By Terry Davis
Inmate’s having nothing to do, except think up new con’s to play on unsuspecting, friends, family and pen-pals. I can’t cover all of them but, will attempt to give you enough, you should be able to tell if you are a victim of these scams. Some of you will not believe that you are being scammed, that is how good some of these inmates are, until it is too late and you have lost something of value.
The first scam starts out as a pen pal. This scam was brought to my attention while working first watch, in a housing unit. First watch is from 10:00 PM to 6:00AM. Part of the job requirement is to process the inmates outgoing mail. As part of that process, we open and scan every letter to look for codes or notes, to identify letters that may indicate criminal activity. While completing this task, I noticed that one inmate had mailed about ten letters to ten different females. Now these letters were hand written but were identical except for the name of the women involved, and the addresses. After several nights of processing the mail and every night ten additional letters were going out, all again handwritten, with different names and addresses. Usually, the first part of these letters were an introduction stating that he normally does not write letters to people he does not know, but he had read her letter in a pen-pal magazine and was so moved by it that he just had to write her. He will then tell her that he is an inmate and has no family or friends to correspond with.
He will tell her about his commitment offense, the reason he is in prison. Sometimes he’ll tell them that he fell in with the wrong people and he was a victim himself, he had no idea they were going to commit a crime, he was with them at the time and that is how he got to prison. Sometimes he’ll claim he was a drug addict and couldn’t stop himself. He had lost his job, family and friends but could not get off the drugs. That is until, he was convicted and sent to prison. Now that he is in his right mind and thinking clearly, he is a changed person and feels bad about his victims or the crime he committed while under the influence of drugs. He hopes that she will be his pen-pal, to give him contact with someone that is caring and honest to help him through this nightmare that he finds himself in.
He would then insert a poem, something that would pull at the heart strings and would convey the feeling that he is a sensitive, caring person looking for someone to help him retain his humanity in an inhuman environment. Usually, he would claim to have written the poem, while sitting alone in his cell surrounded by violence in a violent place where the only escape, is to put his inner-most thought’s and feeling’s on paper, that he cannot share with anyone but them. In reality, the poem was hand copied form a magazine that cater’s to inmate’s, and usually has a section where drawings and poems can be sent in by inmates to be published. The letter will end with a statement to the effect that he hopes she will return his letter and be a pen-pal. He knows that this will only be a long distance relationship, a platonic one.
He will then explain that he has used his last stamp and envelop to write her and if it is possible, for her to send him some stamps and envelopes so he can continue their correspondence, or she could send $20.00 to him and he would be able to by the stamps and envelopes himself. If she does not write him back, or is unable to send the envelopes or money that is okay, he understands. He will then thank her for the glimmer of light she has brought to him in his time of need and despair, locked away from humanity in this dungeon of darkness.
After several months I began to notice a pattern. The first week of the month he would send out 10 letters a day for five days. The following week the letters would drop to one or two a night, and continue that way until the first week of the next month and the process would repeat itself. The letters sent out after the first week were still handwritten and were pretty much the same in content, but would have several paragraphs that were personalized to the women that he was writing. Judging from his letters, he would echo, the interests that the women presented to him, giving the women the belief that he really cared about their thoughts and feelings and wrote to them as if they were the only person in the world that understood him. He would talk about how much he cared for them, how he wished he could have met a person like them before coming to prison, they may have kept him from traveling down that long road to prison, that his life would have been completely different. He understood that they could not have any kind of relationship except being his pen-pal.
He hoped and dreamed that when he gets out of prison he would be able to meet a woman just like her. To share his life, to put his past behind him and become the man that he should have been, a father, a husband and a provider for the needs and desires of his family. If they were religious, he would tell them, that because of them he had started attending Chapel, religious services’ in prison, and was amazed at the impact those services was having on his life. He would then have bible discussions with his new found pen-pal and ask her for her help in understanding passages and sermons. If the women had children he would tell her how his Father was a drunk, beat him and his Mother and finally left them, and how he always wanted children and swore that he would be a caring and loving Father, he would be everything his Father was not.
The other line was how he was once married and had a child, but because of his addiction his wife divorced him and moved away with his child, he does not know where they are, but longs for the chance to make it right with his child, to be the Father he should have been. He would then tell them that because of their relationship, he now realizes what he has lost and blames only himself and prays that someday he will have the opportunity to be a real Father. He’ll thank her for sharing her life with him on paper and that she is a caring, sensitive, loving Mother to her children and that she has helped him realize that someday, if he is lucky he hopes to have a family.
