1. Why was WriteAPrisoner.com started?
With 10% of all American males going to prison at some point in their lifetime, it’s no surprise that I had friends and former schoolmates ending up in prison. Realizing that the situation was steadily growing worse, I began researching the topic. More and more I saw that one of the greatest challenges for inmates was maintaining communication with the outside world, something many DOCs shared as being critical to helping them serve their time and earn release. There were many faith-based organizations promoting the idea of pen-pals both online and offline, but I thought something broader could reach more people. I launched WriteAPrisoner.com in a way that would fully disclose each inmate’s crime while inviting free world adults to consider becoming a pen-pal and perhaps a real friend or mentor.
2. How did you go about starting the website?
Initially, I did a lot of research. I carried a notepad everywhere I went. I wrote down ideas. I wrote down questions I had about prison. I read everything I could get my hands on. I wrote and rewrote the website a hundred times between paper and HTML. I was building WriteAPrisoner.com on a lifeguard’s salary. I had very little capital. I would spend many of my nights at Barnes and Noble reading books on website development, marketing, small business management, and prison topics. I would walk out of there with dozens of ideas scribbled into my notebook. WriteAPrisoner.com came with me everywhere I went – work, the gym, vacation. At first I thought it would be a great way for inmates to find pen-pals – period – and that a good friendship might improve their lives and help them become better people. But the more I got into it, other needs emerged, and I began to wonder how a pen-pal site for prisoners might lead to resolving some of the larger issues, such as reducing recidivism and reducing crime in general. Now my team and I are always creating and implementing new projects with these goals in mind. The only difference now is that my notebook is digital instead of paper, and my personal library of books has grown exponentially. I love what I do, and I intend to build on this concept the rest of my life.”
3. What, if any, precautions are taken when running a business of this nature?
I have been asked this question many times. The fact is, with thousands of letters being exchanged weekly, we have very few issues. The last thing most incarcerated men and women want to do is create more problems for themselves or scare off new friends. However, we do take the role of safeguarding all users of the site very seriously. For an exact and current list of precautionary measures, please visit: Precautionary Measures.
4. Have there been any stories of two people connecting romantically as a result of being pen-pals?
This is not our goal, and while we advocate against using WriteAPrisoner.com to find romance, it does happen on occasion. We are a website designed to help inmates find pen-pals for friendship, so inmates who blatantly state that they are seeking romance typically do not receive much mail for obvious reasons. We do maintain a list of pen-pals romantically involved with inmates from our website who are interested in speaking with members of the media. This is almost always the topic the media are interested in covering, and we understand the fascination with this topic. We also greatly appreciate it when they cover worthy topics on the website such as Counseling Profiles, Education Profiles, Employment Profiles, Housing Profiles, Books Behind Bars, Children Impacted by Crime Scholarship, Self-help Series, Welcome Home Kits and perhaps most importantly, the actual benefits of inmates maintaining contact with the outside world. It is very challenging having almost all of our conversations with the media starting off about romance. I have been asked for death row relationships hundreds of times more than I have seen them. With the highest rates of incarceration in the free world, U.S. citizens are showing greater interest in prison topics than ever before, and the media have begun to cover some of these larger issues over the last decade. I hope that trend in reporting continues as solutions are sought for the American prison system.
5. What do you think the majority of the inmates are looking to gain through your service?
I can say without a doubt that it is an outside human connection. In prison, you have to keep appearances up, and it’s nearly impossible to let your guard down or show normal human emotions around other prisoners. With a pen-pal (someone without any connection to the inside), an inmate can often be themselves, vent, share dreams, and avoid becoming institutionalized in general. Empirical evidence shows us that a pen-pal can be a positive, powerful force in an inmate’s life. For the 90% of inmates who will be released someday, many are hoping to build a positive relationship that will keep them from returning to prison. For those who will never get out of prison, they are looking for a friendship to help sustain them in their otherwise hopeless situation.
6. Receiving thousands of web visitors every day and dealing so closely with America's inmate population puts you in a unique position as a business. What hopes do you have for WriteAPrisoner.com in the years to come?
I feel that the business portion of WriteAPrisoner.com has been strongly established. Inmates and pen-pals are both confident when they hear our name or see our logo. Running the business as we have and continued word-of-mouth discussions will help WriteAPrisoner.com reach thousands more concerned citizens and inmates. The topics I really want to address are helping them develop new skills while incarcerated, lining up employment and housing for them immediately following release, and helping restore their status in society overall. There is no "lock them up and throw away the key" solution. The vast majority of inmates are coming back to us one day. I believe WriteAPrisoner.com, working alongside its many great affiliates, including the Departments of Corrections, can help make this happen. Additionally, I hope to collaborate further with educators, social agencies, and others to work toward helping children impacted by crime lead crime-free lives.