What Drives People To Become Pen Pals With Criminals?

Australians are writing to prisoners overseas as "it takes less time for an inmate in the U.S. or UK to receive a letter from me than it does for an Australian inmate".

Damien Linnane, 33, has several prisoners who are his pen pals. Some were friends he made while serving jail time, while other prisoners he writes to are in U.S. and U.K jails.

His friend Joe, in Texas, mails his artwork and ask Linnane to send him information from Google and pictures of celebrities.

It's a bid to pass time and stay connected with the outside world.

"Joe told me his cell-mate was raving about how attractive Cardi B is, but he didn't know what she looked like so I sent him a couple printed pictures of her," he said.

Linnane said there is definitely light and shade when it comes to letter writing with prisoners -- and he's been at both ends of the paper trail.

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"Obviously prison is pretty isolating and also I went in at a time when prisons were really overcrowded so I got moved a couple of times because of overcrowding, and I also got moved for medical appointments and it was difficult for people to visit me," he told 10 daily.

In 2015, Linnane was sentenced to 10 months behind bars for arson.

At the time of sentencing Magistrate Karen Stafford said, “Your motivation seems to have been to take some vigilante action."

Linnane told 10 daily he torched the house of a man who allegedly attacked a family member.

Since leaving prison Damien has been writing to prisoners in Australia and the U.S. He says he knows how much each letter means to a lonely prisoner with mental health issues. IMAGE: supplied.
Literacy Is A Problem Among Many Prisoners

"Illiteracy is really high in prison," he said.

"It was an eye-opening experience, I wasn't aware that there were people my age in Australia who don't know how to read and write and it turns out there are a lot of them and most of them are in prison."

A website offering information on Australian prisoners wanting pen pals only has two listings. IMAGE: supplied

Around one-third of prisoners had not completed Year 10, according to a 2015 report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, which examined the health of prisoners.

Just under one in five prisoners completed education up to Year 8 or below.

Linnane said encouraging formal pen pal programs could help address literacy problems.

"I actually helped a guy write letters to his family, he would write them and I would proofread them and he'd ask me how to spell things."

Australia's Prison Pen Pal Program Lags Behind

A single mother from NSW who asked not to be named writes to several prisoners overseas after finding it difficult to connect with local prisoners.

"I'm not scared to write to them cause they do have respect. They all need friendship while they in there."

She said there is "nothing wrong" with writing to prisoners, and also adds that she also sends Christmas, Easter and birthday cards to cheer them up.

There are several Facebook pages with U.S. prisoner details, bios and photos, and this is how she chooses who to write to.

Often mothers post in online forums and in Facebook groups trying to find pen pals for their lonely loved ones. IMAGE: supplied

'Whatever [crime] they did does not bother me as they deserve a second chance," she said.

She writes to one high profile American prisoner who was convicted of abducting, raping and strangling a teenage girl in 1996.

"He is on death row in Texas and he is an innocent man so they say. I don't believe in the death penalty," she told 10 daily.

Since late 2016 there has been a ban in Victorian prisons on prisoners being involved in organised pen pal programs.

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In an open letter to the state government, The Federation of Community Legal Centres (FCLC) cited the benefits the program can play in prisoner rehabilitation.

"A pen pal program would have particular value to people who are experiencing loneliness, isolation and mental health issues," said the FCLC.

While Corrections Victoria allows prisoners to write to friends and family, contact with strangers is not allowed.

"Communicating with a previously unknown prisoner can present a range of risks for community members.

IMAGE: Getty Images

The safety of the community and the prevention of emotional and other exploitation of vulnerable people continues to be of paramount importance," Victoria's Minister for Corrections Gayle Tierney said in Parliament in June.

READ MORE: Con Air: Prisoners Making Radio As A Way To Break The Cycle

Linnane is finishing off a book he started writing while in prison and often gets asked about the best way to write to prisoners.

"A friend asked me recently, I told her you'd be better of writing to an American or UK inmate because they've really organised systems and we don't,"  he said.

“Ironically it takes less time for an inmate in the U.S. or UK to receive a letter from me than it does for an Australian inmate.”

He said it’s harder for people to get started, especially if they want to write to someone they don’t know given there are websites in the U.S. where prisoners can register and advertise for a pen pal.

READ MORE: 'Easier Being In Jail': The Homelessness Problem For Prison Inmates

The website Email A Prisoner has eight Australian correctional facilities as part of its fee-based prisoner writing program. In order to take part, you need to have the name and I.D number of a prisoner. A spokesperson would not divulge how many prisoners take part in the writing scheme.

Another website advertised as having contact information on Australian prisoners wanting pen pals only has two listings.

"If you found that the people that moved into the house next door had just gotten out of prison would you have wanted them to have been in a prison where they were completely punished and isolated and deprived from human contact, or given a chance to reflect and rehabilitate?" Linnane said.

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