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Sending Mail to Prisons and Jails

Regulations for receiving mail in and sending mail to prisons and jails differs a bit: Federal Bureau of Prisons has its own set of rules, as do state prisons, county jails, and city jails.

Usually, what you see on television and movies is not true. Packages and even regular mail are inspected and must meet certain requirements, going in AND going out.

Here’s an overview of the three main U.S. incarceration systems, and their communication requirements and policies:

BOP (Federal Bureau of Prisons)
The BOP is probably the strictest.

All mail—letters and packages—is opened, often read, and always inspected for contraband.

What you can send:

  • Letters
  • Paperback books
  • Magazines
  • Magazine clippings
  • Calendars

What you can send through a third party:

  • Hardcover and paperback books, and calendars, shipped directly from Amazon, a bookstore, or the publisher
  • Newspaper subscriptions sent directly from the newspaper
  • Magazine subscriptions sent directly from the magazine

What you cannot send:
Basically, anything else, including:

  • Newspaper clippings or sections of a newspaper
  • Hardcover books
  • Pornography
  • Stickers
  • Stamps or money
  • CDs

Inmates are not allowed to receive mail from another currently incarcerated person, or one on supervised release.

You should also realize that all phone calls are recorded and listened to by staff.

For more information on communication policies, check here.

State Prisons
Check your own state’s prison system for specific details. For this example, we’ll look at the California Department of Corrections system.

All mail—letters and packages—is opened, often read, and always inspected for contraband.


  • Less restrictive: You can send quarterly care packages from a variety of approved vendors here.
  • You can send a wide variety of items: From cosmetics and clothing, to entertainment electronics—even televisions—and food.
  • Packages have a weight limit of 30 pounds, and can only be sent once a quarter.
  • Books, magazines subscriptions, newspaper subscriptions can be sent only from the publishers or approved vendor
  • Packages and mail may be inspected.
  • Items available for purchase may vary depending on the security level and location of your inmate.


  • Inmates are not allowed to receive mail from another currently incarcerated person, or one who has been released from prison during the previous year.
  • Letters are restricted to fewer than 10 pages

What you can send:

  • Photos may be sent, as long as you send fewer than 10 in one envelope, and sizes no larger than 8’ x 10’
  • Children’s artwork
  • Drawings
  • Articles cut from newspapers and magazines

What you cannot send:

  • Books, magazines, newspapers cannot be sent directly to an inmate
  • Glitter or stickers (even stickers attached to the letter)
  • Anything else

For more information on communication policies, check here.

County Jail
This example is from one of Los Angeles County’s detention centers.

What you can send:

  • Purchased care packages from approved vendors here
  • Pre-paid calling cards through their procedures
  • Normal letter mail
  • Maximum of five photographs (each photograph on a collage is included in this count and measured separately)
  • Photographs or computer generated pictures that are a minimum of 3″x 5″ and a maximum of 4″x 6″
  • Paperback books from a bookstore or Amazon or the publisher; no more than 3 per week
  • Magazine subscriptions sent from the magazine; no more than 3 magazines per week

What you cannot send:

  • Hardcover books
  • All envelopes and paper that have debris and/or any illegal substances, perfume/cologne, lip stick, or dried liquids.
  • Food or cosmetic items
  • Blank envelopes (with or without postage attached)
  • Envelopes with metal clasps
  • Postage stamps that were not used to mail package
  • Envelopes with gang or suggestive drawings/artwork
  • Copyright material (this includes, printed song lyrics; book passages; articles)
  • Cash, personal or second party checks, payroll checks, out of state checks
  • Money order exceeding the $200 limit
  • Blank money orders (money orders must be signed and made payable to the inmate)
  • Out of state money orders (must be from a US Postal Office)
  • Greeting cards: that plays music; plastic; blank; tri fold; larger than 6″x 9″; pop up style; 3D style; includes ribbons and/or bows; have been altered. Postcards larger than 6″x 9″
  • Photographs or pictures that depict full or partial nudity; suggestive; depict gang tattoos or hand gestures
  • Picture in picture photographs
  • Photographs of headshots
  • Identification cards or facsimiles
  • Photographs that depict inmate for whom the mail is intended
  • Paper clips, staples, pens, pencils, glitter, stickers, glued or gummed labels
  • Rosary beads, balloons, string bracelets or jewelry items
  • Lottery tickets or pre-paid telephone cards
  • Any type of tape on letters
  • Anything of a sexual nature

It goes without saying
We will say it anyway because people still think they can get away with it:

Unless you also want to land in prison and give your inmate additional time to serve, as well as a move to a more secure facility, do not send (or discuss on the phone or in an email):

  • Escape plans
  • Information or material that is a potential or current threat to another person
  • Discussion of a future criminal act
  • Plans to disrupt the security of the prison
  • Coded messages
  • Maps of the prison or surrounding area
  • Gang-related information, comments, or photographs
  • Fake IDs or photos of fake IDs
  • Photos of nudity or sexual conduct
  • Drugs

Addressing your mail
When sending mail to an inmate in any system, be sure to do the following to ensure your letter gets delivered to your inmate:

  • Write legibly, or print out your envelope
  • Use your inmate’s full name and ID number (in jails it may be a booking number)
  • Include the name of their specific facility
  • And the full address of the prison
  • Remember to follow the prison’s guidelines on the kinds of envelopes that may be used

Communication with the outside world, and with friends and family, is an essential part of your inmate’s reintegration into society upon release, as well as keeping essential personal connections alive during incarceration. Don’t be intimidated by the various procedures—they are all very easy to check off once you have the system down. In fact, make a checklist or calendar of what you need to do, if that would work best for you.

Communication with loved ones and friends, and the outside world is one of the things that keep inmates going. Mail call is the highlight of the day! Keep at it!

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