Freedom to Write

Since 1921, International PEN has championed freedom of expression and defended writers of conscience. PEN members were influential in crafting Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees that “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression… and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” PEN holds Category A status at UNESCO and consultative status with the United Nations where the organization lobbies on behalf of writers who are harassed, imprisoned, and murdered for the peaceful expression of their views.

PEN Texas collaborates with PEN Center USA’s Freedom to Write, including its annual letter-writing campaign.

2009 Letter-Writing Campaign

List of addresses and writers (pdf)


The primary purpose of writing to prisoners is morale boosting. Sometimes it can become a real correspondence and hence friendship. Very often there are no replies from prisoners, however, or one is uncertain whether one’s letters are getting through, therefore one’s own morale may begin to flag. The first rule of letter writing is therefore not to give up, to keep trying to send something, however brief, every couple of months at least. In some cases where no reply has been received while a writer was in prison, PEN was subsequently informed that the letters did get through and made an important psychological difference. In other cases, the correspondence is presented to the prisoner upon his/her release, and that can also be very emotionally important as they struggle with the longer-term effects of a traumatic imprisonment.

Here are some other points to bear in mind:

Until you receive a reply, always include information allowing the prisoner to reply if he/she is permitted, but don’t say anything that implies you expect a reply.

Usually avoid politics or a direct discussion of the prisoner’s past or current situation. Stick to (your) everyday matters and literature. Send him/her postcards when you are on holiday with simple greetings.

Be sensitive to the prisoner’s religious and similar views, if you know or can guess at them.

Let the prisoner, if he/she replies, dictate what is discussed as far as possible.

If the prisoner does not speak the language in which you are writing, keep the sentences short and simple and the overall length of the letter(s) relatively brief.

If you are in correspondence, offer to send magazines, dictionaries, books, miscellaneous items, etc and send whatever he or she requests. Ask the English PEN office for assistance if it is anything beyond your means to buy or organise.

Immediately let the PEN office know if/when you receive a first reply.

Immediately let the PEN office know if you receive information from a correspondence with the prisoner on which we might want to act: for example, deterioration of conditions in prison, deterioration of health, mistreatment or torture, the arrest of another writer we may not have heard about, etc.

HOWEVER, if there is reason to suspect that your prisoner’s letter has been smuggled out, then do not publicise the contents. This could have a seriously negative impact on the prisoner’s well-being and on the safety of those who got the letter out. If in doubt, steer on the side of caution.

Number and date your letters so that the prisoner will know if she/he is receiving all your correspondence.

The first letter he/she receives might be the 4th or 5th you write, so, until a correspondence is established, always start with a simple line of introduction about who you are and how long you have been writing to them.

Do mention your membership of PEN and this being the way you received their address, but don’t necessarily expect them to have heard of PEN before.

Do not raise overly high expectations of what you or PEN can do to help the prisoner, but do let them know of efforts on their behalf by organisations around the world.


[date] - Letter No.1

Dear [prisoner’s name]

I am a member of the [ ] Centre of International PEN, the international association of writers that started here in Britain and which works to help writers who are imprisoned around the world. PEN’s office gave your address to me, and I hope you will accept my greetings from [your home town/city].

I want to assure you that I and many other people are interested in your well-being and in getting you released from prison as soon as possible. We have protested your imprisonment, and will continue to do so. Please take some hope from that.

[para about yourself and your own writing?]

[para about the prisoner’s writing if you know it?]

If you are able to reply to my letters, you can write to the below address at any time. I will treat your letters as private if you wish. Please also let me know if there is something particular that PEN can send you, such as books, magazines, a English-[language?] dictionary, or if your family needs something we might be able to send.

With great respect for your courage and achievements [or some such],

Very sincerely,

[your name + address]

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