The Web reaches out. Its name refers to something abstract, to the network of latticed filaments that extend all over the world, flashing currents of information, innovation, and ideas. But for many users, the Web means something more concrete. Whether as a voice or companionship, the Web offers communication. The keyboard and monitor sit at the terminus of the Web’s tendrils; they are the material through which, while sitting at a desk, some trace the lace of the outside world.
Most of us, however, know that the Web is virtual, that it cannot replace the step through the door, the rub of elbows, chatter with friends. What if, though, you could not make the physical journey out? What if you stole a jar of pickles, or poisoned your neighbor’s dog, or shot your best friend? What if you were an inmate? How important then would be the Web’s wide-reaching circuits?
Prisoners in the United States have limited access to the Internet; they can receive e-mail but cannot send it back. Presumably this rule protects victims, which seems fair enough to me. Inmates can, however, post personal Web pages. Several Web sites consolidate these pages, as a service to prisoners. Sites like the Inmate Home Pages (www.inmate.com/ — see photo above), Penpals-N-Prison (www.patpals-n-prison.com/), and the Prison Connection Home Page (www-rcf.usc.cdu/~alaa/prison/) allow visitors to e-mail prisoners. The messages are then downloaded and sent by regular mail.
Unless you’re a relative, I imagine it would take a big and courageous heart to reach out to the likes of Anthony “Two Guns” Fletcher. According to Two Guns’s site at the Inmate Home Pages, the state of Pennsylvania convicted him of first-degree murder by such unjust means as destroying “exculpatory medical evidence and manufacturing autopsy reports.” Though Two Guns’s bragging about his life before his conviction — when he was a world-class boxer who won seven Golden Glove Championships and sparred with Sugar Ray Leonard — might scare away some sympathizers, it probably wins more over. Two Guns is an anomaly at these pages; he has an identity with which he can attract correspondence. Other than a few Black Panthers, who can at least claim that they are political prisoners, a majority of inmates posted at these sites neither profess their innocence nor ask for help. What most ask for is less likely to be granted than a check or a new trial. It’s friendship — with room for growth.
The Inmate Home Pages challenges our compassion: “If you are one of those people who thinks claustrophobia is the fear of Santa Claus then click the ‘Back’ button twice. If you’re not, then you can imagine what sitting in a 9' x 5' room 20 hours a day, every day, year after year, with little or no mail.. .does to a human being. It’s sweet to be remembered, but often cheaper to be forgotten.” Fine, but a pen pal is one thing, romance another. Yulonda “Sweetness” Marshall, a “lonely inmate” who “needs love,” sounds like a contestant on an Ivy League dating game. “I enjoy writing music and poetry,” she writes, “and love to cook gourmet dishes for a special evening with friends. I wish you would write to me, and if possible include your photo (no Polaroids)." Yulonda does seem the picture of sweetness, but where exactly in her prison would the gourmet cooking go on? And why no Polaroid? Because its sharp edges can be fashioned into a weapon? Maybe Sweetness’s Tennessee prison is the wrong place to be looking for love.
Penpals-N-Prison, the “official prison penpal site,” makes no appeals to our compassion. Its purpose is not to engage something so complicated as mercy. “Tired of the same old dating scene?” it asks. “Well, if you are, this is the place for you.” The dating scene may be a drag, but cruising the country’s penitentiaries is not the solution for me. Amy (TX-F-02), though, gave me pause: “I am a sexy and very lonely cowgirl who needs that special someone to relight the Fire that has burned low. If you feel you can handle roping a Spanish and ‘very sexy’ cowgirl, then maybe you’re the man for me.” If it were legal to bring rope into a Texas prison, then yes, maybe. But as it is — the cold iron bars, the smudged soundproof glass, the probing guards — I can’t help but think they’ll get in the way.
To some, physical barriers make the best kind of love. Listen to David (CA-M-02): “I bet you never thought of the rewards of having a relationship with a man in prison. Open your minds and think of the benefits: (1) Total loyalty and security; (2) Freedom to do what you want when you want; (3) A mate who will always ‘listen’ and appreciate every moment spent together each visiting day; (4) You can have time to progress yourself in your business, school, etc. without having to look for a date; (5) The ability to start a family since conjugal visits are available every 3 months; (6) Virtually no stress since most of your communication is by mail and twice a week face to face.... It’s now or never, my love can’t wait.”
These inmates’ solicitations may not elicit love or even sympathy, but their optimism is admirable. Having been trapped by so many kinds of webs, it’s only fair that one set them free.