It’s tricky to explain why I wanted to correspond with a prisoner. A lot of people probably think that prisoners don’t deserve the attention of anyone in the outside world and that they should be left to rot. Well, that’s not me, and I decided to take myself online last year to find a prisoner to exchange letters with. US site prisoninmates.com gave me that opportunity, and is the site upon which I found my prisoner penpal last year. Recently, my penpal got back in touch after my last letter was lost in the post, which inspired me to write this post.
The prisoner I chose was almost at random. His name is Thomas and he is a sex offender. He assured me in his first letter that he would answer any questions I had about the circumstances surrounding his arrest and imprisonment, but I haven’t asked further yet. His first letter, a response to my initial request to become penpals, was mostly about his life prior to his imprisonment and lots of questions about my life. I suppose in a way these prisoners need someone to live through on the outside world. His release date is listed as 2029. He was jailed in 2005. A quarter of a century is a long time to be locked away from society. I would like to ask him more about his coping mechanisms and how he spends his days. I certainly don’t know much about life in prison, and I expect it’s very different in the US.
I’m aware it probably seems odd that I would want to give a sex offender the time of day. But I’m interested in people and I’m interested in the way people think. I can’t pretend I’ll ever understand why he did what he did, whatever that was, but I think it’s crucial that we listen to their explanations to try to find out more about the circumstances and what motivated them. I’m also thinking about getting in touch with a female prisoner to find out how their experiences compare. I couldn’t truly say I was interested in people, I don’t feel, without wanting to know about the way serious criminals think and behave.
prisoninmates.com looks a lot like a dating site at first glance, with photos and profiles of thousands and thousands of prisoners. If you weren’t concentrating, you might mistake it for exactly this. There is a combination of standard, smiling headshots and seductive poses. It’s only when you scroll further down and you see the little things you’d never find on a normal dating site:
The profiles people have written for themselves vary wildly in the way they talk about their lives. Some explain why they were incarcerated, others make no mention of it whatsoever. Otherwise, these people seem remarkably unremarkable for murderers, rapists and kidnappers. Most people show some sign of remorse. ‘At a young age I made many mistakes which I pay for today’, says one prisoner. ‘I’m using my prison time to learn new things, and also to learn from my past mistakes’, says another. Some profiles include lengthy proclamations of innocence. Others beg for donations. Regardless of the crime or the background, I can honestly say I would be interested in conversing with every single person listed, much like I would say for every single non-prisoner in the world.
Would you ever speak to a prisoner? If so, why? If not, why not? Either way, I’d love to hear what you think about the concept of prisoner penpals and prisoninmates.com.