Inmates serving long prison sentences can go years without seeing any friends or relatives. In Florida, for example, inmates averaged two visits — total — during their sentences. For prisoners at one Midwestern facility, their annual visitor count dropped the longer they were incarcerated, according to a 2011 study conducted by researchers at the University of Louisville (the study also found that white inmates were six times more likely to have a visitor than a prisoner of color). To fill the void, some have turned to online personal ads in search of companionship. According to PrisonPenPalDirectory, there are currently 29 sites with such names as Meet-An-Inmate, Reaching Beyond the Walls, and Captive Angels.com.
Soulmates and shirtless shots
Many sites circumvent state and federal correctional facilities’ strict, no-access, or limited-use Internet rules by inviting inmates to send photographs and essays through the mail. With most services, inmates are charged $12 to $65 for a year-long post that reads much like a Twitter or OkCupid profile: “I wear my heart on my sleeve, and throw my soul into every friendship,” wrote Gerald Callahan on Cellblock Services.
On CONPALS, which features personal ads from inmates on death row, Richard Gamache, who has been locked up for 22 years, wrote: “I'm just tired of being alone and lonely.” Loveaprisoner has a more direct mission: To connect inmates, both male and female, with romantic partners. According to its homepage, the service has a “75 percent compatibility rating for those looking for their soul mates.” Christopher King, a VIP member, has received 5,449 views and his ad plays Michael Jackson’s “You Are Not Alone.” (The site’s VIP membership costs $65 a year and includes a five-picture photo gallery and Facebook posts. Background music costs an additional $10.)
An insider’s perspective
For six years, engineer Monica Valdez exchanged letters with Octavio Salgado through WriteAPrisoner.com while he was in a Nevada prison on drug-trafficking charges. Since his release in July, they have spent nearly every day together. “I just wanted to adopt somebody in need. I didn’t plan for all this,” says Valdez. “I know a lot of people [who sell drugs] that haven’t been caught.” The pair exchanged letters for five years before Salgado agreed to visit him in prison. “He started sending me cards and nice designs. I wasn’t really dating anyone. So it was nice to get these cards from somebody who I didn’t even know.” As Salgado’s release date approached, Valdez invited him to move near her home in Southern California; he currently works as a maintenance man in an apartment complex. “He tells me how one letter changed his whole life,” Valdez says.
What everyone gets wrong
Prison personals are not explicitly about friendship or flirtation. Arlen Bischke, founder of Meet-An-Inmate, said he notified a Texas jail nurse and a local newspaper reporter about his female pen pal’s claims of being sexually abused by two jail guards. The two men were arrested and later resigned after authorities investigated her 1998 allegations. “She told me that she spoke up and they did not believe her, Bischke says. “Transparency in prisons is important. This makes me feel like I am doing a service to the public.”
Personal ad bans
In 2011, two cases were argued before the federal appeals courts in Atlanta and in Chicago about whether state-prison bans on pen-pal services violated inmates’ First Amendment rights. WriteAPrisoner, along with Freedom Through Christ Prison Ministries, filed a lawsuit against the state of Florida, claiming that a rule prohibiting prisoners from posting online personal ads denied inmates the right to communicate with the outside world. Department of Corrections officials said the guidelines were needed in order to prevent scams. A similar personal ad ban in Indiana was challenged by two state inmates who claimed the policy blocked their freedom of speech. Both cases were struck down by federal appellate judges, and the rules remained unchanged. Says Adam Lovell, founder of WriteAPrisoner, “The state failed to provide a single instance of fraud.”
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