We aim as much as possible to match people in accordance with the preferences stated by both inside and outside penpals. Having said that, there are often significant differences between inside and outside penpals, particularly with respect to personal experiences, levels of privilege, and areas of interest. So it is important to be aware that you may be matched with someone who is different from you in lots of ways. From our experience so far, this has been a positive thing, and most people (both inside and out) have made great connections through and across both similarities and differences. We hope that you will too.
The Bent Bars Collective is committed to 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 high levels of inequality, discrimination and oppression.
This is not to excuse the serious harms that some prisoners may 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 cycles of violence rather than perpetuate them through isolation and marginalisation.
Outside penpals sometimes request not to be matched with someone charged or convicted of a particular offence. We always try to meet people's requests as much as possible, as the Bent Bars Collective feels it is important to respect all penpals' boundaries and comfort levels. At the same time, it is important to be aware that we do not ask prisoners to disclose what they are in prison for (just as we do not ask outside penpals to tell us the worst thing they have ever done). We have no direct access to prisoners’ records, so we can never fully guarantee the background of the person you are matched with (just as we don’t/can’t guarantee the background of outside penpals either). Many prisoners voluntarily disclose what they are in prison for, so when outside penpals have specified preferences relating to type of offence, we try to match them with someone who has voluntarily disclosed their charge/conviction as one that does not fit the concern in question.
Because of the stigma associated with certain kinds of offences, prisoners with convictions for violence sometimes wait a long time for a penpal. Prisoners with such convictions are often people who have experienced high levels of violence, trauma and discrimination in their own lives. If you are willing to write to someone regardless of charge or conviction it's helpful if you state that on your penpal questionnaire form.
We understand that this is a lot of information to take in all at once. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch with any questions or concerns. We organize monthly meetings so penpals can discuss any issues that come up, share thoughts and support for each other. As the collective that coordinates this project, we are here as resource for navigating these issues and obstacles. Don’t be shy! Keep in touch and let us know if you have any feedback, ideas or suggestions.