11.19.09

Death-Row Pen Pals

A Texas inmate, executed Wednesday, sought companionship via the Internet before his death. Inside the death-row pen-pal business—and how felons bid for friends.

On Wednesday, Danielle Simpson, 30, became the 22nd person executed by the state of Texas this year. A few days earlier, in an interview with the English newspaper The Guardian, Simpson complained of the loneliness of his nine-year incarceration on death row, spent mostly in isolation. "Anything would be better than being here," he said.

But before giving up, Simpson, who was convicted of brutally murdering 84-year-old church organist Geraldine Davidson, had sought solace on the Internet. "I'm seeking to befriend someone of any age, race, etc...about becoming penfriends," Simpson wrote on Deathrowusa.com. "Please do feel more than honorable to contact me at your desire."

“Ladies, there’s a big recession on men because most of them are locked up, especially the good ones,” reads one inmate’s ad. “If there’s any ladies that are out there that are willing to invest a li’l time in meeting a new friend, hit you boy up.”

Deathrowusa, Writeaprisoner.com, and Prisonpenpals.com are a few of dozens of places on the Web on which convicts can connect with those on the outside. Yahoo alone has 68 groups built around contacting incarcerated people. The sites were originally launched by human-rights and religious groups who were modernizing their longtime efforts to help the imprisoned.

Today the practice has become a business. Inmates are charged (generally about $40 annually) to post a message and a photo, which they send by mail, since few have Internet access. The public, which receives an address at which to write to the inmates, can connect with prisoners for free. Most sites urge respondents to secure a P.O. box for their prisoner correspondence, and all require them to be at least 18 years old. The Web's largest is probably Writeaprisoner (slogan: We'll See You at Mail Call!), founded in 2000 by former Florida lifeguard Adam Lovell. Writeaprisoner, which also attracts advertisers such as phone-card and wire-transfer companies, draws 50,000 visitors a month, Lovell says.

Some of the sites offer some support services, including résumé writing and book-circulation programs. "I consider myself both an activist and a businessman," says Lovell. But many function suspiciously like matchmaking sites: Most inmate ads list data about height, weight, sexual orientation, even astrological sign. Prisoners often request a picture from their respondents. "Ladies, there's a big recession on men because most of them are locked up, especially the good ones," reads one ad from an inmate in federal prison. "If there's any ladies that are out there that are willing to invest a li'l time in meeting a new friend, hit you boy up."

The dating-site tone is one reason the sites have come under periodic attack by prison authorities, though legal experts contend they are protected by the First Amendment and by case law. The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups are fighting efforts by departments of corrections in Florida, Indiana, Missouri, and elsewhere to bar inmates from receiving mail generated by the Internet. "We're doing it to protect the public," Gretl Plessinger, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Corrections, told the Associated Press. "Inmates can have pen pals—they just can't solicit for pen pals."

But Lovell says inmates who are involved in pen-pal relationships tend to do better in prison. "It keeps them out of trouble," he says. "They have a better outlook on life."

By far, the strangest postings on the sites are from some of the nearly 3,300 inmates on death row. While some of them suggest they're looking for romantic attachment, more are simply pleas for companionship. Writeaprisoner's Lovell says the ads are generally quite successful. Respondents he says, sometimes operate out of compassion, but many are curiosity seekers. "The death-row inmates do very well with mail," he says. "They get more mail, by far, than a lifer or your average inmate coming home."

Juxtaposing death-row postings with the crimes they committed can be an exercise in the surreal—and profoundly depressing. While most sites list the bare essentials for the inmate’s incarceration, finding the details of their crimes requires time-consuming Web sleuthing. A sampling of the felons’ bid for friends:

Danny Lee Jones #092576
Arizona State Prison Complex-Eyman, Florence, Arizona

"I am seeking company and conversation with someone by way of old-fashioned letter writing. I enjoy meeting people and I place friendship in the highest regard. I'm also a good listener and will always have an open mind and heart. I am spiritually grounded and my beliefs are simple and true. My interests are somewhat varied, some of which are: art, poetry, music of most types depending on the mood, animals, (especially dogs and horses, wolves & birds of prey) nature in general, writing, and auto racing (mainly Nascar). I also enjoy the sharing of thoughts, ideas, dreams & emotions. I miss sunsets, the stars... Thank you so much for your time and I hope to hear from you soon. Until then have a great day and peace be with you always."

Source: Inmate letter, Canadian Coalition Against the Death Penalty

On March 26, 1992, Danny Lee Jones attacked a friend, Robert Weaver, from behind, striking him once in the head with a bat. Jones then entered Weaver's home and attacked and killed Katherine Gumina, Weaver's 74-year-old grandmother. He then chased Tisha Weaver, 7, through the house and into her parents' bedroom, where she hid under the bed. Jones dragged Tisha out from her hiding place, struck her twice on the head and then strangled her. On Dec. 9, 1993, Jones was sentenced to death after being found guilty of multiple homicides with no mitigating circumstances.

