UUCC has partnered with the Cookeville Mutual Aid Collective on a project to provide support to individuals who are incarcerated at the Putnam County Jail. Our primary activities are pen pal correspondence (letter writing) and commissary donations (monetary support). Anyone is welcome to join in this effort. Individuals being housed in the Putnam County Jail may be in for a brief stay while awaiting bail, a medium-length stay while awaiting trial, or serving a long-term prison sentence. Due to overcrowding, the state contracts with local county jails, including Putnam County, to house state prisoners.
What is Mutual Aid?
According to Wikipedia, “mutual aid is a voluntary reciprocal exchange of resources and services for mutual benefit.”
Mutual aid is when everyday people get together to meet each other’s needs, with the shared understanding that the systems we live in are not meeting our needs and that we can meet them together, right now, without having to pressure power structures to do the right thing. Mutual aid is an idea and practice that is based on the principles of direct action, cooperation, mutual understanding, and solidarity. Mutual aid is not charity, but the building and continuing of new social relations where people give what they can and get what they need, outside of unjust systems of power.Joel Izlar
Becoming a pen pal to an incarcerated person is the most common place to start your involvement. You can truly be a lifeline for someone who might be feeling very hopeless. Many of the people in the jail do not have any form of family support and can feel isolated and invisible. Indeed, our criminal justice system is designed to hide the incarcerated, out of view of the rest of society. Being a pen pal to an incarcerated person lets them know there is someone on the outside who knows who they are and cares what happens to them. It affirms their humanity and gives them a sense of connection. It can also be a signal to the correctional staff that there is someone paying attention to this person, which can be a deterrent to mistreatment.
CMAC has a P.O. box that can be used as a return address, so your personal address never has to be shared with your pen pal. A designated volunteer checks the P.O. box periodically and will scan and email your letters to you. When you are ready to write to your pen pal, you can simply drop your letter in any mailbox just as you would the rest of your mail. Scroll down on this page to view additional guidelines for writing to your pen pal.
Through word of mouth and general mailings to inmates, we have a list of individuals who have requested someone to write to and have not yet been matched with a pen pal. If you would like to be matched with a pen pal, please use the contact form below and someone will be in touch with you soon.
Commissary Donations & Packages
Another way to help incarcerated individuals is to put money directly onto their commissary account. In the Putnam County Jail, inmates are not provided with many basic supplies and necessities, such as hygiene items (including menstrual products), undergarments, or warm clothes. They must have money on their account in order to purchase these items for themselves, usually at a higher price than on the outside.
There are two ways to provide material assistance to folks in the Putnam County Jail:
- JailFunds.com – Allows you to put funds on an individual’s commissary account so that they can purchase what they need.
- Click and scroll until you find location of inmate/facility/and commissary deposit for service.
- Choose the letter of the inmate’s last name, and find them on the list. Click on it.
- The minimum commissary deposit is $25, and there is a processing fee as well. We have had some tell us that the jail takes money from their commissary fund if they have a health care copay or other charge outstanding, so be aware that your money may not make it to them.
- Access SecurePak – Allows you to directly purchase items such as snacks, hygiene products, clothing, and more. Your ordered items will be shipped directly from the company to the jail. This is the only way to send them many of these things, as the jail will not accept direct donations of items. A fee and shipping will be included in the purchase price, and packages can take 1-2 weeks to reach the recipient.
- Select your state from the drop-down menu.
- Select the “program” (facility).
- Click Go to Program.
- You can then search by inmate # or first/last name.
- Click on their number.
- You can then shop from the menu on the left side. Add items to cart, then click checkout. Here too, there is a minimum order of $25, and shipping is additional.
- Note: Before ordering items, it is recommended to find out what the recipient needs/wants and what size clothing they wear, if applicable.
If you are uncomfortable sending money or goods online this way and would like us to do these transactions for you, let us know.
