The Handwritten Letter, an Art All but Lost, Thrives in Prison

To the Georgia Department of Corrections he is inmate No. 544319, in prison on a five-year sentence for drug possession. But to the editors of Maxim, he is Mike Bolick, a faithful reader and regular letter writer who has loopy penmanship and an eye for beautiful cover models.

Mr. Bolick has become known at Maxim over the years for sending cover girls letters through the magazine with the hope that they will agree to be his pen pals. He is gracious and self-effacing, complimenting their beauty while asking them to please excuse his poor spelling and punctuation. He has plans to get his G.E.D. to remedy that, he explained in a recent letter to the pin-up girl Rachelle Leah.

On occasion he asks for a few pictures — just not nude ones. Those would surely be confiscated by the guards.

In prisons across the country, with their artificial pre-Internet worlds where magazines are one of the few connections to the outside and handwritten correspondence is the primary form of communication, the art of the pen-to-paper letter to the editor is thriving. Magazine editors see so much of it that they have even coined a term for these letters: jail mail.

At magazines like Maxim, with its male-heavy readership and sexy spreads that feature women in just enough clothing to avoid running afoul of prison standards, mail from inmates can easily make up three-quarters of the handwritten letters that come in. Maxim says it receives 10 to 30 such letters each week. Rolling Stone says it receives at least one a day. And at Esquire, editors receive about 15 to 20 a month, about a quarter of the magazine’s mailed letters. The rest come mainly from older readers.

Many letters are like the ones Mr. Bolick sends: from inmates with plenty of free time asking to meet famous people featured in profiles and photo spreads. But they take on all forms. Some are as simple as an inmate complaining about not receiving his subscription or writing with a change of address. Others are personal reflections on a recent article. Country Weekly regularly receives songs from a prisoner in Texas who has ambitions of being a country star.

Some letters arrive censored by prison staff, with strokes of black marker obscuring certain sentences.

A common type comes from inmates who claim they were wrongfully convicted and would like a journalist to investigate. “It turns out every person in jail is innocent. Imagine that!” said Will Dana, managing editor of Rolling Stone. “It seems every day there are a couple” of letters, he said. “And they’re usually requests for help or to look into the incredible miscarriage of justice that landed them in jail.”

Jail mail comes to magazines of all stripes and socioeconomic demographic. Even Vanity Fair, with its glossy photo spreads of black-tie galas and articles on high society travails, used to receive about one letter a month from prisoners seeking to get in touch with the investigative reporter Dominick Dunne before he died in 2009. It seems to be a mostly male phenomenon. Women’s magazines like Glamour, Self and O, the Oprah Magazine, said they did not typically get mail from female inmates.

Ebony receives about 25 prison letters a month — a quarter of all the written mail that comes to the magazine’s offices in Chicago. Terry Glover, the managing editor, said she was often surprised by how serious and introspective some of the prison letters could be. “You come to these letters with a certain expectation like, ‘O.K., what is it that they want?’ Because often they are looking for financial support or an address for a hot celebrity.” But more often than not, Ms. Glover said, it is apparent to her that prisoners have used their ample time alone to consider why they are incarcerated.

“They say, ‘This is what happened to me, don’t let this happen to any other kids,’ ” she said, adding that Ebony has occasionally printed letters from prisoners.

The letters are usually recognizable as jail mail even before they are opened. In the space for the return address, an inmate number follows the writer’s name. A return address with words like “United States Penitentiary” or “correctional center” is a dead giveaway.

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