Letters as Feathers: The Pen Friends Program
Post by Robyn Haugan
For over 44 years, Amicus has been matching men and women in prison with volunteers from the community for simple friendship and positive relationship building through prison visiting. When that connection is made through our One to One program and a true friendship is formed, we see our values of community and transformation come to life—we see hope begin to take hold where before there was none.
Unfortunately, many more people in prison request a match through One to One than people in the community volunteer for the program; thus, we maintain a list of anywhere between 40 – 70 people in prison who have applied for the program, gone through the interview process and are asked to wait—for months, even years—before they can be matched with a friend.
For most of its existence, the One to One program has operated under this regrettable reality—offenders can ask to become a part of a program that inspires hope and promotes change, but there is no guarantee that they will be able to participate; and while they wait, they remain without the crucial positive connections to community that are so important to transformation.
Last month, reality shifted.
The Restorative Justice team at Unity Church Unitarian (long time Amicus advocate and partner) had recognized the need for connection for offenders on our One to One waiting list and, some months ago, came to Amicus with an idea for a prison writing program. After much planning and preparation, Unity’s Restorative Justice team hosted Amicus for its first-ever “Pen Friends” training on Monday, April 18. Pen Friends is a restorative program that matches offenders on the One to One waiting list with volunteers who commit to exchanging letters with their match for at least a year—the goal of the program being to bring outside world contact to incarcerated men and women through letter writing.
With the Pen Friends program, Amicus is able to offer its One to One applicants a welcome alternative to the uncertainty and isolation of waiting alone—now we can offer them the opportunity to connect in a very real and very powerful way while they wait. We believe that true and lasting friendships can be formed through the simple act of exchanging letters and we have seen, throughout our history, that one friendship can change a person’s life.
We know the Pen Friends program will change lives—both those of men and women in prison and of people in the free-world. We are indebted to Unity Church Unitarian for their tireless efforts toward getting this program off the ground and we are eager to watch as the program brings hope back into the lives of people who have been without it for so long.