Letter Writing Guidelines

Purpose

Your overall purpose is to establish and preserve the social bond between a prisoner and his or her hometown. Such bonds are known to improve the incarceration experience and to significantly increase the chance for success after release.

Duration

Letter writing continues for the entire term of incarceration – which includes the possibility of a life or death sentence. However, you may write letters for only a short portion of this term. When your circumstances change, someone else will step in and pick up where you left off. Therefore, you do not need to be concerned with disrupting the social bond you have spent time to create when ending your volunteer service to Stephen’s Table.

As the person you’re writing enters the final 6 months of his or her incarceration, the letter writing begins to wind down and the responsibilities are shifted to Chattanooga Endeavors. However, you are responsible for making it know to Chattanooga Endeavors that he or she will be coming home soon.

Letter Content

Prisoners are desperately lonely and homesick.  Just consider what you might want to read if the roles were reversed.  Avoid the life lessons and talk about ordinary happenings instead.  Consider writing over several days to create a journaling effect.  Try enclosing newspaper clippings with your comments on them.  Drop off a post card on the same day of the month.  Ask simple questions — like, what are your days like? Most of all – listen and follow his or her lead.

Some things you might think about enclosing:

  • A magazine or newspaper clipping of interest
  • A group photo from a local activity or event
  • Word puzzles, cartoons, or games.
  • Motivational or devotional material
  • Prison related newsletter pdfs
  • Official enclosures provided by Stephen’s Table

Note: Before enclosing anything with your letter, make sure to know the prison regulations so that you don’t accidentally include contraband.  For example, paperclips, staples, and spiral bound material is not allowed. If you have a question, please ask.

Supplemental Letters

You can increase the mail received in prison without adding to your time commitment by subscribing the person you’re writing to receive material from a third party. Check out the Chattanooga Endeavors website for a list of free resources that can be requested on his or her behalf. Consider adding him or her to mailing lists for newsletters from organizations he or she is interested in or has been a member of in the past.  And if the cost is not prohibitive, consider purchasing a local newspaper or magazine subscription.

Standard Enclosures

We have developed a series of simple documents about topics that are common to the prison experience and invite you to send these to the person you’re writing as the opportunity arises.  From time to time, we produce enclosures about Stephen’s Table or items of general interest, which we encourage you to print and enclosed with one of your letters.

Other Resources

There is an extensive list of resources that we have screened and that are available on the Chattanooga Endeavors and website. As you get to know the person you’re writing, we encourage you to review these resources and print anything you think he or she might find of interest. Please pass along any feedback you have about resource you use. And let us know if you run across something that should be added to the list.  We are constantly updating this list.

Confidentiality

You are responsible for keeping all personal information, including the content of your letters written and received, in a password protected folder on your personal computer or in a locked cabinet under your authority.

Everyone in Tennessee is a mandated reporter under state law. Any person with reasonable cause to believe a child is being abused or neglected must, under the law, immediately report to the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services or to local law enforcement. If you believe that you have reasonable cause that child is being abused or neglected, please consult with Chattanooga Endeavors to determine the proper course of action.

If you are a mandated reporter beyond the general responsibility of Tennessee citizens, please let the Champion of your Yellow Ribbon Committee know and explain the limits of confidentiality for your profession to the person you are writing.

Mailing Procedures

Prison rules are not necessarily consistent between institutions and sometimes change without warning.  The easiest way to make sure that you don’t accidentally do something in violation of policy is to let us mail your letter for you.  Which is how our system is set up:

  1. Letter from prison are mailed to Chattanooga Endeavors.
  2. They are scanned and emailed to you.
  3. You reply to the letter by email to us.
  4. We print your letter — and any attachments — on plain white paper, confirm the institutional address, enclose your letter with a postage-paid return envelop, and drop it in the mail for you.

Postcards, clippings, and enclosures that are more than a few pages should be mailed by you.  In doing so, make sure that what you’re sending is acceptable by consulting the relevant TDOC policy on Inmate Mail.

Address your envelope with the name of the person you are writing exactly as it appears in his or her prison records, TOMIS ID number, and name and address of the facility where they are being housed.  You can find this information using TDOC’s online FOIL system.

Tennessee prison addresses can be found on the TDOC website under the link For State Prisons

Signature

Because you are writing on behalf of Stephen’s Table, we ask that you sign your letters with this in mind. Use only your first name and include the phrase  “on behalf of Stephen’s Table.”

