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.
Most states deny married inmates conjugal visits, and those that do permit them allow prison officials to restrict such privileges at their discretion. While it may seem mystifying to understand how a marriage with such limitations could be satisfying, Arthur Aron, a psychology professor at the State University of New York-Stonybrook, says it isn't that big of a stretch.
Drawing a comparison with partners of soldiers or spouses whose work keeps them away from home, Aron notes that physical separation isn't necessarily a barrier to a satisfying relationship.
For some, it may actually be helpful. "Between 20 [percent] and 30 percent of the population is uncomfortable with attachment," he said. "For some people it's threatening to be intimate, and a relationship with an incarcerated partner may give these people the sense of control they want or need when it comes to emotional closeness."
While some non-incarcerated correspondents may have a psychological aversion to emotional intimacy, inmates who post personal ads on commercial Web sites seem to crave it. Inmates don't have access to e-mail, but friends and family members can post online ads for them. Would-be pen pals peruse the convicts' profiles and pay a small fee for a particular inmate's mailing address.
Arlen Bischke, creator of MeetAnInmate.com, which hosts ads for some 2,000 prisoners, encourages correspondences with inmates, but also cautions against looking for a mate among inmates or answering requests for cash. "If an inmate asks for large amounts of money you should always suspect fraud and not be foolish. These men and women are inmates and are usually in prison for good reason. This is meet-an-inmate.com, not meet-a-girl-scout.com," Bischke's site warns.
Inmates' online ads range from the provocative to the practical. Ron Keal, 38, whose ad features a muscular bare-chested man posing seductively, is sparse on specifics but generous with metaphor.
He writes: "After 11½ years of friction, heat, pressure and pain a raw hunk of dark coal trapped between plates of solid rock has been transformed into a rare Black Diamond. … I come to your estimating eye to be tried, tested and proven positively authentic "Real." Seeing through fake like glass. Though large enough to be the rock that'll break your wrist, clear cut enough to see you[r] heart and comfort you with a touch. Take a chance by touching me -- write...because a Black Diamond is a woman's best friend."
Edward Washington, 41, takes a straightforward approach. He describes himself on InmateConnections.com as "well-groomed and clean," whose hobbies include "playing basketball, weightlifting, reading, and thinking." He'd like to write to anyone and is seeking "romance, friendship and legal help."