Online sites for dating prisoners have proliferated in recent years. On the surface, these sites profess to specialize in connecting people behind bars with those seeking pen pals. Behind this façade, sites with names like inmatepassions.com act as bridges that transform long-distance friends into lovers.
Arlen Bischke started a prisoner pen-pal site called meet-an-inmate.com in 1998 to help prisoners connect to the outside world. “They become very lonely and often get cut off from their friends and family,” Biske told theGrio. “Correspondence with a stranger can give them something to look forward to and help their morale.”
Yet his site and those similar to it feature inmate profiles as inviting as any on OkCupid. Posing in spruced-up versions of their prison uniforms, prisoners use these sites to sell themselves to potential pen pals and describe the types of people they want to meet.
One compelling prospect, Israel Cosme, age 30, displays his perfectly toned chest to visitors of meet-an-inmate.com telling all takers, “I love to laugh and have been told I have a great sense of humor.”
Precious Johnson in her profile on the same site cracks a cute smile above the message: “I am looking for a nice, patient, funny, and understanding man for a genuine friendship that could possibly lead to more.”
Few prisoners in the United States have Internet access; therefore, for the incarcerated to make that special connection online, someone on the outside must get them started. This is where sites like convictmailbag.com step in. With fees in the range of $10-75, prisoner dating sites charge willing friends to list an inmate’s vital statistics on the web — or the company can mail the necessary forms to the wannabe lover behind bars who then mails them in.
Once a prisoner’s information makes it online, interested parties pick potential partners as they would on any other matching site. Some sites also charge people interested in contacting an inmate for the desired addresses. (Meet-an-inmate does not charge for this service.)
Prisoninmates.com even boasts a Facebook-like interface complete with status updates to make the selection process more appealing. Friends of participating inmates pay to update prisoners’ statuses and upload photos (and curiously people who are not inmates also join).
Christian Science Monitor reports that the online prisoner dating industry has grown from humble beginnings 1996 into a robust market today. Leading sites boast “between 7,000 and 10,000 ads” featuring prisoners seeking to connect. ABC News reports that there are over a dozen major prison dating sites.
Rare sites like writeaprisoner.com make it clear that some of its proceeds are donated to programs that benefit the prisoner and ex-con community.
Bischke created meet-an-inmate.com as a pen-pal service to capitalize on this market, adding “and of course I want to make a profit like any other business.” His site now averages 3,000 visitors and 70,000 page views a day.
While he encourages people to befriend prisoners through his site, Bischke stresses that those who engage with the incarcerated need to be cautious.
“This is meet-an-inmate.com, not meet-a-girl-scout.com! People can get an image of what they think a person is like from a photo, description and a few letters,” Bischke warned. “You simply cannot make a relationship from letters alone, which some people mistakenly do.”
Despite published warnings on his site, Bischke says visitors often develop romantic feelings for their pen pals. Regarding marriages spawned by his site, he says there have been “quite a few over the years.”
This form of fatal attraction is common. According to ABC News, hundreds of women marry men in prison for violent crimes every year — and prisoner dating sites are a central means through which criminals find mates.
In her famous book, The Prisoner’s Wife, author Asha Bandele details the romantic courtship that led to her marriage to husband Zayd Rashid while he was serving a sentence of 20 years to life for murder. Women like Bandele insist that a prisoner’s appeal lies in the fact that the relationship blossoms through enriching communication and non-physical intimacy before sexuality influences one’s attachment.
Experts on the phenomenon believe that the emotional intensity of dating someone behind bars is actually extremely addictive. Others observe that law-abiding citizens seek anti-social lovers because they are unable to be truly intimate within a typical commitment. They need distance. Then there is always the eternal appeal of the bad boy (or girl).
But does the sexy swag of a prisoner outweigh the risks of loving a violent offender? Writer Julie Bindel of the British newspaper The Guardian says no. Of the alarming rise in online prisoner dating in the U.S. she says:
I once interviewed a woman who was waiting for a man to be released from a life sentence she had met via the prison pen pal service. He had killed two women in domestic violence situations. My interviewee was desperate to marry him, and, although she knew of his crimes, was convinced she could change him.
Massachusetts State Rep. Donna Fournier Cuomo told the Christian Science Monitor that men who have committed serious violent offenses should not be allowed to participate in online meeting services, asking: “Are we setting these people up to be victims in the future?”
Critics like Rep. Cuomo insist that prisoner dating sites unnecessarily encourage scenarios that place naive people in danger, for which these site creators are partially responsible.
Despite the growing interest in online prisoner dating, Bischke insists that these sites are intended to ease prisoner isolation only. They are meant to foster interpersonal engagement, and are not an intelligent way to start a romantic relationship. Women and men fascinated with prisoners need to take heed.
“The odds of everything working out are slim,” Bischke said. “There are just too many obstacles.”