You have a prison pen pal, who has basically no resources or family on the outside. He/she continues to request that you send money or goods (clothing, food, magazines, etc.) to them. After all ..arent' you really a "friend"? And don't friends help each other out?
Bo Lozoff in his "advice for prison correspondents' recommends this approach (when talking to a prisoner about this):
"Almost everyone in prison is broke, and almost everyone has material needs that aren't being met. But that's not what your pen-pal relationship is about. If you try to make it into that, you will probably lose a good friend. Which will do you more good in the long run, twenty bucks for a radio, or a life-long friend? "
Do you agree with Bo? Or do you think that helping out with a few bucks or presents once in awhile is okay? What would you say in response to this type of request?
Same as with friends on the outside -- it all depends on the nature of the relationship, and the situation for each person involved. I have initiated the offer of money in some situations with prison pen pals (where I felt it wouldn't mess up the relationship, and when I had the money to offer), and some have accepted and some have declined. I've also had prison pen-pals ask for money, and sometimes I say yes and sometimes no, based on the same criteria.
Prisoners have often sent me presents from time to time -- a book they received that they thought I might want to read, or artwork. When I was working with the street community, clients used to do the same, offering me what they could, and I accepted it when I felt the motivation was a genuine desire to give a present and not an attempt to manipulate the relationship.
It would be interesting to hear from people who feel a relationship with a prisoner should have different rules than relationships on the outside.
I am relatively new to being a pen pal. However, I feel very strongly that I am a sort of spiritual friend and that is all. My job is to help my pen pal develop a positive mind and learn how to stay as cool as possible in a violent and austere environment. I meditate before responding to each letter and usually I follow my heart in these matters. I have sent Dharma books and once I sent some stamps because I wanted to thank my spiriual friend for the teachings he gave me. I think if the relationship has been deeply established on purely spiritual grounds then it doesn't matter what we send them. If we are not careful we can become just another easy mark! Compassion and wisdom!
I agree with Bo. It's a slippery slope, and helping out "once in awhile" is probably not an option. I had this related experience with my counterpart in Big Brother/Big Sister program. My 16-year-old "little sister" started hinting for gifts, telling me what her family needed, which were large-ticket items. I learned that a previous "big sister" to this girl had paid for a new floor to be installed in the family's kitchen. I gave my little sister a card for her birthday and took her somewhere special, but no gift. She stopped returning my calls and became "too busy" to get together. I was sad that our relationship ended that way, but felt that I had done the right thing. I then had time to move on to another relationship that gave me the opportunity to provide the kind of support/friendship I wanted to offer.
For a few years I wrote a newsletter for inmates called Lotus Friends Paper Sangha in TX.
Out of the 70 or so active writers, only one asked for money.
The rest sent me stamps on a regular basis.
I truly miss the Paper Sangha.
And would like to be a pen pal again.
I think it is a beautiful thing when a pen pal shows appreciation by sending stamps or anything else related to the effort. However, my preference is that they seem to be getting some spiritual benefit from my efforts. When I sense a new awareness or understanding it truly makes my day. My limited experience of prison Dharma leads me to understand that prison is mostly a compassionless place. I like to provide an oasis of kindness, love, and understanding. As one pen pal wrote to me, " I don't really want to be cared about, I want someone to try to understand me!" He was very right! My declaration that I cared about him rang hollow. I admitted to him I did indeed need to understand him before I could honestly say I cared about him. I have been studying Dharma for almost three years and this was wisdom I hadn't picked up before. Prison Dharma is a two way street and I am fully prepared to give a gift to anyone from which I derive benefit whether they intended it that way or not.
So far this is my experiencealso.. As a rule, I do not look up on the DOC web-sites what they are incarcerated for. Sometimes they tell me and sometimes they don't. I am aiming at their true nature so I don't really care why they are there. I wait for and enjoy each letter I receive. I was asked to do a Powa ceremony for one pen pal's mother so we did a special dedication for her at our center. This was greatly appreciated.
I can relate to the promlems of this nature concerning a big brother/sister relationship. However, in a pen pal relationship the boundries and lines are clearly drawn along a spiritual path. I have been a pen pal for less then a year and am or have written to four inmates. I have been asked for stamps and I have been asked to help pay for special schooling. My answer was the same -no! However in the case of the stamps I wanted to thank my pen pal for the wisdom he shared with me that helped me in my own life. Therefore, I thought the gift was justified out of pure appreciation for what was given to me. Presenting gifts to our teachers is a long Buddhist tradition so I felt OK with it. I also sent along with the gift a reason why I was sending it and that it was a one time thing unless circumstances and conditions created another chance for me to thank him.
I am in a relationship with a Death Row Inmate in Georgia. Our relationship is not "purely spiritual" ... so my response comes from my experience as a friend first and not a
spiritual pen pal. (Although it is my practice in meditation and my desire to serve others that lead me to the relationship).
My friendship with Lenny (my friend's name on death row) is very human...I mean we relate very deeply to eachother as people first, not spiritual seekers. Lenny, teaches me and opens me in many ways that I am only beginning to realize and these openings are very "spiritual." There's a flow that has been developing for some time now during our correspondence that intensifies with each visitation and is supported by each correspondence.
So when money or something that he may desire comes up..... I am full heartedly open and ready to give to him the little that I am able to give. I love being able to give to him...for me it's a lesson on letting go...and a lesson in unconditional love.
The essence of Buddhism is compassion and wisdom. They are like the two wings of a bird - we need both. If we follow our heart and are not mindful of all the aspects and consequenses of how and why we help others, we can find ourselves being taken advantage of. I have learned from friends and family with addictions that when it comes to manipulation of others' kindnesses they are very strong. When it comes to their addiction and thinking of others they appear to be not so strong. We help others in whatever way we can as long as we are not harming ourselves or our family in the process.
There are a couple things that can completely derail a friendship if they become the focus of it and money is one of them. In my experience, the barrage of requests for money and/or items usually comes very soon at the beginning of a new pen pal contact and if not, it typically never becomes an issue. It's possible I nip the problem in the bud because very early on I state what I can and can't give and I try to be as clear as possible about that. Usually the response to that is either positive or my statements are completely ignored and after a few times of me saying "Sorry, I can't do that.", the pen pal finds some reason to "vanish". Having said that, I've found this issue to come up a lot less often than I expected when I first started. I do sometimes give low $ gifts, but I can't think of a time when it was prompted. I could see where people would feel it's a slippery slope, and I agree can be. However, I think it's still doable if you can maintain the boundaries you set. I think it's down to the individuals and every relationship, pen pal or otherwise, is unique. I just can't agree with having some kind of gift-rule that applies to everyone at all times. Seems too inflexible to me, but that's just my perspective.
There are at least four ways of giving. We can give material things. We can give Dharma. We can give our friends and students methods to develop fearlessness. And finally, we can share our experiences with Dharma. This last one is my favorite because I share how Dharma helped me change and develop a more positive outlook. I agree all situations are different and flexibility is needed. My teachers have taught me that when others ask for help we try to help them in whatever way we think appropriate.