Pen Pals Web Sites - More Than 25 Of Them - Offer Photographs, Descriptions And Addresses Of Female Prison Inmates. Meet Them For Snail-mail Friendship, Maybe Marriage - And Very Likely, Scams.

Posted: March 19, 2000

Tameka, 26 - "seductive, faithful, caring and outgoing," according to her ad - wants a "special man" she can "treat like a king."

Annette, 36 - "sincere, open-minded and very lonely" - is looking for a "Prince Charming" with whom to share her life.

Janine, 21 - "jazzy, frisky, and alluring . . . with passionate love-making desires" - seeks a "gentle, kind man" for a long-term relationship.

All three are willing to relocate.

And it's no wonder.

These personal ads come from the Web sites Jailbabes.com, Pengals.com and Womenbehindbars.com.

Yes, gentlemen, hundreds of beautiful, love-starved women are just waiting - once paroled - to meet you. Or so they make it seem.

And you can find them - along with their photos, desires, even measurements - on more than 25 Web sites that have sprung up in the last three years, to the dismay of some prison officials.

The Web sites - some of which advertise male inmates, too - have led to marriages (one site boasts 39) and friendships, and helped ease the loneliness and boredom of prison life for thousands.

At the same time, though, they have strained prison mail and visiting rooms, triggered jealousies and infighting among inmates, and paved the way for inmate scams - some large, some small.

"My main reason was to get money," said Janine Cobb, who was released in January from a Pennsylvania prison. "But it's also nice to get mail. There's really nothing else to do in there, so getting mail is the highlight of the day."

Inmates have long sought to make new friends outside prison walls, for various purposes. But the Internet has put both their pleas and their faces before the public on a scale that eclipses their few previous opportunities, such as seeking pen pals through religious organizations or ads in biker magazines.

Likewise, the Web sites run the gamut from sincere to salacious - from Cellpals.com, which touts rehabilitation as its purpose and provides inmate addresses for free, to Jailbabes.com, once affiliated with Hustler magazine, which often pictures scantily clad inmates and charges $7 per address.

While a few charge inmates to be listed, most sites charge pen pals for inmate addresses. At Women Behind Bars, for example, it's $3 per address - just click on an inmate's picture to add her to your "shopping cart" before checking out.

The addresses - U.S. Mail, not e-mail (prisoners are not allowed Internet access) - are generally e-mailed to the client the next day.

What happens next is up to the pen pals. Correspondences have led to rip-offs and romances, job offers and jailbreaks, love triangles and little ones.

Last month's birth of Megan Lynn Peacock, near Little Rock, Ark., marked - in the words of Ken Kleine, a California-based Web site owner - "the first Jailbabes baby."

The mother, Beth Peacock, 22, met the baby's 47-year-old father after corresponding with him while she was in a federal prison in Texas, and he was in an unhappy marriage in Minnesota. She was listed in Jailbabes.com. They now live together in Arkansas, and plan to marry in about a month, she said.

Happily ever after, however, is more often the exception - even one site owner admits that most inmates listed mainly hope to make a few bucks. And prison officials in some states warn that users of the services should be wary of the photographs and information inmates mail to the Web sites - and anything the inmates say in their letters, especially requests for money.

Much of which might be said of personal ad services in the free world, too - prisoners, after all, don't have a corner on dishonesty, and, as their ads show, are as individual as the rest of us.

From Cyberspaceinmates.com: My name is Wayne and I am looking for a wife. I don't beat around the bush. I just turned 40 and am on Death Row and have been for 13 years now.

From Prisonbabes.com: I'm single and will be released in 2000. I'm looking for a sincere, long-term friend, maybe more. I will answer all letters. Write soon! Debra.

From Jailbabes.com: I am very sexually explorative and totally love to be a sex slave. I also like to write poetry, read, and find ways to make my mate happy . . . Wanna meet me?

The sites have enraged some victims' rights advocates, including in Arizona, where a woman saw an ad seeking female pen pals from her husband's condemned killer - pictured cuddling a cat, with the caption "looking for fun."

Her outrage spawned a bill that would prohibit Arizona inmates from sending or receiving mail through Internet prison pen-pal sites - a step Web-site operators say would be unconstitutional, and impossible to enforce.

Arizona is more wary of the services than most states. In 1997, a woman who had met her death-row husband through the Internet attempted to break him out of the state's maximum-security prison. Both were shot to death.

While some prison pen-pal connections have led to lasting relationships, the majority fizzle out.

When the "jazzy, frisky and alluring" Cobb was released from the state prison in Muncy, Pa., she was still in touch with one of her pen pals - a shy 36-year-old man who, though they had never met, offered to pick her up at the prison and take her home to Michigan with him. She didn't accept the offer.

Cobb, who served three years for selling drugs, said she responded to all six men who wrote her after she appeared in Womenbehindbars.com, pointing out that her prison job paid 19 cents an hour, and asking them to send a few dollars.

"A lot of the guys talked a good game," but never sent money, she said in a telephone interview. "Most of them just complained about their ex-wives."

