It was not a direct approach, though; they both developed what could be called a “writing” ministry, imprinted with their own style and personality. In the first of a multipart series, this week’s article features Jeanne Pieper.Breaking stereotypesJeanne Pieper admits that for many years she “carried” some kind of stereotype about women in prison. “I thought most of them were poor, uneducated and all black,” said the author of “The Catholic Woman: Difficult Choices in a Modern World” and a parishioner of St. Anastasia in Los Angeles. “I never thought I would have something in common with them.”But the mother of four and grandmother of eight, now retired from a bookkeeping position in her husband’s successful marketing business, was open to a different viewpoint, given her own social justice upbringing. Her parents, Glenn and Marian Bramble, were both very active in the Civil Rights Movement and remained in their home parish Transfiguration Church until their death, even as it slowly transformed from an all-Caucasian to a predominantly black parish.Thus it was that, more than ten years ago, Pieper’s attention was captured by a weekly column in the Catholic Women’s Network newspaper, authored by two ex-convicts. The column, which became part of her regular reading, provided information about the prison world she had once avoided.Column topics ranged from daily life matters such as being a vegetarian in prison to the more controversial religious practices in prison. The columnists also promoted letter writing to incarcerated women.For Pieper, former editor and founder of Breaking the Language Barrier (a program that promoted cordial relationships between people speaking different languages), the readings slowly awakened a passion for prison ministry. But she wanted to do it differently. In March 1992 she sent a Christmas card to a woman imprisoned at the California Institution for Women (CIW) in Corona. She had chosen her name from a list provided in the newspaper. The woman answered back with a surprising request. She not only wanted to exchange letters with Pieper, but she also wanted Pieper to correspond with her cell mate. Pieper agreed.The two incarcerated women later introduced Pieper to Marilyn Montenegro, a CIW social worker who invited her to women’s meetings held in Watts and surrounding cities with the goal of educating potential advocates of women in prison.Being a hands-on type of person and realizing that, after several meetings, nothing was being accomplished, Pieper decided to take her letter writing experience to another level.With Montenegro’s support, she managed to get a list of women in the Corona prison who were interested in corresponding with women outside the prison walls, thus starting a Pen Pal Program in December 2001. She promoted the program in parishes, academic institutions, among friends or “wherever it was possible.” About 12 women responded to the initial call. One of them was Mary Anne Mayer, a longtime parishioner of Transfiguration Church. Although her children tried to talk her out of it, she was completely sure that the benefits and blessings from a letter exchange would be many.“We can bring happiness and good news in our correspondence with the incarcerated,” Mayer, 86, told The Tidings.She has since corresponded with a woman serving a life sentence in CIW, while recovering from a back surgery and completing an intensive African American ministry course at Loyola Marymount University.Buoyed by the letter exchange, her pen-pal, who was once known as “a wild street person,” has developed her own spiritual life. “She has become a prayer warrior,” said Mayer, who has visited her a couple of times, “and even ministers to other ladies in prison.”Getting involvedThe “outside women” choose their pen-pal from a list provided by Pieper containing very basic information about the “inside women,” such as age, time served, their sentence and a very brief explanation of their interests. Thereafter, Pieper’s only involvement is managing the P.O. Box for “outsiders” who do not feel comfortable using their personal mailing address.In 2003 the project took a different turn when it expanded to two more prisons in Chowchilla through a partnership with the Action Committee for Women in Prison (ACWIP), founded by Gloria Killian, an ex-convict turned lawyer. Pieper is a member of the organization’s board.Soon after the letter exchange crossed the state borders to prisons in Texas and Colorado. Then Pieper was surprised with emails from women in England, Wales, Canada, Croatia, Holland, Australia, Sweden and Dubai, requesting information about the program and interested in corresponding with women in U.S. prisons. Currently, more than 520 women worldwide, ages 21 (the minimum age to join the program) to mid-80s are exchanging letters with female prisoners in the U.S. Every now and then Pieper gets feedback from foreign participants.“I’ve been writing to two women in prison for five years now,” wrote Croatian dance teacher Katarina Pavlek. “When I learned about the program I was inspired to simply let someone know that, no matter what they did or how they behaved in the past, it is not something that stands in the way of friendship.” Nikki Wild-Archer wrote from England: “My experience from the programme is one of emotions. I have learnt from these women; women who in a day-to-day life would find that our paths would never cross. I have laughed along with them, cried along with them, and them with me too.”Each month Pieper updates the list of women in prison waiting to connect to a pen pal (there were 81 as of June). Once the initial contact is established, little paperwork is involved. Pieper sends an application to both the incarcerated woman and to her potential pen-pal to make sure they both agree to starting the correspondence. No money is involved, except for postage.“From the comfort of your home you bring a lot of hope to a woman,” said septuagenarian correspondent Gloria Bowen, who never hesitated in getting involved once she learned of Pieper’s endeavor. “I have time and the desire to bring love and happiness to someone else,” she said. “It doesn’t take a lot of effort, you just need 44 cents.”In fact, after sharing simple daily-life issues, including food recipes, their music preferences and information about their hometowns, Bowen and her pen-pal came to find out that they have more in common than not.“I picked the right person,” she smiled.The Tidings’ archivist and writer Hermine Lees keeps a very well-organized folder with letters and cards she has been receiving and sending to two pen-pals in Corona and Chowchilla since November 2007.Although she has never visited her pals, she says the letter exchange for the last three years has helped her understand what the prisoners have to go through, providing an opportunity to “express myself in a different way, always encouraging and positive.”She usually “googles” fun and positive quotes or a “day in history” combined with more “personal stuff” and family events. She also sends cards she decorates herself and always includes stamps as a present.“I think people are afraid of ‘speaking’ to a prisoner, but I have learned so much from the exchange that it has added more to my spiritual values,” Lees said.The support (and prayerful wishes) provided goes both ways. During a hard moment in Lees’ life, one of her pals wrote:“I am here for you as much as I can be. I have pretty big shoulders and I am offering them to you. I have been using yours for a while.”For more information about the women’s Pen-Pal Program, write to P.O. Box 9867, Marina del Rey, CA 90295 or email [email protected].{gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2011/0701/penpals/{/gallery}