Prisoners’ Penfriends improves chance of rehabilitation, study shows

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flickr photo by Muffet shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

A recent study of Prisoners’ Penfriends – a charitable scheme that runs a volunteer pen pal programme in 52 prisons – has shown that having a pen pal can contribute to prisoner wellbeing and increase the likelihood of successful rehabilitation.

Researchers Prof Jackie Hodgson and Juliet Horne from Warwick University analysed the impact of the scheme and found that the simple act of being written to and having someone to write back to provided a cheap yet effective method of maintaining moral.

In addition, pen pals could provide an early warning of a prisoner’s decline in mental health. Pen pal confidents became aware of the state of mind of their prison pen pal and were able to alert prison authorities to any increasing depression or risk of suicide.

Professor Jackie Hodgson, leading researcher, commented to Warwick Press:

“We found that something as simple as a pen pal relationship can lead to tangible benefits for prisoners. Given the recent rise in prison violence and suicides, increased prison overcrowding and the current resource pressures on the prison system, letter-writing seems an extremely valuable way to provide greater support for prisoners, based on genuine relationships of care and trust, at remarkably little cost.”

Typical pen pal

The study found that the typical prisoner was male, serving a long term sentences and before the pen pals scheme, had ‘little or no contact with anyone outside of prison’. The effect of having a pen pal helped to reduce their sense of isolation, provided a different focus from their daily routine in prison and also ‘raised their hopes for being outside of prison’.

The Prisoners’ Penfriends scheme matches volunteers with prisoners and delivers post via a PO box to ensure confidentiality. Volunteers are advised to use a fictitious name and exclude personal details such as address and family names to maintain anonymity when writing. Before being matched to a pen pal, volunteers must to agree to follow strict guidelines to ensure relationship boundaries are maintained. All ingoing and outgoing letters are read by prison staff.

The pen pal scheme however has proven to be a life changing relationship for many, with very little cost to implement. One prisoner wrote of his pen friend:

‘He is very helpful and caring and very understanding. He makes me feel like I can achieve things in life. It’s made me want to be a better man when released and achieve my dreams if possible.’

Figures and interesting stats

  • Nearly all prisoners said they intended to remain pen pals for the length of their sentence.
  • The longest pen pal relationship so far has been nine years.
  • The scheme has seen 16,000 letters being sent.

What volunteers say 
What prisoners say 

‘Imagining more than just a prisoner: the work of Prisoners’ Penfriends’.

For more information on the Prisoners’ Penfriends scheme and to sign up to be a volunteer pen pal visit www.prisonerspenfriends.org or email gwyn.morganprisonerspenfriends.org directly.

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