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by Abigail Van Buren

DEAR ABBY: You urged those who wish to correspond with prisoners to be cautious. You are right, but more needs to be said: Prisoners who have regular contact with an outside party have a lower rate of repeat crimes and are less likely to return to prison. Thus, writing to or visiting a prisoner regularly is a public service as well as a charitable act.

Volunteers should work through organizations that facilitate contacts with prisoners. These organizations are experienced with the risks that can be a part of such communication. They assist with screenings, instruct visitors or correspondents to neither send money nor reveal their home addresses or phone numbers to prisoners, and provide other training.

One can have a soft heart without having a soft head. -- GRACIA FAY ELLWOOD, ALTADENA, CALIF.

DEAR GRACIA: Succinctly put. Since I printed the letter from "Concerned in Arizona," I have received a flurry of mail reflecting varying viewpoints about writing to prisoners. Read on:

DEAR ABBY: I'm a radio talk-show host. For the past three years, I have written to and visited prisoners in my listening area. It's true one must always be careful when communicating with those unknown to us, but not so careful that we ignore those who are incarcerated.

Ninety percent of prisoners will do their time and be released back into society. It's important to maintain a connection to help them reintegrate and be productive citizens.

Here in Massachusetts, almost all of the educational, vocational and spiritual programs have been cut back or completely discontinued, resulting in uneducated, unemployable and angry people being released back into society. Writing to and visiting prisoners lets them know that someone cares and believes they can change for the better. You may use my name. -- DONNA SPRAGUE, PLAINVILLE, MASS.

DEAR DONNA: As I previously indicated, because a person is in prison does not automatically mean that he or she is incapable of being rehabilitated. Although some prisoners may have ulterior motives, many benefit from the encouragement and long-distance friendships mature pen pals can offer. However, I would urge that caution be exercised. Read on:

DEAR ABBY: My daughter is in prison for a crime she did not commit. (It's a long story.) During her incarceration, she has corresponded with several inmates at other prisons. Against my wishes, she gave my name and address to one of them and he wrote to me. After quite some time, she found out what type of person he really is, and I don't want him coming to my home if he's ever paroled.

A post office box is the only way to protect your privacy, your property, and quite possibly your life. Sign this with anything but my name. -- CONCERNED MOM IN TEXAS

DEAR ABBY: I have been in prison for 10 years and have known prisoners who receive mail and those who get none. I believe if you show compassion, you'll receive compassion. (Galatians 6:7, "A man reaps what he sows.") Most prisoners aren't hard-core criminals, and we are unforgiving of those who are. That's why prison officials put pedophiles and rapists in protective custody -- away from us.

I realize that some misfortunes have occurred with prison pen pals and I don't excuse it. However, ministers who encourage their parishioners to write to and visit prisoners perform a great humanitarian service.

So, Abby, now you have heard from the other side of the wall. I'm sure I speak for a large percentage of inmates. -- REALLY CONCERNED, FLORENCE, COLO.

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