San Diego My computer monitor lights up with a picture of a bare-chested, buffed-up, tattooed male, maybe 30 years old, with black hair and mustache. Alongside the photo is a headline announcing "Jeff Rendall's Personal Message to You." Underneath the picture and banner is the following text. "Are you tired of being lonely? Are you tired of meeting Mr. Wrong? I'm a bright, sincere, financially secure Christian, searching for an understanding woman willing to forgive a man's past mistakes....
"Hobbies & Interests: I find great pleasure in planting and cultivating a vegetable garden during the springtime. I love a roaring fire on a cold winter night, rainy days with nothing to do, and the sound of high heels on a hardwood floor."
Jeff Rendall D-70983. Expected release 2001. P.O. Box 4000-11-129 Vacaville, CA 95696
I shake my head. Currently, Mr. Rendall is a bright, financially secure Christian doing time in Folsom prison.
Mr. Rendall's missive is posted on the World Wide Web. I found the site courtesy of a friend who e-mailed me the Web address along with a note saying, "Take a look at this." It turns out prisoner personals on the Web is an industry. You pay $10 to $30 a month to a firm, compose your personal ad, and they post it on their site. If someone replies -- and they do -- the service downloads the incoming e-mail, prints the letter, and forwards it to the prisoner/customer via U.S. mail. Prisoners do not have direct access to the Internet. (Interested readers can check out www.pennpals.com /www.inmate.com/ and www.cyberspace-inmates. com/.)
Like everything else, prison ain't what it used to be. Single-man cells have gone to two-man cells, new regulations limit access to the prison law library, grooming standards have been instituted, free-weights have been removed from exercise areas, visiting hours (which had been a seven-day-a-week program) have been reduced to 12 hours a week or less. Vocational and educational programs have been cut back.
Prison sentences are longer, and more of us are seizing the opportunity to live inside a cage. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice statistics, "If recent incarceration rates remain unchanged, an estimated 1 of every 20 persons (5.1 percent) will serve time in a prison during their lifetime." Think of that for a moment. There are 269 million people living in the United States. That means over 13 million of us will spend time in prison at some point in our lives. And this is prison -- not juvenile detention, not probation, not city or county jails, but prison, the last stop on the incarceration food chain.
Further, "Based on current rates of first incarceration, an estimated 28 percent of black males will enter State or Federal prison during their lifetime, compared to 16 percent of Hispanic males and 4.4 percent of white males." Nowhere on this earth is there a higher imprisonment rate than found in the good old U.S. of A.
As in much else, California leads the pack, warehousing more humans behind bars than any other state in the union. More than 626 out of every 100,000 Californians are incarcerated. Consider this: the New York Times reports that California spends $4.3 billion on higher education and $4.4 billion on youth and adult corrections. A prison guard with six years' experience earns more money than a starting tenured associate professor at the University of California. Being a prison guard is the last good blue-collar job left. All you need is a high school diploma and six weeks at a training academy. Six years and a couple promotions later you'll earn $44,000 a year, plus retirement, sick leave, vacations, health care, job security -- a package of benefits long, long gone from the private sector.
Over the last ten years one California State University campus has been built. During the same period of time, 20 prisons opened. Higher education in California lost 8000 jobs over the last ten years. During that time, 26,000 jobs were added to state correction departments. The California state budget has grown at an average of 7 percent a year for the last decade. At the same time the California Department of Corrections operating budget has increased 14 percent a year. In 1985 there were 7570 prison guards working in California. By 1990 there were 14,249 employed prison guards. Four years later, that number was 25,547.
Fifteen years ago there were about 35,000 inmates in California prisons. Today, there are close to 135,000 in 31 prisons. It is estimated by the year 2000, due to "Three Strikes" legislation, California will have 210,000 inmates, enough people to make the 11th largest city in California.
I get up and walk to the kitchen, make a pot of coffee, return to my computer, and begin to scroll through page after page of prisoner personal ads. At first the experience is like walking through a rat-infested alley filled with beggars. Each beggar is running a low-rent scam and each supplicant is so thoroughly locked into the scam mind that conversation is impossible. Regard:
"Military background: What I did is classified except what was brought out in my case and the Senate, so here it is.... Special Op's Group #3, U.S. operative on a covert & Military Group (Black Op's Group unreported) run by the Christians in Action from 1987 to present. (That's all my lawyer says I can say.)"
And: "DEAR FRIENDS: A little close to 15 years ago, I filed an International Complaint against the United States Government and all of its agents, before the International Court of Justice. While these charges were being presented...."
