A common question, particularly posed by the media and European (not to mention American) men. What is it that drives, or some may say "lures" European women to begin friendships with inmates in the US? It is a complicated question, and obviously every individual is, well, individual. But there are some common reasons that I have seen time and again given by my fellow European "bleeding heart liberals", and I thought it would make an interesting reference point to list them here. So in no particular order, here are the most common top 5 reasons:
1. Cultural differences.
There are so many subtle and downright obvious differences between US and European culture, it would take a lifetime to identify them all. Having an interest in another country is usually thought of to be a good thing, and Europeans cannot avoid the Americanisms we see on the TV and film all the time. Knowing someone who can help explain the oddities and help make sense of slang terms or strange foods is a real advantage, particularly if you are thinking of visiting the States at some point.
2. The need to feel needed.
Not just limited to European women, this is a universal need in every human. Sure they could get a pet, or have a baby, but those things fill a different need to that of adult conversation. Those things are also expensive and require a lot more attention and interaction than an overseas penpal. With an inmate penpal, you can be needed on your terms if you choose to be. You can also give at your own comfort level. If that sounds harsh, then remember that inmates do the same - all humans do. Having a penpal gives you stimulation without the need to live up to physical expectations.
3. Because bad boys are more fun (at a distance).
I know it's a stereotype, but it is also true in many cases. There is something about the bad boy image, particularly the American style (cowboy, gangster, oil rigger, trucker - name your poison) that appeals to clean-living women. In these cases, the women can get the thrill of the ride without getting so close to get their fingers burned. It's not always Bonnie and Clyde, although some women have aided their pals in attempting to escape. Usually it is more like a crush on a film star, just one you get to communicate with.
European prison systems are run on the grounds of rehabilitation starting as soon as the inmate enters, rather than an after-thought, or starting a few months before the inmate is due to be released. The conditions are often much less comfortable than European inmates exist in. The culture is more confrontational and dangerous. There are plenty of TV shows and films that portray the worst of the American penal systems in technicolour, and it is not surprising that European women want to do something to improve the lot of the American inmate, just as they often want to improve the conditions that farm animals are kept in, or sponsor children in the Third World.
And then of course, you have the death penalty. Europeans consider themselves to be progressive, and the fact that the death penalty is illegal in all European countries is usually held up as an example of this modernity. Whether you agree with the death penalty or not, you have to accept that this is arguably the most common reason for Europeans to become involved in some way with American inmates.
So what did they do? What's it really like inside a prison? Is prison rape really that common? What's the food like? All of these questions and more can only really be answered by someone who is there, on the spot. For many people, the questions are not important enough to make them seek out the answers from a first-hand source. But for others, and not always those with a morbid curiosity of the most violent crimes, asking someone who knows is the most logical answer.
Just like slowing down as you pass a car crash on the other side of the road, or watching that horror film right to the end instead of just turning it off, sometimes humans can't look away.
You'll notice that there is no mention of low self-esteme, the fact that these women "can't get a man" in their own country, or that they are suffering from a psychotic anti-social disorder. These may well be legitimate reasons, but for most of the women I have encountered during our journey, I'd say women like that are not in the majority.
Most are like me really, and I'm not saying that to validate my choices or lifestyle. Like me, they hold down a job (or 2, or sometimes 3), are raising or have raised a family, and have plenty of other interests outside of crime and prisons. And many - probably most, if anyone ever did a scientific study into these things - do not end up in a full relationship with their penpals. They just write. Writing is something they can do between and around other activites, whether they use traditional paper and pen or by email to those inmates who can receive them. It gives them pleasure and often gives them the opportunity to experience the differences and similarities between Europe and America.
Frankly though, does it matter why European women choose to write to American inmates? It matters to the security agencies that they do, because in general it is seen as a security risk. But should it matter to their neighbours? Their children's teachers? The person who serves them in the supermarket each week? I don't think so.
There are far worse things they could be doing.