British Prisons

Writing to inmates

Most of us enjoy receiving a letter or two. Especially if those letters are from friends. There are a number of groups of people who do not get many or any letters. One of these groups is those who have been committed to prison and who have either no family or friends on the outside, or they have been cut off by their family or friends because of the fact that they are in prison.

Imagine the inner feelings of an inmate who day after day witnesses their associates receiving mail and never hears their name being called. 

Once a person is in prison there are certain rules that apply. It depends on what type of prisoner they are .

Unconvicted Prisoners.

If they are Unconvicted, they can send out two free letters every week, over this they can buy letters from the canteen. There is, normally, no limit to how many letters they can receive. The envelopes will be opened, but the letters not read. The reason for opening the envelopes is to make sure that they do not contain anything that is not allowed.

Convicted Prisoners.

If they are a Convicted prisoner, they can send out one free letter every week, the postage being paid for by the prison. Again they can send out as many other letters as they wish, but this is at their own expense. In many prisons these days they are allowed to receive stamps, envelopes and even writing paper to help cut down on the costs. But always check with the prison that the person you are writing to is in to make sure of their arrangements.

Special letters.

If an inmate has no private cash, the prison will pay for the postage on letters connected with the defence of their case. These letters will normally be sent first-class.They can ask for extra free letters to:-· Write to their Probation Officer

· If they have family problems
· If they have just been convicted and need to sort out business problems
· If they are appealing against their sentence or taking other legal action
· If they are arranging a job or somewhere to live on their release.

Rules about letters.

In general, the rules about letters are that they must NOT:-·

  1. Discuss escape plans or say anything which affects prison security
  2. Help someone commit a criminal offence or an offence against prison rules
  3. Contain threats or blackmail
  4. Affect national security (such as instructions for making a weapon or coded messages)
  5. Say anything racially offensive or obscene.

If the prison suspects that an inmate or you are breaking these rules, then the letters can be stopped.

From time to time, the Governor can order that all post should be routinely read. If this happens, or if you are writing to an inmate in a maximum security prison, the following rules may also apply:-· All the letters that the inmate sends out, and those that they receive, can be read by prison staff

A limit can be set on the number of letters that they can send, and how long they can be (though they must allow them to be at least four sides of A5 paper).They can be limited to receiving one letter for every one they send out. If this happens, they can choose which letter to read, and others will be sent back.

If these rules apply to the inmate you are writing to, they will be allowed to buy at least one extra letter at Christmas and up to 12 Christmas cards and stamps from the canteen.

Writing to a solicitor. 

Letters to and from the inmates solicitor should not be read or stopped by anyone in the Prison Service. However, they can be stopped if someone in the prison thinks that they may be a security risk or break the law in some way. If this is the case, then the inmate will be told.

The inmate should write on the envelopes of these letters ‘Prison Rule 37A’. This is the prison rule which covers legal letters. The inmate should then seal the envelope before they hand it in.

When a solicitor writes to an inmate, they should mark the envelope with the inmates name and number, their own address and phone number, and ‘Prison Rule 37A’. They should then sign the envelope and put them in another envelope and post them to the Governor of the prison. (If they prefer not to mark the inner envelope in this way, they can write a covering letter to the Governor instead.) If the prison thinks that the inmate is abusing this rule, they can open the envelopes and read the letters, but the inmate should be there while they are doing it.

Prison Rule 37A also applies to letters to and from a court, including the European Court or the Commission of Human Rights. Letters to courts should be marked in the same way - ‘Prison Rule 37A’. Other protected correspondence includes letters to the Samaritans, the Parliamentary Commissioner for administration and other organisations such as the Prisoners’ Advice Service.

If a convicted prisoner is appealing against their sentence, correspondence between them and the criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) should also be treated by the Prison Service as legally privileged correspondence. The inmate should seal their letter and write ‘Standing Order 5B 35A’ with their name on the back.

Writing articles and letters to be published.

Inmates are allowed to write letters to newspapers, contribute to radio and television programmes, or submit articles to be published, as long as:-· They do not write about their own offence or past offences (unless it is a serious comment about crime, justice, conviction, sentence or the penal system).

· They do not write about other people’s offences (unless it is a serious comment about crime, justice, conviction, sentence or the penal system).
· They do not write about individual prisoners or members of staff who could be identified.
· They do not break any of the rules about letters.
· They do not get any payment (unless they are unconvicted).

