A Penpal In Prison: University Students And Inmates Exchange Letters, Change Each Other's Lives

Jun 18, 2017

In 2015, Florida tied California for the second highest population of incarcerated women in the United States. The facilities they live in are generally away from population centers, surrounded by rows of fences and razor wire.

Prisoners aren’t able to freely converse with people out in the community, so to mitigate some of the isolation that develops, there are several programs in prisons throughout the country that work with inmates on their writing to give them a vehicle to express themselves and to develop communication skills.

College writing classes have similar goals. So a prison-based writing program in Miami, Exchange for Change, is trying to turn those writings into a conversation, to break down the barrier between prisoners and students on the outside.

One class at the University of Miami spent a semester exchanging letters with female inmates at Homestead Correctional Institution. At first somewhat apprehensive about how to communicate with each other, writers on both sides of the exchanges learned about the other and their different life experiences and experienced a change in their perception of the power of words and their role in the criminal justice system.

Listen to the two-part story below:

Train is one of 650 women who live at Homestead Correctional Institution. It neighbors Dade Correctional Institution, a men's prison.
Credit Wilson Sayre / WLRN

Sydney started out the semester as a junior film and psychology major, minoring in criminology. We’re not using full names for the participants because, as a condition of participating in the exchanges, the letters aren’t supposed to include any identifying information. She uses the pen-name Stephen in her letters.

“You never hear about what happens in prisons unless it's super terrible, you know,” said Sydney before the exchanges kicked off. “The perceptions that I have are only like from [the Netflix show] 'Orange Is The New Black.' ”

Joshua Schriftman, Sydney’s professor, says a lot of his students, especially criminology and pre-law students, see the system—police, courts, and prison—as a good way to weed out dangerous people.

“That law and order rhetoric gives the impression that we live in a world where everybody is 100-percent responsible for where they are in life,  that there is no history, that there are no outside factors, that everything is perfectly just and people deserve exactly what they get,” said Schriftman.

He makes no bones about using his class to challenge that and any other stereotypes that lump prisoners together as a statistic or caricature of what an inmate actually is.

“[The letter exchange] puts faces on ideas and brings humanity to a section of the population that otherwise [they] would just be talking about rather than talking to,” said Schriftman. “They end up caring more about them and it enriches their humanity.”

The first letters between Sydney, who goes by the pen-name Stephen, and Train.

Both sides of the exchange are assigned some of the same readings, like Plato’s "Allegory of the Cave" and Edwidge Danticat’s "Create Dangerously." Then they write to each other discussing them.

Barbed wire has become a symbol of the dividing line between inside and outside prison.
Credit Florida Department of Corrections

“It gives me a purpose. It gives me something to feel like I'm doing something, I'm giving something back,” said Train, Sydney’s letter exchange partner. “I'm reading stuff and thinking about ideas and concepts and stuff and discussing them with outside people.”

In their first letters, Train and Sydney write about their insecurities, what it means to be a strong woman and some of their challenges communicating with members of their families.

The letters are a rare outlet for Train, who has been in prison for 20 years on a life sentence for murder.

“I feel like you know the things that I have to say might possibly change how they think, how they see prisoners, how they see the justice system and how they see the correctional system,” said Train. “I think that it's important for them to understand [what goes on in prison].”

Train feels the exchanges might move someone, even just her partner, Sydney, to think about just how many women are being sent to jail and maybe do something—not for her but for the next woman who makes a mistake.

A letter from Train to Sydney, who goes by Stephen in her letters.

Over the semester, the letter exchanges forced Sydney to confront her own biases about what she thought about the criminal justice system and who is an inmate.

“You have to pull back and be like, wow, the human mind is such a such a weird thing and we all have biases,” said Sydney. “This situation is something that you never get, you know, and I think it’s actually super important.”

To get the full journey Train and Sydney went on over the course of their letter exchange, listen to the audio story above.

One of the final letter exchanges between Sydney, who goes by Stephen in her letters, and Train. Click to expand the image.