Cobb had no qualms about asking for cash: "If a guy can't send you a few dollars while you're incarcerated, how is he going to take care of you when you get out?"

Other inmates, she said, were making thousands of dollars off their pen pals, concocting stories about needing money for education, medical treatment, or airfare for a family member's visit.

The men who write don't always have the purest of intentions, either. Most are motivated by curiosity, loneliness and the same lusty fascination with incarcerated females that has led to so many bad women-in-prison films.

"I would get about 20 letters a week," Beth Peacock said of her Jailbabes experience. "People wrote from everywhere, and most of them wanted to meet you, which is kind of weird to want to do with someone in prison."

At the federal prison - where she served four months for violating probation for writing fraudulent checks on a military reservation - other inmates got jealous of her at mail call.

Upon her release, one of her pen pals picked her up and drove her to the airport. Another, in Minnesota, sent her an airline ticket to visit shortly after her release.

The Minnesota businessman, who is now her fiance and the father of her child, was married when the correspondence began. He told her he wrote to female prisoners because it was "safer to write somebody who was locked up."

"Men have been fascinated by women behind bars since Rita Hayworth," said Ted Shields, who runs Pengals.com from his home in Ringoes, N.J. "Some men just feel these women are a little sexier, a little wilder, a little 'badder.' "

Too, he suspects, some men see the opportunity to be a "rescuer" or "savior" and help a woman in trouble turn her life around.

"Nobody starts out, like, 'I want to find a wife. Where should I look? Oh yeah! How about prison?' No, that doesn't make sense. They just do it on a lark, and it sometimes becomes serious."

Shields, 54, a medical-equipment sales engineer who grew up in Philadelphia, started Pengals two years ago, after hearing about Jailbabes on the Howard Stern radio show. Pengals now receives 600 visits a day, and lists about 1,200 inmates.

"I was looking for something to do on the Internet that was easy, and wouldn't require a lot of time or a big investment. I wrote to the prisons, and they responded that they had no interest in helping, so I ended up buying 20 names from a competitor."

"I think the majority just want companionship," he said, "and maybe someone to hook up with when they get out. Their only hope for a new life is to get away from their old environment and relationships."

Shields said inmates would sometimes stretch the truth - especially when it comes to age, weight and release date - or even submit a photograph of someone else "because they know the pretty girls attract most of the attention."

"There is no set procedure for authenticating photos," said Priscilla Stephenson, a former corrections officer in Texas who started Cellpals.com a year ago. "But I'm rather current on what prisons house male and female inmates, so Cellpals is pretty effective in catching photos of men posing as women."

Stephenson said she started the Web site to get community members involved in rehabilitation.

"I know exactly what the difference of attitude can be in an inmate who does or doesn't receive mail at mail call," she said. "If the mail I was about to hand out was not very much, I was in for a pretty crummy night on the tank."

Frank Muniz, whose efforts to play matchmaker for a friend's imprisoned daughter evolved into Womenbehindbars.com, says profit is not his motive, but he admits to making a tidy one.

"Our goal is to cast a ray of hope into cold, lonely cells. This is not a smut site; it isn't Caged Heat meets the computer age. These are ladies who have made mistakes, ladies who are paying for their mistakes, ladies who deserve a second chance at life."

Muniz, who served 13 months in prison for income-tax fraud in the 1980s, started his Florida-based Web site as a hobby. It has led to 39 marriages, and he attended two.

Pennsylvania prison officials say they "haven't experienced any great problem" with the services. But prison officials in other states - including Florida, California and Texas, which account for most of the prisoner pen pals on the Web sites - take a dimmer view.

"We don't recommend that people pen-pal with prisoners, but legally there is nothing we can do," said Debbie Buchanan, spokeswoman for the Florida prisons.

While pen-pal Web sites do not state the crimes for which their inmates were convicted, that information and more - at least for Florida inmates - is available on the Internet. Florida's state prison Web site contains mug shots of all of its prisoners, along with their vital statistics and criminal histories.

Checking out an inmate on a pen-pal site and the Florida Department of Corrections site can leave two very different impressions.

Lizette Von Horstman, for example, is described on the Very Special Women Web site (www.vswomen.com) as 128 pounds, "very attractive, sensuous and affectionate."

The corrections department Web site (www.dc.state.fl.us) pictures a far older and harsher-looking Lizette. It lists her as 180 pounds; with 17 aliases; convictions for robbery, second-degree murder, kidnapping and forgery; and six tattoos, including a skeleton, a knife, and the motto "Death before Dishonor."

"These pen-pal Web sites were out there before we got ours up," Buchanan said. "When we posted ours, we got calls saying we had the wrong photograph. A gentleman would be sending money to an inmate and carrying around a photo of her in his wallet and suddenly find out that it did not match the photo on our Web site. Also, the release dates often didn't match.

"Since then, we've tried to educate the public to go to our Web site, look at the record, look at the photograph," Buchanan said. "If people are going to write someone, they need to know as much as they can."

John Woestendiek's e-mail address is jwoestendiek@phillynews.com

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