Other information about letters.

An inmate must get permission to write to:-

· another prisoner at a different prison (unless they are writing to a close relative or co-defendant about their trial or sentence).
· the victim of their offence or their family.
· somewhere to advertise publicly for a penfriend.

The prison cannot stop an inmate writing to their MP, their lawyer, their husband, wife, partner, fiancé(e), parent, child, brother or sister. But if any of these relatives ask the Prison Service to stop sending the inmates letters to them, they will be asked to stop writing. The inmate will be able to discuss this with prison staff.

If a letter is stopped for any reason, the inmate will be given an explanation and another letter so that they can re-write it.

An inmate can write in any language unless they are a category A prisoner. If an inmate want to send letters abroad their free letters will be sent by surface mail, but they can pay to make up the difference to air mail.

How does all the forgoing affect me?

We have given you the forgoing information so that you are fore armed. If you know from the start what an inmate is allowed to do or not allowed to do, you will hopefully not get the wool pulled over your eyes when they ask you to do something which you might do in all sincerity and then find out you have been duped.

It is a sad thing these day that we have to be very careful what we do, because there are some who will try and pull a fast one on you and get you to do something which is not right.

If you try to bend, circumvent or other wise get round the rules and regulations you are heading for problems. It could end up with others suffering, and privileges and opportunities of communications can be very much reduced or stopped to the detriment of the inmate.

It may well be unwise to disclose your address. Not all inmates will have sincere motives and you could very well find at a later date that you have had an ‘unwelcome’ visitor, this could not necessarily be the person you are writing to. We can explain this in more detail if you want us to.

When writing to an inmate then, we strongly advise that you use a safe address. We have a Post Office Box number that you are welcome to use and there are other organisations who can offer the same service. Or you can use your local church.

As we have said most mail sent in or out of prison is not read or censored by Prison Staff. The exceptions are high security prisons such as Frankland, Full Sutton, Long Lartin, and Wakefield where mail is opened and sometimes read and remand prisons where a random sample is read. However, there is a definite move away from censorship and the Home Office is very keen to encourage prisoners’ links with the community.

It has already been mentioned that in certain circumstances some prisons may restrict the length of letters you send in, but it is very unusual for this to happen. If, for example, you are writing ten pages to an inmate every day of the week, the prison may decide to return your letters to you with a note telling you why this is being done, but this is very rare.

Please don’t make promises which you may not be able to fulfil, however strong the temptation.

‘Knockbacks’ on issues such as parole, education, transfer, etc. are an everyday occurrence in prison and it is not fair to add to this climate of disappointment.

We would encourage you to write about ordinary everyday things even if they seem trivial. Getting letters in prison is a lifeline - prison is an artificial environment and keeping in touch with the outside world is of vital importance. Many prisoners will be serving long sentences, and it is important for them to be kept in touch with the outside world for when they are eventually released back into the community.

Extra thoughts if you are a Christian writing to an inmate. 

One thing that puts me of is a letter that is preaching to me all the time. To be honest I have in the past when I have received such a letter privately, put it straight into the bin. If it has been received on behalf of Bridging the Gap, I have gently pointed out that really this type of letter is not helpful.

So our advice is DO NOT PREACH. Yes you can tell the inmate about your faith and how the Lord is leading your life. This will often come up when you are sharing news of your family and what you do during the week etc. Just be yourself is the best advice. Seek to build up trust between you and the rest should flow.

Most prisons allow you to send in books, drawing materials, some clothes, postal orders, stamped addressed envelopes, etc. However, it is important that you contact the prison first before you send anything in, just in case there is a problem. If you do send something in, it is strongly advised that you mention it in your letter.

Please do not feel pressurised to send in any of the above items, or in fact any item at all.

Of course food and cigarettes are not allowed to be sent in.

If your letter writing leads to a request for you to visit then that will be up to you. We do have another page giving guidelines on visiting inmates.

A very important thing to remember


If you want to use us to receive your letters then please write to us, address below, or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.">email us, informing us that this is what you want to do. Then when we receive them we will forward them onto you.

We can be contacted at:-

British Prisons, C/O SMCA, Cobham Court, Haslemere Avenue, Mitcham, CR4 3PR.

Tel:- 02080901486