Source: Arizona Department of Corrections

Troy Clark #999351
Polunsky Unit, Livingston, Texas

"Looking for a friend to share a smile...Can you see the sunset form where you live? I can see it also so we must not be so far apart!!! Likes: Getting letters, making people smile, motorcycles, children's laughter, art. Dislikes: People being mean to animals, being blamed for something I've not done, getting my peck#@ caught in my zipper. (smile). I live on Texas Death Row in solitary confinement, but please don't judge me, for even the innocent can be found guilty...Loneliness is the worst punishment of all!!! Peace, love & respect."

Source: Inmate letter, Writeaprisoner.com

Clark was convicted in the May 1, 1998, drowning death of 20-year-old Christina Muse, whom Clark believed would tell authorities about his drug dealing. Clark tormented Muse with a stun gun, bound her with duct tape and kept her in a closet in his South Tyler, Texas, home for hours, beat her with a board, drowned her in his bathtub, then encased her body in cement and lime. About four months later, police found her body in a ravine in Smith County, Texas. Clark entered death row on March 31, 2000.

Source: Tyler [Texas] Morning Telegraph

Beunka Adams #999486
Polunsky Unit, Livingston, Texas

"He looks like me...
Walks like me...
Talks like me...
But for some reason...
He ain't like me ...
He has a prejudice
Against me !..
Says he hates me
Binds and enslaves me
Says I won't never be free
I told him
Brother this ain't right
He said to me
Just don't fight
I fall to my knees
Be the Most High,"Please!"
Now chains cut my skin
He still hates me
Mis-use and abuses me
So through prayer I flee
Listing for the Most High
To answer me ...."

Source: Inmate poem on DeathRowUSA. Com

Adams and an accomplice received capital murder convictions in August 2004 for the murder of Kenneth Wayne Vandever in September 2002. Adams and his accomplice robbed a convenience store in Rusk, Texas, and kidnapped Vandever (a customer) and two store clerks, Candice Driver and Nikki Ansley Dement. Taking the keys to Driver's vehicle, the pair then drove their three captives to a remote field near Alto, where Adams sexually assaulted one of the girls. The victims were made to kneel, and then all three were shot and left for dead. Both females survived their wounds, but Vandever, a mentally challenged 37 year old, did not.

Source: Jacksonville [ Texas] Daily Progress

Christopher Sattiewhite #H-60700
San Quentin State Prison, San Quentin, California

"I'm seeking a sincere and understanding woman that can look beyond my incarceration without any preconceived judgments that would like to get to know me as a person! Hobbies and interests: Writing short stories, spiritual cultivation, poetry, working out, self-improvement, TV dramas, politics and learning about the female mystique. A little about myself: I'm a kind hearted, loyal individual, sincere, very understanding and a good listener."

Source: Inmate letter on Writeaprisoner.com

Christopher Sattiewhite, then 24, was convicted of kidnapping and murdering Genoveva Gonzales, whose body was found in an Oxnard drainage ditch Jan. 26, 1992. The Oxnard mother of four was kidnapped by Sattiewhite and a second man, Frederick L. Jackson. Sattiewhite shot her three times in the head after Jackson raped her. Jackson also was convicted of murder and was sentenced to life in prison.

Source: Los Angeles Times

Timothy Hoffner #A315-988
Ohio State Penitentiary, Youngstown, Ohio

"I am a very open-minded person with a free spirit, and I'm seeking friendship and correspondence with a positive attitude. Correspondence and friendship is very important in one's life, but even more so for someone in prison. Many of the "so-called" friends disappeared in thin air, so I am seeking new good friends who understand what real friendship is. Getting letters from people who care about me is what I look forward to each week. Letters are a very wonderful, and much needed, lifeline to the outside world. I hope that I'll be receiving letters from those of you reading my ad. I enjoy reading, watching TV shows and movies. I have seen a lot of movies and like talking about them. I enjoy listening to a variety of music, because it allows me to escape the daily routine. I used to play pool a lot and I miss that. I am a good-hearted person and a very loyal friend, and I know you will see that if you write me. Thank you for reading this. I look forward to hearing from you and hope you will be a new friend.

Source: Inmate Classified

Hoffner was convicted of aggravated murder for the 1993 killing of Christopher Hammer. Hoffner was also convicted of aggravated robbery and kidnapping in the case. Hoffner and a co-defendant admitted jointly planning and carrying out the murder of Hammer, an acquaintance who had briefly shared a house with them, in the course of stealing his car and wallet. After beating Hammer and trying unsuccessfully to break his neck, Hoffner and his accomplice tied him up, transported him to a remote location where they had dug a shallow grave, and buried him while he was still alive and struggling to escape. Hoffner and his accomplice subsequently sold Hammer's car to a used-car dealership for $2,800. Hoffner was sentenced to death on July 6, 1995.

