Steven was paired with his Crossroads mentor, Cindy, in 2017. After nine months of studying the Bible together through the mail, their correspondence was interrupted.

The interruption came as Crossroads began to navigate the complications of new mail restrictions in Pennsylvania’s state facilities. The facilities had contracted with a private company, Smart Communications, to scan all incoming mail through their MailGuard service. After the contract began in 2018, poor-quality and incomplete photocopies of lessons began flooding the Crossroads office. We discovered that many of the encouraging letters written by mentors never made it to their students. For nearly two years, we had to pause sending lessons to hundreds of students in Pennsylvania.

While Steven waited to resume his lessons, Cindy continued to faithfully reach out to him, sending encouraging notes and holiday greetings in the interim.

It wasn’t until June 2020 that Steven received his next Crossroads lesson. “After he resumed his lessons, he thanked me for continuing to correspond with him,” Cindy told us. “I enjoy corresponding with Steven. He is a very mature Christian, and he spends a lot of time engaging in discipleship with his fellow inmates.”

In their letters over the last four years, Steven has written about his experiences growing up in a military family and how his world fell apart at the age of seven when his parents split. He shared how his parents’ divorce and his mom’s remarriage to his abusive stepfather caused him to spiral into despair. He turned to substances to cope with his pain as he bounced between jobs and relationships for many years. “I was chasing peace, joy and happiness in all the wrong places,” he explained.

Steven told Cindy how he eventually found the peace, joy and happiness he was looking for when he gave his life to the Lord in jail and how Crossroads has been instrumental in his faith journey.

Through the stories they have shared in their letters, Steven and Cindy discovered a mutual love of cooking. Cindy told us, “He mentioned that he was a chef before his incarceration. I shared with him that my husband loves to fish, so we enjoy fish dinners quite often.”

An example of a dish Cindy prepared using a recipe from her Crossroads student, Steven.

After learning that Steven and his son had been exchanging recipes by mail, Cindy asked if he had any recipes for the types of fish her husband had been catching. In his very next letter, Steven sent her a list of ingredients and step-by-step instructions for one of his secret recipes.

He also expressed gratitude to Cindy, saying, “Thank you for taking my mind out of here. I hope and pray you enjoy [the recipe], and I can’t wait to hear how you did.”

Cindy said that she and her family have loved all the recipes Steven has sent to them. She shared photos of the meals with us and wrote, “What a joy it was to prepare these meals and share them with my family!”

Across the state lines and prison walls that separate them, Steven and Cindy were able to share a meal together through a letter. But for many Crossroads students in Pennsylvania, prison restrictions brought their connection with Crossroads mentors to a halt.

Although Cindy and Steven could continue writing to each other as we looked for a solution to the restrictions Pennsylvania had put in place, that was not the case for our students who had not yet been paired with a one-on-one mentor. In the two years that we were unable to mail lessons to Pennsylvania facilities, many of our students were transferred or released, and we lost contact with them.

Today, more than one hundred facilities nationwide are serviced by Smart Communications. While we have secured an exemption and resumed sending lessons to our students in Pennsylvania, other life-giving friendships, like Steven and Cindy’s, continue to be jeopardized as this service expands.

As the Federal Bureau of Prisons and many states are looking to restrict traditional physical correspondence by scanning and digitizing letters, other states, like Florida, are considering charging people in prison to receive their mail. The scanning process not only disrupts the mail flow to men and women in prison, but it also compromises their privacy and takes away their only tangible connection to the outside world.

Additionally, it shifts the burden of paying for postage back to our students, as our postage-paid envelopes cannot be distributed with the lesson scans. These restrictive policies increase the chances that our students will never get their lessons, that portions will be missing or illegible and that they won’t be able to afford to continue their Bible studies.

We need your prayers as we begin discussions with state prison systems. Pray that doors will remain open for us to continue sending mail to our students across the country. Pray that we will be able to resume sending lessons and letters to students who have been disconnected from us so they can experience the same life-giving connection that Steven and Cindy have.

As the pandemic continues and visits remain suspended, physical mail is more important than ever to people in prison. To learn more about this issue, we encourage you to read the recent Christianity Today article about the expansion of digitizing prison mail here.

If you are interested in advocating for men and women in prison to ensure that they can continue receiving mail, consider signing this petition from Just Detention International.