For Joey Tremain, no love letter to his boyfriend can be mailed without including printed memes, silly photographs of his puppy Ivy, Sudoku games and The New York Times weekly crossword puzzle.
It might seem old-fashioned, but writing letters is one of the few ways Tremain has been able to connect with his boyfriend, who has been incarcerated since March. Before the pandemic Tremain brought these items in-person on his weekly visit. Now his thoughts and feelings can only be packaged and delivered by mail.
Tremain, 47, who lives in New York City and works in customer service, takes his correspondence seriously, finding it more intimate than emails or phone calls. His deep empathy toward the incarcerated individual at the other end of his letters comes from personal experience. During an 18-month sentence for drug possession, at Racine Correctional Institution in Sturtevant, Wisconsin, 786 miles from his family and friends, Tremain was on lockdown for 23 hours a day.
His solace while in jail? Receiving mail from his penpal—a high school English teacher who he knew as Mr. Brogner. Now, Tremain pays it forward. His boyfriend, Andrew Fristoe, is also in Wisconsin, and Tremain keeps their relationship work with letters.
Incarcerated individuals have always received mail from the outside world. But in pandemic times, it has become increasingly common for them to seek out penpals with non-incarcerated individuals, who in turn seek connection with inmates, forming friendships that help both groups combat the isolation caused by COVID-19.
To maintain relationships, Justice in Arts Coalition, a nonprofit that builds bonds between inmates and artists through art, started a penpal program called the Partner Project. The brains behind the initiative is Wendy Jason, JAC’s managing director and a long-time penpal to several incarcerated individuals.
“My first penpal was in ninth grade,” said Jason. “That planted a seed for me. Having that connection with someone who was experiencing confinement in that way changed my outlook. We had a lot in common. It was very eye opening,” she said.
The New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision reported that 1,571 prisoners tested positive for the coronavirus in October and put under strict quarantine. Since March 18, New York City’s prisons have suspended all in-person visits, causing increasing levels of loneliness for inmates and their loved ones who can no longer see them.
In June, registration for the Partner Project was so high that Jason hired an intern. She’d previously handled the registration herself, but the sign-ups for inmates and non-incarcerated individuals both skyrocketed, she said.
“People on the outside are looking for a way to find meaning and purpose in their lives right now,” said Jason. “They are hearing about the impact this pandemic has had on prisons, so they want to do something directly to help.”
Jen Kusch, 22, an analyst at J.P. Morgan who lives in Brooklyn, said one of her most important connections is with her penpal, who is incarcerated in Michigan.
“We go back and forth with written correspondence and I’m proofreading his novel right now. It wasn’t something I ever expected, but it’s really fulfilling,” said Kusch.“We’re really, really close now.”
Her penpal’s unit has been on lockdown since March, she said, with no access to the gym or other social activities. He tells her that writing letters to her is a lifeline right now, with the rest of his day being completely grim, she said.
And the admiration is mutual, said Kusch.
“He always calls on my way home from work, when I am walking home alone. He always jokes with me that I can tell anyone who comes up to me that I’m on the phone with a felon,” she said.
Rachel Marie, 29, a nurse from Staten Island, has a penpal incarcerated at Downstate Correctional Facility in Fishkill, New York. Rachel Marie, who asked that her last name be withheld to avoid any backlash from her employer, has developed a romantic relationship with the inmate, who is awaiting a transfer to a nearby prison, she said.
“The pandemic has increased his loneliness. He is basically stuck in his cell all day except for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and a few times a week he gets to make calls,” she said. “All I try to do is stay positive in everything I write to him, and to joke around a lot and try to keep it lighthearted.”
Dr. N.G. Berill, a Brooklyn-based forensic psychologist, said it’s not uncommon for some women to develop romantic relationships with inmates after starting off as penpals.
“Most guys in jail like to have penpals because a large portion of them do not have a support system outside,” he said. “Some of them do, but most don’t.”
Berrill said inmates having penpals can have both negative and positive impacts. “If you’re feeling totally isolated and desperate, of course it can be a good thing,” he said, “But a lot of the inmates start out seeking penpals and then wind up marrying the women they’re corresponding with. This can be strange.”
Berill added that prison administrators screen letters before the inmates receive them as a safety precaution. “That way you can’t get a letter without it already having been read, so ideally you’re not being sent anything encouraging any weird behavior,” he said. “The pandemic has definitely increased anxiety among inmates in general, so having an outside source to talk to always helps.”
Jason said some jails have also reduced access to phone calls and workshops. “Folks in prison are even more isolated because they have been on lockdown,” she said.
In addition to The Partner Project, there are Facebook groups for prison penpals, including “Pen Pals for Inmates,” “Write an Inmate Pen Pal Page” and “Inmates Looking for Penpals.” On these pages, friends and family of incarcerated individuals can post on behalf of their loved ones to help them find penpals on the outside.
Tremain is committed to keeping the communication going with his boyfriend, whose unit is on lockdown because a few inmates tested positive for the virus.
“Even when he can give me a call, sending him a letter is special,” said Tremain. “He can hold it in his hands.”
[Main image by Brian Hindson for Justice for Arts Coalition]