In Annabel Pitcher's YA novel, Ketchup Clouds, the protagonist, a fifteen-year-old English girl who uses the pseudonym "Zoe," tells her story through secret letters she writes to a death row inmate. Mr. S. Harris lives thousands of miles away in Houston, Texas and is one of the only people who might understand Zoe's situation; he knows what it's like to have killed someone he loves. She uses these letters as a way of confessing her guilty conscience:
…I knew it was time to write this letter. I can't keep it in anymore. I have to tell someone, and you're the person I chose. I got your contact details off a Death Row website, and I found the website because of a nun, and that's not a sentence I ever thought I'd write, but then my life isn't exactly turning out the way I'd imagined.
Though it might seem like an unusual place to find a confidente, prison pen pal organizations such as Write A Prisoner, Cyberspace Inmates, and Prison Pen Pals have drawn much interest. It would appear that thousands of inmates post up to $50 per month to post an ad on these websites. They might choose to share a personal profile, poetry, photographs, or even artwork they've created as a way of connecting with the outside world, and they might seek romantic, religious, or platonic relationships. People over the age of eighteen can browse profiles and write to inmates for free. In many cases, because inmates might not be permitted to access the Internet, pen pal interactions are conducted via postal mail, or prisons will print out electronic correspondence for the inmate.
The rules and regulations for prison pen pal organizations are very complex and vary from institution to institution. State legislatures have the authority to issue policies related to how prisons are run via the state's Department of Corrections (DOC). Given the proper authorization (and as long as they comply with federal laws), the DOC will then be able to make decisions about what their state's prisons can and can't do (i.e. whether they can participate in pen pal programs), often making decisions based on the level of security of a given prison.
There are many arguments for and against this type of communication. People who advocate for these programs say letter writing can have a healing effect on the inmates. Improving literacy levels can often help them find a healthy way of dealing with and expressing difficult emotions. According to an article in Psychology Today, writing therapy is well known to help people work through their problems: "Seeing cause and effect, understanding psychological processes can significantly increase self-understanding." And as stated on the Write a Prisoner website, these programs, "are a tool for breaking down the invisible walls of loneliness that inevitably accompany incarceration." For example, according to the Oregon Department of Corrections in 2009, one inmate observed that, "Nobody is keeping in touch. That's the main thing about depression in prison, being alone. Here in prison you're alone, you don't have nobody… I would not wish it to my worst enemy, I guess. You know what I'm saying?" Advocates say that pen pal relationships help maintain inmates' emotional wellbeing, boost morale, deter recidivism, help prisoners find jobs once released, and reconnect them with family members who are unable to visit them in person.
Those opposed, however, say that prison pen pal programs are likely to be abused by violent criminals. Officials, such as Dennis Cardoza, former Democratic State Assemblyman from CA, and Ida Ballasiotes, a Republican member of the WA State House of Representatives, fear these programs could put people at risk. According to an article in The New York Times, "critics contend that these sites represent all the common fears of the Internet writ large: that predatory criminals use these sites to establish relationships and win the confidence of naïve – and some not-so-naïve – on-line correspondents." Giving out personal information, including home addresses, is a particularly bad idea. As dangerous as it might seem, it is completely legal for people to give out their addresses. It is seen as a self-chosen risk. More cautious letter-writers might choose to give out PO Box addresses or - with prior permission - might receive letters using the address of a local church.
The New York Times reports in another article that in 2003, the Florida Department of Corrections "began prohibiting inmates from advertising for pen pals or getting mail from pen pal groups. Inmates who continue to advertise can have privileges revoked. The department made the change after receiving complaints from people who had been taken advantage of and from victims and their families who saw prisoners' advertisements…. Other states – Indiana, Missouri, Montana and Pennsylvania – have similar restrictions." Lawsuits have been filed trying to get the bans revoked because "they are unfair and violate prisoners' constitutional rights." Randall Berg Jr., a lawyer who represented two pen pal groups states that, "The public knows when they're writing to these people that they're prisoners. Nobody is being duped here."
As the controversy around the dangers of prison pen pal organizations continues, it seems clear that minors must be kept safe. In Ketchup Clouds, Zoe uses a pseudonym and gives a fictional return address, and Mr. S. Harris receives her letters without having any way of contacting her. But the bottom line is that she should not have been writing to the prisoner in the first place. Websites such as WriteAPrisoner.com provide information on how to keep kids safe, which is certainly a step in the right direction but they also warn people to be cautious, to "be understanding without being gullible."
This article is from the January 8, 2014 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.
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