for people in prison, or create a lot of work for the Bent Bars Project in replying to the mail. Please think through your project carefully, and get in touch with full details of what the project involves, and how you will respond to the letters you receive, and we'll discuss it at a Bent Bars collective meeting.

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Can I help organise an event/workshop/fundraiser for Bent Bars?

Yes! We are a grassroots collective that has no regular source of funding and we rely on donations or ad-hoc fundraising, so if you'd like to help out organising an event to raise money for Bent Bars Project it will always be appreciated. If you know of events that regularly donate funds to projects, and think they'd be interested in giving money to Bent Bars, then please get in touch.

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I can't commit to writing to a penpal, but I'd like to help out with Bent Bars. Is their anything else I can do?

There are lots of ways to get involved with the project. Please check out our Get Involved page.  The main things we need help with are outreach and fund-raising.

A great way to help with outreach is to spread the word. Give a flyer to someone you know who might be interested or put up a poster in your local community centre, college or workplace. You can download our small flyer (designed to be printed double sided). We also have beautiful full-colour posters for putting up in community centres, libraries, social centres, local bookstores, LGBT support group spaces, etc. Get in touch if you’d like us to mail you some.

We also want to spread the word to people inside prisons.  If you have contacts with people or organizations that do work on the inside, and would be willing to put us in touch, that would be great. Contacts with people who work within prisons can also be useful.

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Do you have a list of prisoners that I can send one-off letters or cards to?

We don't have a list of prisoners to send one off letters to, we only match people up for longer-term penpal letter writing.

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