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Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Ethics of trying to help

This is a post about a dilema.

There are a lot of inmates, not only in the USA but around the world, who have no one on the outside. When I say they have no one, I mean that their family and friends have moved on with their lives and rarely communicate (if at all) with the inmate. For inmates serving relatively long sentences, this often happens around the 5-7 year mark, and often also coincides with a change in behaviour of the inmate. They either throw themselves into the life of an inmate, which can open up situations of violence and illegal behaviour, or they can come to the conclusion that they want to make it but they will have to do it on their own.

I could never criticise anyone related to an inmate who chose to move on with their lives. Ultimately, the inmate is the one who is supposed to pay for their crime, not the entire family and extended friends network. And for those who chose to stick around, it does often feel like you are serving a sentence with them - not to the same extent of deprivation or punishment, but a sentence nonetheless.

I've been writing to inmates for the best part of 25 years, and over time I have found a number of ways to contact inmates. Before the widespread use of the internet, I used magazines, and some magazines would allow inmates to place small ads free of charge. I have also known of websites that would list inmates for free, thus providing the means for them or their friends and family to reach out without having to find extra money on top of the household bills and phone calls and stationary and postage etc

And then there are websites that charge for a "service" of giving inmates the opportunity to appeal for correspondence. I have often wondered why some offer this for free and others charge a fee.

I have seen the fee justified by some websites as covering "administration costs". But I have to question just how much of the fee really does go on administration, and how much becomes profit. And there is the rub: should free-world individuals profit by exploiting inmates when there is no real need to do so? Even under the premis of helping to reduce recidivism?

Take a well known website, Write A Prisoner. It's been around a while, and offers an advert for $40 per year to any inmate (unless they happen to be located in a state that does not permit inmates to solicit for correspondence via the internet or printed publications). It's not a sleek-looking site, in fact it looks like it was built about 15 years ago and hasn't had much effort put into keeping it in the current century. Currently there are just over 900 inmate adverts on the site. That's 900 x $40 as a baseline. That's $36000 a year just for placing the ads. But look a little closer and you find that there are charges to update information on each advert, charges for adding a photo or changing a photo, charges for adding extra words above the 250-word standard profile, charges for adding artwork etc etc

These adverts are submitted in electronic format. No one at the website has to sit there typing in the details from a pdf or a sheet of coffee-stained paper. There is the option to email the inmate the first time you contact them through the site; the site prints off the email, pops it into an envelope and sends it via traditional mail. Some of these are received and some are not. Still doesn't justify the $40 fee though, and we haven't even looked at the revenue share from the commercial adverts.

Write A Prisoner claims to fund some community projects from its revenue. There is a Scholarship for the children of inmates and children impacted by crime. The Scholarship is $250. There is no information on how many have been awarded since 2010. They also advertise "Welcome Home Kits" for inmates who are being released but not to a family home. Apparently 43 such kits have been distributed, although they could not be sent to inmates in every state as many do not even permit those picking up a released inmate to take some free-world clothes for the inmate to wear when leaving the prison.

There is a Book Donation scheme. Write a Prisoner says they have donated $ 3,437.00 across 39 books-for-inmates schemes in the US. They do not say whether that is solely in cash, or if they count the value of the books as a like-for-like donation sum.

Why am I saying all of this? Do I have an axe to grind? Not really. I'm not against anyone making an honest buck from their own hard graft. I just have a thing about those who say they are doing something, but where there is no hard evidence for it happening. And then we come to the concept of writing to inmates in the first place.

Believe it or not, it is absolutely possible to write to an inmate without falling in love with them, or they with you. It is totally possible to correspond with an inmate less than once a day, by traditional mail, for many years, without them asking you to send them anything at all. But you only have to glance at the forums attached to these websites to wonder if they should be called "Date a Prisoner" instead. There is a conveyor belt of women (and some men, but few and far between) who "want to bring some sunshine into an inmate's life", who treat writing as some kind of game or therapy, get caught up in the "romance" of the situation, and then after approximately 2 years find that either he isn't what they had told themselves he was, or he has been released and had no intention of going home to them. Especially when they have never met the inmate face to face. Then the phrase "Hell hath no fury" really comes into play! 

I wonder how many penpal correspondences would become relationships if the websites did not post photographs of the inmates. If people wrote based only on what the advert says - because naturally no one enters into a correspondence with the intention of finding love.... do they?

For a website that wants to be taken seriously, it is basic Marketing 101 that brand is everything. Anyone dropping into these forums would be forgiven for running to the hills with the amount of hybristophiliacs gushing about their latest phone call or visit, or making plans on what they will do the second their penpal steps out of prison. Their understanding of the issues and difficulties faced by newly-released inmates is next to nothing, but still it will be wedding bells and babies and someone to pay the bills and live happily ever after with. People wonder where stereotypes come from: they come from real people, unfortuneately. They don't want the reality of the situation, because, you know, "haters gonna hate" and all that jazz.

So when looking for an inmate to correspond with - which by the way, I still do think is an extremely worthy cause and can be highly rewarding for both parties - I think it is worth asking yourself whether the ethics of the website parading these inmates like a beauty pageant is really what you want to subscribe to or be associated with. If you care about the concept of helping those who are unable to help themselves, perhaps one of the free services would be more appropriate. Like Lost Vault.


  1. Hi Silva, I was just reading your interesting blog post.
    I also just sent some applications to DaBeau, because some of his friends are interested in placing an ad on WAP. I printed them out from WAP.
    I'm just wondering when you say that the ads are submitted electronically, how does this happen? I thought that they would fill out the application with all the relevant detail, and their 250 words for the ad, and send it by regular mail to WAP with their cheque?
    I'm enjoying your blog; you always have interesting things to share.
    Have a great day :)

  2. Hi there

    The inmates will do that, yes. There is software available these days to scan written forms and upload them to databases, and I would be surprised (although I don't know for sure) if sites like WAP did not make use of this technology. Even if they don't, $40 is a lot for most inmates to spend in one go on something like a penpal ad, and I suspect that they majority are bought/placed by those in the freeworld on behalf of inmates. Those can be completed online.

  3. I see what you mean.
    Yes, 40 dollars is a lot for inmates to come up with, especially when they're either not working or not paid for their work, as happens in Texas.
    Strange how placing ads for free has not become more popular than paying for them. I can't work out why that is. Must have something to do with marketing etc, I imagine.


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