About one in every 138 Americans spent time in prison in 2004, with the number of female prisoners increasing by 2.9 percent over the previous year to 103,310, according to the latest data released by the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics. But it's an extraordinarily lopsided population. Men were 11 times more likely to be incarcerated than women.
Prison officials say inmates convicted of the most heinous crimes tend to attract the most attention from pen pals, and McDonald's relationship with Harris bears that out.
According to court documents, Harris flagged down 19-year-old Dennis Brooks Jr. on his way home from his night shift at a Subway fast food shop in September 1993 after a car she and two accomplices were riding in had broken down. The three overcame Brooks, beat him, shot him, stabbed him and mutilated his body. Harris admitted to pressing Brooks' excised heart to her lips and stabbing the victim's body once, but she otherwise denied a role in the mutilation.
Most often, prison officials say, inmates become seriously involved with someone they knew before their incarceration or with someone who regularly visits the prison. There are, however, a growing number of programs organized by anti-death penalty groups, and religious and community organizations that encourage letter-writing with inmates.
Such programs require correspondents be at least 18 years old, and most advise letter writers to keep the relationship platonic or focused on encouraging an inmate's spiritual growth. Ron Grant, who serves as chaplain at Oklahoma's Joseph Harp Correctional Facility, a medium-security prison for men, says there is a great benefit for inmates to have controlled contact with members of the community.
However, Grant said, "I try to caution my volunteers not to confuse Christian compassion and concern with romantic love."
McDonald said he wrote hundreds of letters to inmates before establishing a relationship with Harris through letters. "I wrote dozens of inmates, some one letter, some a hundred. My now-wife wrote me but would not take money or send a visitation form. I went to her post-conviction hearing and introduced myself to her family. That broke the ice," McDonald wrote in a posting on PrisonTalk.com.
While correspondence between female inmates and pen pals is common, marriages developing from these relationships are infrequent, according to Yolanda Walker, chaplain at the women's prison in Nashville where Harris is serving her sentence.
There have been 13 weddings at the facility in the past 15 years. Walker said she knows of three inmates whose marriages are going strong, but, she added, "We are also aware of marriages that do not last due to the free-world spouse being unable to stay committed to the marriage." Walker said two wedding requests have been denied. One was rejected because of the intended spouse's past charges and his parole status. The other was refused because the couple falsified information on their application.
Grant and other prison officials say they have seen examples of relationships between inmates and non-institutionalized partners develop into healthy marriages. "There are times when there is sincerity in both parties and the relationship works, but I don't encourage inmates to marry until they're released," he said.