Why you should care

Because love can turn up in unexpected places, and the more of it the better — for everyone.

Bonnie Lanz wakes up every morning at 5, puts on a pot of coffee and sits down to write a letter. Six hours north, her boyfriend follows a similar routine. The only difference? He’s locked in a cell at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison.

Lanz, the business manager at a Harley-Davidson shop in Vacaville, California, was 47 the first time she wrote to an inmate. She’d been married once and raised three kids, had no intention of getting involved romantically and was writing for altruistic reasons. Yet a year and a half later, she’s making the 368-mile drive every Friday night so she can spend the weekend with her sweetie, even if it’s just playing Scrabble in a cold, crowded prison visiting room.

It’s no secret that more and more people are hooking up and getting married through dating sites. But it’s turning out that people behind bars — and those outside them — are using prison pen pal sites, featuring thousands of photos of tattooed inmates, to connect. And the farther you get from the U.S., where prisons are less than receptive to the concept, the hotter the trend. In Denmark, for instance, a prison recently allowed inmates to launch their own dating site, on the theory that it’ll help men adjust more easily when they get out, while co-ed prisons in Spain permit both populations to date and have weekly conjugal visits, which studies have shown can improve the mental health of prisoners.

Many people, from prison officials to legislators, object to the idea of promoting romance behind bars because it makes incarceration less punitive and too much like normal life. And some advocacy groups worry that the partners on the outside are being lured into the prison world at a vulnerable or potentially damaging period in their lives. But a growing body of experts says that the stigma surrounding this world is off-kilter, and that prison relationships can be deeper than a so-called bad-boy syndrome.

In fact, mounting evidence suggests these affairs can actually be remedial. A federal study released in 2009 showed that prisoners in serious relationships are half as likely as their single counterparts or those in casual commitments to report committing a new crime or using drugs once they’re out. The Minnesota Department of Corrections has also revealed that inmates whom are visited regularly are 13 percent less likely to re-offend after release. “When you have something to lose, you’re going to be more likely to protect that,” says Rodrigo González, a professor who’s studied Spain’s approach to inmate relationships.

prison

It’s turning out that people behind bars — and those outside them — are using prison pen pal sites, featuring thousands of photos of tattooed inmates, to connect.

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Still, the U.S. has a long way to go before giving its blessing to this type of love story. Many prisons restrict inmate access to the Internet, forcing friends and relatives to create their profiles and send all correspondence through snail mail. And just four states currently allow a conjugal rendezvous, a sharp drop from 10 years ago, and more are phasing out face-to-face visits — reducing communication to spotty or delayed video chats.

In Lanz’s case, she used WriteAPrisoner.com to find Gregg Farris, 46, who had been in prison for almost two decades for three nonviolent felonies, including a bank robbery, committed in his 20s. Back when they first started talking, he’d been sent to solitary confinement and their only encounters took place on opposite sides of a thick slab of glass. But looking forward to their visits now, when they’re free to touch and hug, has been Farris’ motivation to keep out of trouble, according to Lanz.

As stories like theirs circulate through Facebook groups and reality TV shows (Lifetime’s Prison Wives Club, for one, which debuted in October), the list of pen pal websites has sprouted from a handful to upward of 30. With names like Meet-an-Inmate.com, Friends Beyond the Wall and Inmate-Connection, these platforms — which typically charge $35 to $50 a year — post inmates’ bios and photos, and outsiders search using qualifiers like race, age and even death row status.

Sites differ primarily by the number of profiles they boast. WriteAPrisoner.com (the second-most popular after Meet-an-Inmate, according to Alexa’s traffic rankings) reports 5,000 visitors a day and was among the very first when Adam Lovell started it 15 years ago. “It was never set up to be a dating service,” he says, “but it’s changed as more and more people are finding romance on it now.”

Like any love story, though, it’s not all sweet. Male inmates tend to target women showing signs of low self-esteem or emotional damage, and “are very manipulative and prey on weakness,” warns Michael Alexander, a management professor at Colorado Tech and retired corrections exec who studies prisoner relationships. In other cases, a woman may have a need to play the nurturer or gravitate toward emotionally abusive relationships (without the worry of physical torment).

Lanz says that being forced to build intimacy through communication alone — no sex, in other words — has “given me something I’ve never had.” And while Farris is serving a life sentence, that could change if California restructures its penal system to do away with the three strikes law. But for now, each night after coming home from work, she’ll check the mailbox.

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