Source: Supreme Court of Ohio Case Summaries

Steven Smith #369-054
Ohio State Penitentiary, Youngstown, Ohio

Submitted by a friend of Steven's : "Steve is a 33-year-old white male. He likes to fish, the outdoors, and drawing. He is also into about any professional sport, especially football and baseball. Steve is a very loving and caring person. He would love to hear from people."

Source: Penpal request on Canadian Coalition Against the Death Penalty

On Sept. 28, 1998, Smith murdered his girlfriend's 6-month-old daughter, Autumn Frye, in his girlfriend's home. Smith raped and beat Autumn, inflicting extensive trauma to her head and body and causing her to suffocate. Smith's girlfriend woke up and saw Smith, standing naked beside her bed, trying to lay Autumn's nude body next to her. Smith was convicted of aggravated murder and sentenced to death on March 26, 1999.

Source: The State of Ohio vs. Smith

Robert Simon Jr. #46380
Mississippi State Penitentiary, Parchman, Mississippi

"Should I pretend that I am not afraid to die like some pretend they are not afraid to live

Should I pretend that everything is OK in my life and do not need anyone's help

Should I stop struggling to overcome this nightmare so that my civilized country can legally murder me

Should I stop letting my mind play with the thoughts of freedom

As I meditate on this day my thoughts drift like a runaway spider web on a windy day

How do I convince robe wearers that I am not the monster they seek

How do I write my last letter to my family

How should I remember you when my body and mind go towards that forever sleep

I think I will remember you as love

Source: Poem on Writeaprisoner.com

Simon was sentenced in Quitman County in July, 1990 for the Feb. 2, 1990, murders of the four-member Carl Parker family. Simon was convicted for the killings of Carl Parker, his wife, Bobbie Jo, and their son Gregory, 12, on Feb. 2, 1990. The killings occurred a few hours after the family had returned to their rural Quitman County home from church services. He also was sentenced to life in prison for the killing of Charlotte Parker, 9, the slain couple's daughter. Authorities said the bodies of the Parker family were pulled from their burning house. All four had been shot, but an autopsy showed Charlotte died from smoke inhalation.

Source: Picayune [Mississippi] Item

Daniel Cook #69007
Arizona State Prison Complex-Eyman, Florence, Arizona

My name is Daniel Cook, and I live on Death Row in Arizona. I am 40, have blue eyes, brown hair, weigh approx. 170 lbs., near six feet in height. I am hoping that I can meet people thru correspondence and build a few good friendships. I have been on Death Row for nearly 14 years. Despite the years, I have managed to keep a good sense of humor (mostly at the expense of the guards). I take pride in being honest, sincere, compassionate, funny, discreet and friendly. I have lots of time on my hands these days, so all letters will get an answer. I'm a pretty open person and enjoy sharing my thoughts and points of view with anyone brave enough to ask for either. I love the outdoors and dogs, horses, cats, writing short stories, poetry and letters. I am educated to a point, never made it to any university, unless you take into consideration years of reading in a prison law library. So, if you have qualities similar to mine, and you would like to correspond with me, I welcome your letters."

Source: Inmate letter on Canadian Coalition Against the Death Penalty

According to Arizona court records, Cook, John Matzke, and Carlos Froyan Cruz-Ramos worked at a restaurant in Lake Havasu City and shared an apartment. On July 19, 1987, Cook stole some money from Cruz-Ramos. When Cruz-Ramos began searching the apartment for the money, Cook and Matzke tied Cruz-Ramos to a chair and began beating him with their fists and a metal pipe. Cook also cut Cruz-Ramos with a knife, sodomized him, and burned his genitals with cigarettes. After several hours of this torture, Matzke and Cook crushed Cruz-Ramos' throat with the pipe. When Kevin Swaney, another co-worker, arrived at the apartment, Cook forced him upstairs and showed him Cruz-Ramos' body. Cook and Matzke then tied Swaney to a chair. Matzke went to sleep while Cook sodomized Swaney. When Cook was finished, he woke Matzke and the two men strangled Swaney to death with a bed sheet. Matzke pled guilty to second-degree murder and testified against Cook. On Aug. 8, 1998, Cook was sentenced to death for multiple homicides. The court cited especially heinous/cruel/depraved circumstances in handing down the sentence.

Source: Arizona Department of Corrections

Deidre Depke, a New York writer, is a former assistant managing editor of Newsweek.