Return Address

All letters are sent with the Chattanooga Endeavors return address. Other addresses are not allowed.

Stephen’s Table
c/o Chattanooga Endeavors
P.O. Box 3351
Chattanooga, TN 37404-0351

Return Envelope

The cost of postage can create a barrier for prisoners to write back. To eliminate this barrier, we enclose a business reply envelope with every letter we mail. If you are mailing to the institution directly, please enclose a reply envelope like this:

You can purchase stamped envelopes from most Post Offices or order them online at USPS.gov.  You can also use a postage meter or an online service like stamps.com that prints postage directly to an envelope.  Do not enclose individual postage stamps as many prisons consider this to be contraband — even if they are affixed to envelopes.

Prison Slang

The person you are writing is likely to use words and phrases that are unfamiliar to you.  An extensive prison slang glossary is available on Chattanooga Endeavor’s website. Understanding the way prisoners talk can help to understand the sort of world they live in.  Therefore, we encourage you to look through the entries and to consult it as needed.   However, please refrain from using words and phrases in your letters that you are not already part of your everyday use.

Caveats

(Adapted from Tennessee Prison Outreach Ministry)

  • Steer clear of discussing the particulars of your Writing Partner’s case. We will provide this information to your Yellow Ribbon Committee.
  • Please do not contact families, lawyers, judges, or make phone calls for your Writing Partner. If you are asked to make any calls inform your YRC Champion.
  • It is appropriate to communicate with your Writing Partner over the trials of incarceration, but please do not either criticize or defend the prison staff or the criminal justice system. Our goal is to help improve the prison experience and not take sides on the method of correction in Tennessee.
  • Keep in mind that some prisoners may exaggerate and distort facts. Try not to be shocked, scared, or intimidated by what you might be told about prison. However, if you believe that your Writing Partner is being abused or that his or her rights are being violated, please contact the Stephen’s Table Program Manager.
  • You must build the relationship. Your Writing Partner may not have a lot of practice relating to others; in fact, you may be the only “free world” contact he or she has. Expect your initiative to be met with some natural skepticism and distrust at first and be patient while your relationship builds.
  • If you’re not a psychiatrist, psychologist, lawyer, or minister don’t offer this sort of advice. Try to relate to your Writing Partner honestly and simply. This will make it easier for them to do so as well.
  • Don’t prejudge!
  • You don’t need to have the answers to all of your Writing Partner’s problems. It is better to explore conflicting feelings, support positive decisions, and try to understand the opinions, emotions and desires surrounding the problem.
  • Be respectful of differences in religious convictions.
  • Try to maintain consistency in contacting your Writing Partner.
  • Do not make promises you can’t keep.
  • If your Writing Partner expresses thoughts of harming themselves or someone else, call the chaplain immediately. Be careful not to jump to conclusions.  Well-intending interventions can cause unintended consequences.  If you are in doubt, please contact the Chaplain of the institution where your inmate is located; if you receive no answer then contact the Stephen’s Table Program Manager.
  • Don’t be surprised if your Writing Partner moves without warning. Mail is seldom forwarded to prisoners once they move.  Hopefully they will have had time to alert you to the new address; however, you may have to use the offender locator service at https://apps.tn.gov/foil/Enclosures
  • Don’t be surprised if the prison rejects your letter or package. If this happens, read the reason why on the envelope, and try to remedy the situation.
  • If you have any doubts about anything ask.

Online Workspace

Stephen’s Table volunteers attend online meetings monthly and have access to a private Facebook group to share information, exchange thoughts, and stay connected. Anyone can join the online meeting; however, the Facebook group is closed to the public. Although post will appear on your wall, rest assured that only people who are part of the group on Facebook will be able to see what you see.

You will be invited to the group after we receive your application. When you accept the invitation, we recommend that you set you notifications to “All Posts” so that you won’t miss out on any activity — and take a moment to introduce yourself to the other members.

As you encounter successes (or failures), when you are looking for guidance, or if you just want to share something helpful that you learned, please post it to the group. This is one way that we build our common knowledge base and deepen our collective experience.

Distribution Lists

As a Stephen’s Table volunteer, you will be added to email and text distribution lists to receive information and notifications. You may opt out of receiving text notifications — but not email, which we use from time to time to send important information.

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