Stephen Booth fully understands the sweeping impact that social networking sites have had, enabling people from around the globe to instantly connect with one another, shrinking thousands of miles to nothing more than a click of the mouse.
“It’s just crazy,” he said. “It’s like 600 million people on Facebook. And that’s what we had in mind.”
Booth is the administrator of a web site that also allows people to connect with one another, make friends, and bring new voices into sometimes lonely existences.
But his site is targeted toward a very specific group. Called PrisonInmates.com, it enables people who are incarcerated to find penpals on the outside.
“What we’re doing is making an actual community of inmate supporters and inmates,” said Booth. “So we’re building a full community where people can share knowledge about prison rules for different prisons, and how you can send money, all that stuff, while a typical penpal site just lists the prisons, and that’s it.”
In the age of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other sites, Booth said PrisonInmates is becoming successful because so many people — whether they’re inside prison or not — already understand how to use these social networking sites.
“We decided to make our site as similar to Facebook as possible,” Booth said. “We want them to go to our site and have a sense of familiarity.”
Booth, who lives in California, had previously started a service called Prison Voice, a web site that helps people write to prisoners.
“Inmates on this web site have freed their voice and are looking to make new friends outside their prison walls,” the site’s introduction notes. “Statistics show that inmates who have penpals are less likely to return to prison. Please take the time out of your busy schedule to write a prisoner on our web site. You never know, you may even find a love connection. It’s true! Some of our visitors have found LOVE behind bars. Maybe you can too.”
PrisonInmates.com was a separate site, but Booth’s company purchased it last year.
“We actually started with a company called Prison Voice, which was just a basic penpal service,” he said. “It just links to PrisonInmates.com now. There’s a lot of basic penpal sites out there, and we’re doing more of the social networking route. We want to do a lot more than just connect people who don’t know inmates. We’re trying to bridge the communication gap. We’re trying to make it easier for friends and family, and also people who want to connect with inmates.”
There are some hurdles to operating a site like this. For one thing, the vast majority of inmates across the country don’t have access to the Internet — except for a small number in federal prisons.
“It’s like 98 percent of inmates don’t have access to the Internet at all,” he said. “Even federal inmates don’t have access through the Internet.”
There are a few ways now for inmates to get emails, like CorrLinks.com, a site that allows family and friends to send messages to inmates via email, rather than regular snail mail, for a fee. Another site is JPay, which allows family and friends to send money, and eMessaging, to inmates.
PrisonInmates.com taps into those services.
“Basically what we do is if it’s a federal inmate who does have CorrLinks, we’re the middle man and shoot it over to the inmate’s CorrLinks account and they get the message,” he said. “If they don’t have CorrLinks, which most don’t, then we collect all the messages, then print and mail them to the inmates at least two times a month. What we send to the inmate has the person’s mailing address on it, so they can mail the penpal directly.”
Getting the word out about this service isn’t easy if inmates can’t get onto the Internet, but even that is a problem they can overcome.
“We advertise in a prison newsletter called Prison Legal News and several smaller inmate run newsletters, and we had been offering a recurring account,” he said. “The majority of our business is word of mouth among inmates.”
If it sounds like a major hurdle, the site has grown considerably in the past year, Booth said.
“PrisonInmates.com basically had about 250 members on it when we took it over,” he said. “Now we’re pushing 1,200. We’re getting 40 to 50 inmates a week joining. I think we have at least 40 states that we have inmates from. We have a lot of states with really small inmate populations and they don’t do it or haven’t heard of us yet.”
Another challenge, he added, is states that ban inmates from joining social networking sites — Florida included.
Gretl Pressinger, public information officer for the Florida Department of Corrections, said the state rules prohibit inmates from using existing web sites to solicit penpals, because it too often becomes little more than an effort on the part on the inmate to get the people writing to them to also send them money.
“Inmates can have penpals, but they can’t solicit a penpal,” she said. “We do have prison volunteers — church groups, for example — who want to be penpals, and we work with them. But we are always concerned when an inmate does solicit for penpals, because we don’t want them to be asking for money or to otherwise try to victimize the penpal. We have seen them lie to penpals. We’ve seen these things through time, and we have a real concern for the public’s safety.”
Booth countered that these fears are overblown, and the rules too stringent.
“South Carolina is trying to put a ban on all social networks for inmates, to make it illegal for them to post on all forms of social networking sites, because these inmates, they feel, are trying to intimidate witnesses and do illegal things,” he said. “They should be looking at a site like mine. Inmates can’t access the site through cell phones. Our site would actually be a safer alternative for them than Facebook or sites like that.”
Booth said PrisonInmates.com has only received one complaint in the past from a penpal complaining that the inmate they were writing to ended up trying to scam them.
“We’ve only had one report to us about an inmate trying to scam them in the five years we were open, and it turned out not to be true,” he said. “They just didn’t like the inmate anymore. So we’ve actually never had an actual case of an inmate trying to scam anyone. If you read their profiles, they’re just really lonely, and they’re looking for someone to write to them.”
Booth said he got involved in doing social networking sites for inmates because he felt it had the potential to reduce crime rates, rather than give inmates opportunities for new crimes like Internet scams.
“First of all, I feel like our inmate population is bigger than the rest of the world’s combined,” he said. “We have more inmates than anywhere else in the world, and it doesn’t seem like anybody is doing anything to address the problem. This is kind of like a part-time job for me, but it makes me feel good that I’m helping to try to reduce recidivism rates and help keep these inmates on a straighter path and keep them out of jail the next time around.”
On the site, inmates can post photos of themselves, and list their ethnicity, birthdate, sexual orientation, relationship status, highest level of education, and what they’re looking for, such as friendship or a relationship.
Jameil Kojah, 30, is incarcerated in the Oregon State Correctional Institute in Salem, Oregon, until 2020 for robbery and attempted assault. He has a page on PrisonInmates.com and is looking to correspond with women. He writes, “I am high-spirited, motivated, inspiring, dedicated and loyal. I am into physical fitness having an active life style and I also enjoy the little things in life. Unfortunately I am currently in prison. But that doesn’t define or dictate who I am or the man I will become. A result of a mistake I made as a young man. I have definitely learned and grown from this situation.”
Of the penpals who write to them, Booth said both male and female inmates get mail through PrisonInmates.com.
“I would say the majority is women writing to male inmates, but the female inmates are not lacking in mail, either,” he said. “Sometimes they get more mail than the male inmates, but there are more people overall writing to the men.”
They also have gay inmates who find gay penpals.
“That’s actually a very big market,” Booth said. “We have a lot of gay writers. We actually have more gay penpals than we have gay inmates. That actually becomes a problem because the (straight) inmates don’t want gay penpals, but these guys write to them anyway.”
Booth thinks state laws banning inmates from participating in these sites will likely get struck down by court challenges on free speech grounds.
“Not only are they violating the inmates’ rights, they’re violating it for everyone,” he said. “Florida has a ban on inmates soliciting for a penpal, and that’s in court right now. These laws are supposed to be used to protect the public, but it’s kind of like one apple ruining the whole the bunch. If one inmate does a scam, then they ban it for everyone.”
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