Internet provides link to the world for prisoners

Prison officials, Web sites advise caution in dealing with inmates

March 07, 2002|By Edward Colimore | Edward Colimore,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

PHILADELPHIA - Their personal ads aren't much different than those filling newspapers, dating-service magazines and Internet sites.

They provide the names of men and women, along with physical descriptions and general interests. Many are accompanied by photos.

"My name is Tony though I prefer Kimani. ... I would like to meet someone with whom I can share thoughts and ideas for the purpose of laying a foundation upon which we can both grow and benefit from."

What distinguishes Anthony Hardaway's online ad from most others is the line about his Trenton, N.J., address: "I have been held captive here in New Jersey State Prison for the past 17 years."

The ad - accompanied by photos of Hardaway, serving a 30-year sentence for manslaughter - is part of a Web site called Cyberspace Inmates (cyberspace-inmates.com), one of dozens of sites catering to thousands of prisoners in search of pen pals and relationships.

Significant growth

The use of such sites by inmates has grown significantly over the years along with the increasing public use of the Internet to communicate.

Hardaway, 37, said he had written his online ad and paid the $10 fee as a way of staying engaged with the outside world.

"This is an attempt to preserve my humanity; this is an inhumane place," Hardaway said during an interview at the maximum-security prison. "I'm just looking for a meeting of the minds. A meeting of the hearts would be good - but it doesn't necessarily have to be romance, just someone caring and intelligent."

The names of the pen-pal Web sites run the gamut from utilitarian to provocative. They include Prison Angels (prisonangels.com), Friends on Both Sides (penpals-in-prison.com), Meet-an-Inmate.com, Inmates4u.com, PrisonPenPals.com, Women Behind Bars (womenbehindbars.com), Jail Babes (www.jailbabes.com), and CagedKittens.com.

Jon'a Meyer, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Rutgers University-Camden, said some inmates who use the Web sites are seeking pen pals "for something to do, someone to write back and forth."

"They are the well-intentioned ones," she said. "The bond with their own families and friends has deteriorated over time. A wife may have remarried, parents die, friends stop writing as often. These are the less nefarious ones.

"Others are looking to milk people financially," Meyer added. "Some of the women may try to get lonely men to send them things, books and other stuff. As long as inmates are not trying to hit you up for stuff, then the writing is good for you to gain insights into someone and good for them emotionally."

No state encouragement

Chris Carden, a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Corrections, said that inmates do not have access to the Internet, and that the state "plays no part in encouraging inmates to use these types of sites."

The Web sites also advise caution when contacting inmates. Prison Angels states that it "doesn't verify the accuracy of the ads placed on this site. Please use good judgment when corresponding with an inmate. We therefore accept no responsibility for any content posted within the inmates' ads on this site. It is wise, at least initially, to use a post office box until you become comfortable enough to share your home address."

Cyberspace Inmates prints e-mail responses to inmates and sends them to the inmates via regular mail, according to the site. When "the inmate sends us a response," the site tells pen pals, "we type it in our computer and e-mail it or snail mail it to you."

The Rev. Rene Mulkey, who has operated Cyberspace Inmates as a ministry since 1996, said she lists about 1,700 inmates. She charges a $10 fee to cover the cost of postage, envelopes, paper, ink and online services.

Many sites charge a small fee - usually $10 to $20 for listings that run several months to a year. Others are free.

"I get 5,000 a week hitting my Web site and several hundred e-mails a day," Mulkey said. "Each day, I send out 100 envelopes to the prisons, some with several letters for various inmates. I like what I do. It fills part of me that was missing."

A kind of lifeline

For many prisoners serving long sentences, such as Anthony Hardaway, the letters have become a kind of lifeline.

Hardaway said his incarceration began nearly 20 years ago after a traffic dispute in Newark, N.J., escalated into a fatal shooting.

He said he was walking across a street in front of a car but did not move fast enough for the teen-age driver, who stopped and exited for a confrontation. During the argument, Hardaway said, he shot the youth and changed his life forever.

A soft-spoken man, he said that he spent long hours reading and watching television - but that he hoped to do more letter writing.

"Some of my more outstanding qualities are that I am an honest and principled person. Anyone interested in corresponding can be assured that I will manifest these qualities. I look forward to hearing from any and all interested."

One of the responses Hardaway received was especially unexpected - a letter from a man named Muscat living across the globe in Oman.

The inmate said he writes to two women but is "still waiting for that memorable one. I'm looking for that one to vie with intellectually."

Some of the ads seeking pen pals are filled with pain.

Samuel "Saleem" Ryan, 28, an inmate at New Jersey State Prison, says on Prison Angels that he has been wrongly convicted.

"It has totally engulfed me beyond the sum total of anything I have ever experienced before," his ad says. "There is no greater emotional pain. ... I hope this brief missive will attract a lady who has no boundaries when it comes to stimulating conversation and most important a friendship."

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