Life Relationships Locked up and in love: The strange psychology of prison pen pals

Locked up and in love: The strange psychology of prison pen pals

Bonding in the Big House: Getting to know someone through the lost art of letter writing can lead a stronger connection. Photo: Getty / TND
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One of the most intriguing things about one of the world’s most notorious serial killers, Ted Bundy, is that while he was serving his time on death row, he received hundreds of letters from adoring ‘fans’.

Starry-eyed women who, seemingly unbothered by Bundy’s violent past, would spend hours pouring their heart and souls out to a convicted serial killer and rapist, frequently proposing marriage.

When imagining the phenomenon of prison pen pals, many of us easily think back to the Bundys and the Charles Mansons of the world, and the fangirls who flock to them, desperate to be the ones to fix society’s most broken people.

Ted Bundy was a serial killer, kidnapper, rapist and necrophile, but still attracted female fans. Photo: Getty 

However, to do so would be to overlook the many people who are not reaching out to inmates as crazed fans, but rather as individuals looking for an honest connection.

For Stef, the idea of writing to an inmate first appealed to her when she was in her late 20s, around eight years ago.

“I saw it on TV, so I went online and found the American listings, because I thought, ‘Well, I’m not gonna have some weirdo show up at my door’,” Stef told The New Daily.

It was the unknown and not knowing whether I’d get a response, and I think it gave them a bit of a buzz that some chick from Australia was writing to some guy in America in prison.”

Clinical psychologist Carla Lechner said there are many reasons why women reach out to inmates.

“Some are attracted to the bad boy image, some believe they can help with the redemption of the prisoner … there are many reasons why you might establish a relationship,” Ms Lechner said.

“And the relationships can be, on the one hand, quite superficial, in terms of developing feelings of depth that are based on not really knowing that person.

“On the other hand, people can develop quite in-depth relationships at a distance because they’re revealing things about themselves that maybe they wouldn’t reveal face to face.”

Many people write to prison inmates seeking friendship and connection. Photo: Getty 

Lance was serving a three-year sentence for a drug charge, and despite Stef selecting him because she found him attractive, the connection they formed was purely platonic.

“The guy was a phenomenal artist, and he would send me cards and pictures about every two to three weeks,” she said.

“I just did it for fun … but because it’s all hand written, you kind of get down to the roots of somebody, it’s not just a couple of words typed on Facebook.”

A friendship soon blossomed, and continued after Lance was released a few years ago, with the two now connecting on social media.

“There was never any mention of catching up. It was just killing time for the both of us,” she said.

“It was a good conversation and it made me smile knowing I could make someone else smile halfway across the world.”

It seems the appeal of forming an earnest connection, away from the distraction and superficiality that social media can bring, is one of the key factors drawing people down the prison pen pal path.

Websites show images of inmates and include details of their crimes and sentences. Photo: Getty

Jailbird love

When June was 29, she matched with her current partner, Dale, 31, on Tinder the night before he was due in court for drug charges.

When she didn’t hear back from him, her best friend encouraged her to put pen to paper and reach out.

The two struck up a letter-based friendship, which soon progressed to phone calls, and finally, they met in person.

It was a really scary experience going for my first visit,” June said.

“I made sure my hair looked good, my nails looked good, it was literally like a first date.”

But for both June and Dale, who had thrived in a hook-up culture where choice was abundant and connections rarely scratch the surface, the intimacy of letter-writing, and getting to know one another sparked a new flame.

“We sat down and actually got to know each other as people, and after three months he asked me to be his girlfriend but I was like, ‘Is he asking because he has no one else?'” June said.

“I had been single for seven years, and I had pretty much given up on the dating scene … it was just random hook ups and no mental stimulation whatsoever, so I was like, ‘You know what, I’m going to go for it’, and we fell in love.

I started dating this guy and we’d never had any physical contact or anything, but he put fire back into me.”

Three years on, June, now 32, and Dale are living together in South Australia with their young child, and June’s daughter from a previous relationship.

“I honestly believe the reason we got together and stayed together is because we got to know each other first. Four times a week for a year, we would sit at a table across from each other,” she said.

“It was exciting, it felt new and it felt real old school, writing letters, chaperoned visits. We were only able to hold hands and steal kisses.”