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Internet dating goes behind bars

Web's largest business pairs up with another huge industry: prisons

By Mary WiltenburgStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 7, 2003



Marvin Span has been locked up for three years, his felony case tied up in appeals. In his online ad, he's draped over a faux-Grecian statue in what looks like the courtyard of his Rhode Island jail. He's "sincere, serious romantic and very intelligent and understanding." He's even, he writes - for the right woman - "willing to relocate."

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Online dating, the Web's largest trackable source of consumer dollars, drew $300 million last year. Prisons, one of America's largest industries, are worth an estimated $40 billion. Maybe it was only a matter of time before the two paired off.

Their love story begins with the birth of the Internet: In 1996, as far as anyone can reconstruct, a handful of rudimentary prison-penpal sites started out with a few ads apiece. Today, convict matchmaking giants like prisonpenpals.com and jailbabes.com claim between 7,000 and 10,000 ads, and scores of competitors: from the straightforward (inmate.com) to the suggestive (ladiesofthepen.com) to the uncomfortably mercantile. Cellblockmail.com's headline ad this week instructs: "To write to Diana, please add her to your Shopping Cart, then continue browsing ads or proceed to Checkout."

Some, particularly victims' rights advocates, oppose the ads. Others champion them as a humane way to keep inmates connected to society.

Many just wonder: What's the draw? Don't people without criminal convictions have a hard enough time getting dates? What would tempt a free woman or man to seek out and correspond with - and, as corrections officers say regularly happens, go on to date and even marry - an inmate?

The romance of lockup

Everybody's got a theory. Many psychologists say commitment-phobes pursue such matches. Others, like relationship adviser Gilda Carle, point out that far more women than men are involved with inmates. It's the "bad boy syndrome," she says: women attracted to not-so-nice guys out of rebellion, or low self-esteem. When someone who they know is capable of hurting others doesn't hurt them, she says, it "proves" they're special.

For Sheila Isenberg, author of "Women Who Marry Men Who Kill," it's more about pulp romance and daytime soaps. Guys behind bars have a lot of time on their hands: to write long letters, to compose love poetry, to perform a lot of the gallant, romantic rituals that modern courtship has largely lost. Inmate penpals aren't after casual sex, and they're less likely to judge a woman only by her looks.

For women addicted to the drama of Danielle Steele and Days of Our Lives, Dr. Isenberg says, prison dating is "Romance with a capital R. Every day is a cliffhanger. Is he guilty? Was he falsely accused? Will he be able to call tonight, or will there be a lockdown? A fight? A riot? It's a rollercoaster ride."

And they're not the only ones to whom prison looks romantic. Picture your own teenager's untied sneakers and baggy pants. Now think confiscated shoelaces and belts. Sure, prison culture's teen appeal stems in part from the fact that it's an obvious taboo, says Northeastern University criminology and sociology professor Jack Levin. But it's also a product of the same cultural forces that attract penpals to their epistolary cons.

"There's something in our culture that makes celebrities out of murderers and rapists, that promotes prison culture as pop culture," Dr. Levin says. "We do revere, respect, and admire power, and criminal behavior is a form of power."

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