Pen pals make prisoners' days 'a million times better'

Sophie Buchanan writes to her pen pal about her cats. It's really all her pen pal wants to know about.

This doesn't make it sound like an extraordinary friendship. In many ways it's not, except of course that Sophie is the head of the Prisoner Correspondence Network and her pen pal is currently serving a jail sentence.

The Prisoner Correspondence Network (PCN) is the only prisoner pen pal network in NZ. It's only been going since 2016, and currently has around 100 volunteers.

Inspired by a similar system in Montreal, it was originally designed to offer queer and trans prisoners a connection to the outside community. The logic was that those inmates were more isolated and vulnerable than other prisoners.

However, the PCN soon found there was an overwhelming demand from all kinds of prisoners - queer and non-queer. So they started finding pen pals for anyone who asked.

"We're not going to turn people away," says Sophie, "we're pretty much the only game in town."

It's very simple. Prisoners write to the PCN requesting a pen pal and the network connects them with a volunteer. Prisoners write to a PO box, Sophie collects the letters, sends them on to the pen pals, and posts the replies back to the prison. 

There are restrictions though on what you can send in though. Along with the standard rules banning pornography and gang-related material, things such as blu-tac and leather are also forbidden.

Anyone trying to send in 50 Shades of Grey is also supposedly rejected. Although Sophie has heard that copies still manage to get through and are passed around.

Mostly people just write letters and cards, but inmates have told us that mindfulness colouring books and colouring pencils are also particularly appreciated.

There's no filtering for pen pals or prisoners. Anyone who wants to write can write. And any prisoner, from shoplifter to sex offender, can ask for a pen pal.

The question that immediately springs to mind is, does it just attract madcaps with a gory fascination with murderers? No. Well, not here, says Sophie.

"We've never had anyone yet who's been unduly fascinated by crime."

Matthew Greenland (Newshub.)
Matthew Greenland (Newshub.)

Most new volunteers are just normal, nice people who are recruited at events after Sophie and the team convince them of the benefits to prisoners.

And the benefits are certainly there. Receiving a letter, from anyone at all, "just makes your day a million times better" says Matthew Greenland, who recently completed a four-and-a-half month jail stretch.

Very often prisoners have no point of contact outside jail, and the PCN is their only voice from the outside world.

One of the most commonly expressed sentiments is that prisoners feel they have been thrown away by society. Matthew certainly felt he had been left to rot when he went to jail. And this is why the PCN believes their work is so important - it is about reminding prisoners that people on the outside still care about them.

"These people will come out of jail," says Sophie. They will rejoin the community and they will need to reintegrate. And if they have spent all the time in jail feeling ignored by society, it doesn't ease their eventual rehabilitation.

Being nasty to someone won't make them heal, says Sophie, nor will it make them a better person. What will make a difference is reminding those people that others still care about them.