Inmates get pen pals, and more, by Internet

Web: Well-meaning third parties set up access for prisoners seeking outside contact, but abuses are inevitable.

July 10, 1999|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

The personal ad looks like so many others posted on the World Wide Web these days: "I am a 30 year old white male with a heart of gold, who is seeking friendship and pen pals."

A snapshot shows a man with an athletic, 6-foot frame, easy smile and boyishly handsome face.

He's wearing what appear to be orange hospital scrubs and looks like a guy who would have no trouble eliciting a response from the opposite sex.

But Samuel J. Derrick is not your typical lonely heart.He's a convicted killer who in 1987 stabbed a store owner 30 times during a robbery.

And his uniform doesn't come from a medical school. It's standard issue at the Union Correctional Institute in Raime, Fla., where he sits on death row.

The Web site that carries his ad is Prison Pen Pals (www.prisonpenpals.com), one of a dozen online venues created to help men and women behind bars make friends on the outside, find future employment and even set up an online store to earn extra cash.

The creators of these sites say they're designed to ease an inmate's loneliness and desperation and -- for those who will eventually get out -- smooth an often rocky path back into society.

But critics charge that the Web is a medium that convicts can use to cheat or harm unwitting good Samaritans.

As a result, online pen pal sites are raising eyebrows among corrections officials in Maryland and around the country.

The issue caught the attention of prison officials here after they discovered that Gregory Lee Lawrence, one of the two convicts who staged a headline-grabbing May 18 break from the Maryland Correctional Institution in Jessup, has a Web site.

There, the 39-year-old convicted killer hawks a get-rich-quick manual that promises "thousands of dollars" to anyone who sends him a $25 money order.

Officials at the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services say that to the best of their knowledge, Lawrence hasn't received a dime from the venture, but some within the department are debating whether prisoners should continue to be allowed to place ads on the Internet.

"We are very wary of the possibility of fraud and will be scrutinizing these pen pal sites in the future," says department spokesman Leonard A. Sipes Jr.

Authorities say no U.S. prisoner has direct access to the Internet. Pen pal sites, however, offer proxy: For a small fee, inmates can set up a Web page and have e-mail printed and forwarded to them.

That's how Prison Pen Pals works. The site is run from a small office in East Berlin, Pa., by Priscilla Pletcher-Wilcox, a 36-year-old former housewife. She started the venture in 1996 with pages for two prisoners she met through volunteer work in a nearby penitentiary.

Today, the site has pages for 6,000 inmates in five countries.

`A real unique way'

"Basically prisoners want three things: They want to be free, they want to get a visit or they want a letter," Wilcox says. "With the Internet, I saw a real unique way for prisoners to get mail."

But prisoners also use pen pal sites to post resumes and set up virtual storefronts, selling items that range from Penitentiary Fudge ("created and perfected during my leisure time on the a.m. cooking shift at the infamous San Quentin Prison") to Indian dream catcher necklaces.

Like similar sites, Prison Pen Pals charges inmates a nominal fee ($14.95 a year). Wilcox says she keeps the cost low because prisoners don't earn much, but as a result, she barely makes ends meet and spent $2,000 out-of-pocket last year to cover expenses.

Others have similar tales.

Charles Sparks, 44, quit his job as a technician at a Cleveland robotics firm several years ago to work on Penn Pals (www.pennpals.com) full time. Today his site carries more than 1,000 inmates' pages, but it's deeply the red and might be forced to close soon.

Still, Sparks says he'd do it again.

"If the only people [you] ever speak to day in and day out are convicts, where's the chance for growth?" says Sparks. "Everybody can sit around and grumble about what a lousy deal they got. But when you write to somebody on the outside who's paying taxes and has to support you, it gives you a different perspective."

Song Jin Yun, 29, an inmate at the Maryland House of Correction in Jessup, agrees. He advertised online in December seeking a woman who "can share my thoughts and dreams."

Yun went to prison long before the World Wide Web went public, and he says whatever he knows about e-mail and the Internet comes from TV. But he says the ad has already eased his loneliness, drawing responses from a psychiatrist, a manager at a finance company and a college professor.

His page doesn't say why he's behind bars -- a life term for killing a Randallstown businessman in 1989 while the victim's wife and granddaughter looked on. But he'll tell pen pals if they ask.

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