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Convict connection: US pen pals found in jail

The Local · 1 Aug 2011, 17:13

Published: 01 Aug 2011 17:13 GMT+02:00

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Two years ago, Verena Habicht was looking for a pen pal who could help her improve her English.

But the Mönchengladbach native ended up finding a best friend on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. The only problem? The 28-year-old man is in prison in Texas.

He’s doing 20 years for robbing a convenience store for cash and lottery tickets, but Habicht says that doesn’t matter. In fact, she’s even falling for him.

“I could imagine something more when he gets out,” she told The Local recently. “We’re best friends now. We write to each other about everything possible.”

No one tracks exactly how many Germans are in contact with American prisoners, but it’s clear that Habicht is far from alone.

Thousands of Europeans develop pen pal relationships with convicts each year, often through websites advertising prisoners’ names, addresses and details about their offences. Some of the most popular inmates are those American society considers the worst of the worst – robbers, sex offenders or prisoners on death row in places like Texas.

Writers’ motivations vary. Some feel a religious calling to comfort those behind bars. Others are deeply opposed to the American justice system, especially its use of the death penalty. Yet others, like 26-year-old Habicht, say they are just searching for friends. Occasionally, these relationships blossom into something more.

Connecting pen pals

All the interest from abroad has been a boon to websites like writeaprisoner.com, which connects tens of thousands of prisoners and potential pen pals each year.

The company’s president, Adam Lovell told The Local that prisoners who develop friendships with outsiders are more likely to maintain their sanity in prison and be successful when they get out. Though fellow Americans are the biggest group seeking US prisoner pen pals, Europeans are a close second, he said.

“It’s very important for them,” said Lovell, who himself has had friends in prison. “For the people who write them, it’s often about empathy, it becomes more of a do-gooder type of thing.”

But writing to prisoners can be risky too, said Michelle Lyons, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

“While certainly some requests may be sincere, people should be aware that inmates can be extremely manipulative and people should use caution,” Lyons said.

On occasion pen pal relationships develop beyond the paper and pen into actual visits. They have turned into full-fledged romances and even the occasional marriage.

An entire industry of sorts has sprung up to support burgeoning relationships between pen pals and their prisoners. In addition to the websites facilitating communications, in places like Livingston, Texas – just five miles southwest of the state’s death row – a series of budget hotels happy to cater to foreign visitors has sprung up.

So can relationships between inmates and pen pals be healthy or are they inherently pathological?

It depends on whether pen pals have a strong sense of self and know what they’re getting themselves into, experts say.

“These relationships can be extremely exciting, like romance novels in a way,” said Sheila Isenberg, who researched the topic extensively for her book “Women Who Love Men Who Kill.”

“I don’t see these relationships as a positive or a negative – they are what they are," she said. "But I don’t think they’re necessarily very healthy.”

Writing to help

But Ulrike Benn, a 37-year-old single mother from the northern German city of Kiel, disagrees.

She’s been writing prisoners on death rows across the United States since April and received about five letters back. Benn says she's searching for excitement or love, but rather is looking to comfort people she suspects might be lonely.

And she wonders why that could be considered unhealthy.

“I just think these prisoners need contact, they need people to talk to,” Benn said. “I’ve told them they can tell me everything.”

Story continues below…

Habicht too said she’s not concerned about the future of her relationship with the 28-year-old armed robber.

Though family members initially worried about her safety, one of her aunts has since decided she too wants to write prisoners.

Last year Habicht visited her friend in Texas to see if there would be any sparks. There were. She hopes that if he gets out of prison on parole in a few years, he’ll come to Germany to visit and spend time with her.

“We just stared into each others eyes for a long time,” she recounted of her prison visit. “It was wonderful. There’s definitely something there.”

Moises Mendoza



The Local (news@thelocal.de)

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Your comments about this article

18:00 August 1, 2011 by Jerr-Berlin
Definitely Frau Habicht...

...always a good idea to wait for and date a guy who's in the big house for armed robbery...gotta be a nice chap eh...
18:44 August 1, 2011 by Gretl
I just don't understand it. Why won't German women date German men? I haven't dated in Germany (my husband would probably object!), but I know single German guys who seem date-worthy. I really want to know, what's the deal?
19:20 August 1, 2011 by auniquecorn
Greti, these women are looking for real men.
20:38 August 1, 2011 by auslanderus
Well said auniquecorn.
21:17 August 1, 2011 by Berliner Mauer
"She hopes that if he gets out of prison on parole in a few years, he¦#39;ll come to Germany to visit and spend time with her."

Well, deary, you will have to keep waiting for your 'real' man because he needs to finish his parole before he can hope to leave the US... or the state for that matter.
05:18 August 2, 2011 by wenddiver
You could walk out onto the street and approach any creep and find a nicer, less manipulative, less dangerous person than you would in any US Prison Convict.

The danger these people are placing themselves and their families in is so severe, that in the Federal Bureau of Prisons visiting is not allowed between these correspondence relationships and inmates.

These Women should seek immediate, Proffessional Psychiatric help, efore they are manipulated and end up in Prision or end up a victim of violence.

Nobody of any intelligence would recommend giving Convicts your adress and personal information about yourself.
06:20 August 2, 2011 by zeulf
Gretl maybe these Women have nothing to offer and have no real chance to date regular people, they must look outside of mainstream society
10:49 August 2, 2011 by Berliner Mauer
Wenddiver: "You could walk out onto the street and approach any creep and find a nicer, less manipulative, less dangerous person than you would in any US Prison Convict."

While it is true that only immediate family of convicts may visit, deeming all convicts dangerous and manipulative is simply not accurate. Each prisoner has their own circumstance and while some may be as you describe, certainly not all of them are such.

My brother is in prison for the last 17 years and met his wife of 10 years who was working Christian Outreach. He made horrible and grievous mistakes while under the addiction of drugs and alcohol and serves a life-without-parole sentence. But he is a better man in prison than he was on the street.

Prison is the only hope for some people to set their life straight. He is grateful to be set free from the drugs, though free he is not behind the fences and barbed wire. His wife sees this in him and despite the physical distance between them, the glue that keeps some relationships together is also not so cut-and-dry.
12:04 August 2, 2011 by Gretl
@auniquecorn & auslanderus - I have observed that German men seem to lack game. Perhaps the gene pool for more aggressive, manly men was severely reduced in the last century. They look good, but seem pretty meek.
12:20 August 2, 2011 by CaSimone

I think some woman need to fill a "save him" role.

As a US girl,for all the wonderful German men here, I found my angel here (&I needed one) and I got a ton more US friends who are very intrigued by the handsome, well mannered European man of Germany. So I wouldn't worry. Let the multi-culture begin:P :D It's oh so magical... lalala
05:51 August 5, 2011 by heyheyhey
Oh, the stories I could tell of how the US prisoners talk about the "whores" they con into getting involved with them. These men, who are in prison because they feel no shame or guilt when they harm others are always trading names and phone numbers of the women they have hooked. These foolish women send money, photos of themselves almost or entirely nude, endless letters, etc. These poor misguided criminals laugh and speak oh so crassly about the women that are supporting them.

My advise to ANYONE who finds themselves falling for a criminal is; #1. run like hell, #2. Move. get a new address. #3. find a skilled therapist. You need one.
15:18 August 6, 2011 by Bruno53
When they fleeced you for money, German folks, don't complain.
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