Having a prison penpal leads to informative conversation

A dedicated writing group shares stories with inmates

Pen pal Chris Vance picks out a novel at Spartacus Books. PHOTO By AUSTIN EVERETT
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Reported by Austin Everett

Chris Vance has a lot of pen pals. Just not the kind one would usually imagine.

Vance has been corresponding with inmates for the past few years, mainly in the United States, though he was part of a Vancouver group dedicated to writing inmates.

“It has been pretty eye opening,” Vance said. “The opportunity to have these conversations is humbling and informative.”

Vance said writing to the inmates helps them to feel important and listened to, and most are willing to engage in a letter back. With more time to themselves and less worldly influences around them, Vance said people who write from behind bars reply to his letters in a very thoughtful and direct manner, which he finds admirable.

Prison life

“I don’t have the perspective of being in jail,” he said, and has even received a comic from an inmate about his experiences in prison.

Writing letters to prisoners helps them feel a little more normal in a not-so-normal environment, said Melissa Fazzina, owner of the Canadian Inmates Connect Inc. The company matches pen pals to federal and provincial inmates in hopes of decreasing social isolation and loneliness.

Fazzina said the inmates want to connect with the outside world, and they continue to inspire her.

“When prisoners start communicating with someone it gives them something to look forward to, they start setting goals, it gives them a reason to get up, go out and just smile,” Fazzina said.

Community collaboration

East Vancouver has its own local group that urges people to write letters to prisoners in hopes to provide human contact and a sense of community.

Spartacus Books in Vancouver has hosted the Prisoner Letter Writing Meetup for over five years. The event happens the first Saturday of each month and is open for anyone to drop in and write. The group is generally filled with regular customers of the book store.

Interim organizer Karina LaRocque said that the process of writing letters is “really valuable” and can be life changing.

She has written to prisoners, and gets replies back from incarcerated activists.

“They want to know what you’ve been reading,” she said. “And sometimes they just want to chat to someone.”

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