William "Ivory" Browner. Expected release 2007.
And: "I am a tall, athletic, romantic, white male. Snow skiing, scuba diving and surfing are my favorite sports.... Mostly I enjoy all kinds of stimulating conversation; especially 'hot talk.' The more intimate the better, if you can think it, you can say it...to me.... Thank you for reading my sincere request."
Larry David McGinty. Expected release, 2000. SP-Solano H69124 5-241L, P.O. Box 4000, Vacaville, CA 95969-4000.
And: "Hello, my name is Terry Chandler and I am a 28-year-old lifestyle Dominant Master. I'm currently serving a sentence in a Federal prison in the State of California. My charge is not of a violent nature and I am not some type of a psycho! I just like to live life to the extremes...
"I offer what most other Dominants don't, and that is help and advice for free. I live this type of lifestyle because it is what I enjoy doing whereas most other Dominants are only in it for the money....
"I am also seeking correspondence with women that enjoy wearing latex and rubber clothing, I just can't seem to find you. So if you are into this type of clothing please get in touch with me. I will answer anyone who writes so I hope to hear from you soon."
Terry Chandler #29414-048, 3901 Klein Blvd., Lompoc, CA. 93436.
In this foul alley, all the beggars want. They want big-time; they want it from you, they want it for free, and they want it now. Many pontificate. I have not received so much advice on how to live since Mrs. Quick threatened to flunk me out of the second grade.
But if you can make yourself stay with it, there are things to learn. Two hours into the journey I found an essay, "Inside the Criminal Mind, By Shep." I'll let him do the talking.
"I am a 42-year-old white man who has spent 20 of the last 25 calendars under the gun. . . I have an escape and six violent beefs: armed robbery, armed burglary and armed assault.... I have done all of my time on the yard, standing up: as a jailhouse lawyer, a convict, a man. I have college degrees and knife scars. I have seen them come and go and come back again.
"Much of what is labeled as 'love' by prisoners is actually expressed as possession, ownership, domination, and profit. Love is an interest rather than a commitment; transient, rather than permanent. We can see this in our attitudes, belief, and biases about women. How many men do you know who refer to women as, 'broads,' 'bitches,' 'cunts,' and so on? In the street, women are tools of the trade of criminality: they are our runners, messengers, mules, or prostitutes. They may be 'home bases,' providing an office, home, or crash pad. When and if married, the marriage is typically more of a convenience than a committed relationship....
"For men in prison, women are viewed as potential conquests, sexual receptacles, and suppliers of goods and services. That's why visiting day, for some prisoners, is often more of an obligation than a joy. The visiting room on a Saturday looks like an Overeaters Anonymous meeting. Prisoners often seek fat, ugly women because they are more susceptible to the flowery words that flow from the pens' pens. These women are more likely to be alone and lonely, to have low self-esteem, which is easily capitalized on by players in the joint. To the prisoner, a woman is little more than a business proposition, of use only so long as she is profitable. Time spent on her is an investment that is expected to pay off.
"Try listening to a telephone call from a guy on the inside to a woman in the freeworld and you'll see what I mean. He sounds as if he's talking to a recalcitrant employee rather than a loved one. For every prisoner saying. 'I love you,' there are ten others asking: 'Did you get a hold of...?' 'Did you take care of...?' 'Did you bring...?' "
That's it! That's the scam I felt in the alley of the Web page. Prisoner personals have nothing to do with friendship, exchanging ideas, or long walks on the beach, they're about care packages, free-world contacts, after-release jobs, a place to crash, whatever the market will bear. That's why the alley feels so polluted, so dirty, so depressing.
I punch the back button on my browser. The hell with it. There's enough ugly right outside my front door; I don't need to search for any more of it on the Internet. And that's how I found the one message that flashed and sparked like a lighthouse. The words rang true, the message stood on its own feet.
"I am in an endless cycle of pain. Couldn't make it on the outside. I killed a man in cold blood and still don't feel bad about it. I'm 41, I have 30 years of criminal activity. My heart is a rock. The only other thing I can do is paint and I paint very well.... Free art work to all that write."
Ron Tyler #45266782, expected release, 2025.
Astounding, I am being offered a fair exchange. I decide to write a letter to Mr. Tyler. And, just in case I have been too quick, too rash, I resolve to write every prisoner listed on these Web pages who is doing time in California, or who listed California as a hometown. There are 108 candidates.
Continued next week.