Eventually, the inmate would have the women sending in money and packages for him. This particular Inmate only used this scam for himself, but other inmate’s would have them send money and package to other inmate’s, make three-way phone calls and forward letters to other gang members in other institutions. But back to the original story, after a time he would have a photo taken of himself and send it to the women involved and ask her to send photo’s of herself, or of her and her children, a family photo. The inmate would shave, get a haircut, have his clothes cleaned and pressed and appear as the clean cut all American boy. He would lavish compliments on her about how beautiful she and her family are, how lucky she is to have such a family and how he looks at the photo at night, just before going to sleep, and dreams of his life after prison and his hopes and desires of having a wife and family.
He will send Birthday cards, Christmas cards and cards just saying thanks for your friendship. He’ll tell her it took him hours upon hours to draw the card. In reality, he would trade stamps or other things of value in a prison and have another inmate make the card from him. The inscription inside the card would usually contain a poem, again taken from a magazine, and a personalized message just for her. By this time the women is usually sending him money and stamps on a regular basis, it is time for the final step. This usually includes phone calls and invites her to come visit him. That he feels a connection between them and that he just want the chance to talk with her in person, and to lose himself in her beautiful, caring, and understanding eye’s. To be able to tell her what she means to him that he is unable to express with clumsy letters and words written on a piece of paper.
If she agrees and visits him, he’ll be a perfect gentleman, sincere, caring, and understanding, attentive to her wants, needs and desires. Listening to every word that flows over her lips, making her the only person in the world, and him the only one that truly knows her heart. He’ll tell her how beautiful her heart is and that they are beyond the physical, that he has fallen in love with that person who has shared her heart with him, they are kindred spirits, trapped in circumstances beyond their control, that she is the princess that he could only dream of being with. He understands that he is not the right person for her and that his only desire is that she will find true happiness and love in a cold, heartless world. After the visit he will immediately write her a letter, telling her how happy she has made him and how he cannot sleep thinking about her that she makes him feel like there is hope and life after prison.
That he dare hope there is a chance, a one in a million shot, that they would be able to make it together. That he could never find a woman that can see him for who he really is that knows his true heart and feelings that he dare not reveal to any other person. That he is unworthy to have the happiness that she could bring to his life, he understands that she may not be able to get over his past, he understands her concerns about him, and he could not blame her for pushing him away. He can only hope and dream that she would give him the chance to show her by his actions that he would be the man she deserves in her life, his only concern is her true happiness.
After several months, I finally got the opportunity to talk with this inmate one on one. I was surprised that when I asked him about the letters, that he actually set down and explained it to me in great detail. Inmates enjoy being able to talk about their scams, showing how cleaver and smart they are. He told me that in one of the magazine’s that specifically targets inmates, you could purchase a mailing list of women that wanted to correspond with inmates for about $ 20.00. They will send you a list of 100 women.
The first week of the month he would send out 50 letters and that usually within seven to ten days two or three of the women would respond. The rest of the month he would simply answer their letters. At first it was difficult learning what to write, but after awhile he became good at reading between the lines and writing back what the women wanted to hear. He said usually the women are lonely and feel that they would be able to help a poor inmate and change his life. If he works it right they will send him stamps or money. At that time he was making about $100.00 per month, for writing letters. To him it was a business, he made them feel good about themselves and made them feel like they were helping someone. After all $20.00 a month is not a bad fee to make a person happy by giving them what they wanted to hear.
The hard part was making a good enough connection where they would actually come and visit him. At this point he knew he had them, his new plan was to see if he could get them to help him when he got released. He had no place to stay and felt that without their help he would have no choice but to become a statistic, a parolee returned to prison. Believe it or not he actually had a women that was divorced, owned her home in an upscale affluent neighborhood, fall in love with him and wanted him to live with her when he got out.
The end of the story, he paroled, she picked him up and he lived with her for about six months. She returned home from shopping one day to find her car gone, cash, credit cards, jewelry and the parolee missing. In my 25 years with the Department of Corrections in California, I have only seen one of these types of relationships survive. In that one, they married, had children, the parolee worked a regular job, got off parole and they stayed happily married. In my experience 99.9% of the time it is a scam, if you want to take those odds, remember you were warned.
Terry Davis retired from the California Department of Corrections after more than 25 years. He has interviewed thousands of inmates and parolees, inside the Institutions, Local County Jails and on the streets. He has reviewed more than 2,000 phone calls from inmates to family, friends and associates. All this experience has given him unique insights into how criminals think and what they do as well as how they do it. Currently, Terry is involved with educating, Schools, Teachers, Students, Parents, and law Enforcement Officers, about gangs and their impact on peoples lives and our communities. After a career of 37 years in Law Enforcement, Terry is now embarking on using the Internet to get out his message about gangs, and the California Prison System. He also acts as a guest speaker at his local Community College regarding the State Parole function and his experience as a State Parole Agent.