- The Washington Times - Friday, September 1, 2000

The Web sites read like cheesy personal ads:

"Attention, all you footloose, fancy and free ladies, I'm seeking that special lady for a long-lasting relationship," writes William Bauder III, 27. "My favorite color is the color of your eyes… ."

"I'm seeking an honest, kind, loyal, mature and open-minded friend," writes George Picone, 32. "If I were in the neighborhood on a sunny day, I would swing by and drag you out of your house to go to the zoo, play Frisbee, fly kites at the park on Saturday."

"I'm looking for someone special and real, who still believes in fairy tales, old fashion love and making dreams a reality… . Please don't be afraid, for I am truly a lost and lonely kitten," writes Lora Zaiontz, 34.

But these messages are not found during a typical Internet search of personal ads.

To get to these Web pages, the search word has to be "inmate."

Bauder is serving 75 years for aggravated sexual assault of a child. Picone is serving seven years for conspiracy to distribute methamphetamines. And Zaiontz is serving a life sentence for capital murder.

They are among thousands of inmates who are now using the Internet to find pen pals, sympathizers and money through sites such as meet-an-inmate.com, www.pennpals.org, www.cyberspace-inmates.com and www.outlawsonline.com.

Michael Toney, a death-row inmate in Texas who killed three persons near Fort Worth with a briefcase bomb in 1985, recently used an Internet auction site in a failed attempt to sell seats to his execution. Officials from EBay removed the posting within hours.

Inmates have no access to computers unless their prison job is to repair them, said Larry Todd, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Instead, the Web pages are created by people in the "free world" friends, members of advocacy groups and the companies that have made inmate Web sites their business.

But the words on the screen come from the inmates, who, not surprisingly, say "I am innocent" more than "I am sorry."

Inmates can benefit from communication with supportive friends or relatives because it gives them an incentive to improve their lives, prison officials say. But they warn that some inmates are not looking for companionship, and are instead trolling for pushovers who are willing to send cash.

"We don't want people to get ripped off," Mr. Todd said.

If inmates use their Web pages to proclaim their innocence and solicit donations, they should be monitored, and in some cases, removed from the Internet, victims advocates say.

Arizona legislators agree, and have passed a law prohibiting inmates from communicating with "communication service providers," which includes inmate pen pal services.

The law also prohibits inmates from accessing the Internet through a computer or third party. Inmates who violate the law could lose good-time credits earned toward an early release or could be prosecuted on a misdemeanor charge.

Justice For All, a Houston-based criminal justice reform group, is monitoring the Arizona legislation to determine whether it might work for Texas.

For victims, it is "very, very hurtful for them to go to a Web page and find a very sugar-coated version of what happened," said Sharlene Hall, vice president of the advocacy group.

But families should have no say in the matter, said Charles Sparks, operator of Ohio-based pennpals.org. They participated in the criminal justice process by attending the trial. Once the defendant is in prison, victims' families are "out of the loop at that point, justifiably," Mr. Sparks said.

"Is their lack of freedom just the starting point? How much do the victims get to prod these people?" he asked.

Lance Potter does not have a problem with inmate Web pages, as long as they are not used to scam money from people.

Mr. Potter, 33, was a friend of Darren Cain's, one of two persons fatally shot in Houston in April 1998.

Charles Victor Thompson is on death row for the murders of his former girlfriend Dennise Hayslip and her friend Mr. Cain.

On his Web page, Thompson says he is looking for a pen pal who will "enter our friendship with an open mind and not judge me… . I am a very firm believer that everyone needs someone in their life and I need you. I am a very interesting person with a lot of character and I just need someone to share that with."

Thompson also proclaims his innocence, then asks for money for his legal defense fund.

"In order to be prepared for any and everything that the state is coming at me with, the minimum cost of adequate legal representation starts at $25,000. But we're wanting to raise $75,000 to cover all bases," he says on his Web page.

But if anyone sends money, it will not go to Thompson's legal defense fund. The money goes to his commissary account, according to a disclaimer that the Web-site operator put on Thompson's page.

Mr. Potter said the disclaimer was added only after he and several others repeatedly contacted the Web-site operator, the Canadian Coalition Against the Death Penalty.

The coalition, which consists of Toronto residents Tracy Lamourie and Dave Parkinson, now also lists a link to the victims' Web site. Mrs. Lamourie said she does not edit the inmates' Web pages, but that she simply sets them up.

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