Other Ways to Help
If you are not comfortable with or ready to commit to a pen pal or to provide direct monetary support, there are still other ways to be involved with this effort indirectly. Here are some ways you can help:
- Donate funds to UUCC with a note to designate them for the Prison Ministry.” This pool of funds can be used to assist individuals who request our help.
- Donate funds to UUCC with a note to designate them for sponsoring an individual to attend a secular, evidence-based rehab program.
- Purchase stamps and envelopes for our letter-writers to use.
- Donate funds to help pay for the P.O. box that we use to receive letters
- Donate paperback books to be distributed to incarcerated individuals.
- Our ability to get books into people’s hands varies from time to time, but we are sometimes able to do this. Books must be paperback (no hardbacks), and the jail primarily accepts books that are at least loosely related to psychology or religion.
- Donate shoes and clothing items to be given to individuals who are being released from the jail. People often only have the clothes they were arrested in, which is not necessarily adequate or weather-appropriate when they are released. We have a limited space to store these items, to please check with us before bringing any items for donation.
Guidelines for Letter Writing
- You can use your name if you are comfortable, or you can use a pen name if you’re not. Mail with only an address and no name or organization name may be returned, so put either your name, pen name, or CMAC there. We recommend that you do not use your own address. You can use our PO Box for the return address:
Cookeville, TN 38503
The address you should use for Putnam County Jail is
[Recipient Name] [ID#]
421 East Spring St
Cookeville, TN 38501
It is a good idea to put the date, recipient name and number, and return address on your letter, as well, in case the letter and envelope become separated in inspections.
- Do your best to keep your promises. Our incarcerated friends tell us that mail day is like Christmas for them. If you promise to write, do your best to do so.
- Expect that whatever you write or send will be looked at by prison officials.
- We cannot directly send them goods. We can put money on their commissary account, and we can also send care packages through Secure Pak.
- Mail can be returned (or tossed) for all sorts of reasons. Avoid stickers, markers, colored pens, scented anything, etc. The first time you write, you should write on plain paper with black or blue pen. If you want to experiment with cards, see if they get through, but be aware they may not. Make a copy of your letter in case it doesn’t get through (it’ll help you remember what you talked about, too). Don’t feel like you have to write a long letter and definitely don’t put off writing until you can do anything fancy.
- We recommend that you do not research what they are in for, and take whatever information they offer about it as what they are willing to share. Please be mindful of their inherent worth and dignity, and treat them as such. Do not be condescending. Remember that people are not the worst thing they have ever done.
- Be aware that when you are the primary outside contact for someone who has a lot of time on their hands, romantic feelings can develop. We primarily try to match same-gender pen pals, but there is a big need and obviously same-gender romances happen. Please do everything you can to discourage this. Be very careful about sending photos, and we recommend you do not sign your letters with “love” or anything that can be misinterpreted. If you ever feel uncomfortable, you should not hesitate to discontinue contact (but let us know).
- We can send books, but they must be ordered new and shipped directly to the jail, and they cannot be hard cover or spiral bound. There are also programs that send books to the incarcerated.
- Have strong boundaries about what kinds of assistance you are willing to offer. Do not be afraid to say no. Often, if they have no one on the outside, they may be in desperate need, but that does not mean you have to be the only one who helps. Also be mindful of what you are willing and/or able to do for them when they get out, and don’t do or promise anything that makes you uncomfortable. If you’d like us to send a letter informing them that you can no longer write, we will be happy to do so.
- Abolition Apostles is a national non-profit organization whose mission and work is aligned with ours. We have been in contact with them and may become an official chapter at some point in the future. Their website includes many useful resources for letter writing. If you know someone outside of Putnam County who would like to be involved in this work in their own community, we recommend directing them to Abolition Apostles. Note: Abolition Apostles is a Christian organization, but they embrace people from all faith (or non-faith) backgrounds who share their goals.
If you are ready to get started writing to a pen pal or get involved in any other way with this work, please use the contact form below. An organizer will be in touch with you soon to answer any questions you may have and help you get started.