ORLANDO, Fla. — The advertisements are a dream for someone who is looking to find a "special connection."
Buff, handsome men and attractive ladies, waiting to hear from you.
But you won't find these in your local newspaper.
These ads are posted on WriteAPrisoner.com, an Edgewater, Fla.-based prison-pen-pals Web site that seeks to connect inmates throughout the country with friends on the outside. But the site, which is thought to be the largest of its kind, has launched a lawsuit against Florida corrections officials who frown on its operations as part of what the officials say is an attempt to protect the public from fraud perpetrated by state prisoners.
WriteAPrisoner's customers include 27-year-old Robert Nicks, who wears a bright smile in his photo and indicates that he is looking for a lady with great communication skills. His favorite hobby is fishing. He loves outdoor events.
"I'm a man with great understanding and patience," he writes.
Lower Paxton Township police in Louisiana may remember him differently. Robert Anwar Nicks was once a fugitive wanted on robbery and weapons charges, and he tried to chew the skin off his fingers so that he couldn't be fingerprinted, police said.
Now Nicks is an inmate at the federal prison in Coleman, Fla. He isn't expected to be released until June 2015.
WriteAPrisoner.com founder Adam Lovell said he started his company about 10 years ago, after he became aware of Christian ministries that offered similar pen-pals services.
"I said, 'I can make a living doing this,'" said Lovell, 32. He began charging $40 for profiles. Any money he made went back into programming and marketing for the site. Occasionally, his site gets a large advertiser, such as Western Union, but Google ads also provide a small but constant income stream.
Eventually, he was able to quit his job with the Volusia County Beach Patrol. The site now has three full-time staffers, including a programmer, and has sent more than 300,000 e-mail forwards.
February and March are the busiest times, Lovell said. He's not sure why, though he speculates that inmates are loneliest just before spring.
Here's how it works:
WriteAPrisoner.com advertises in a publication that prisoners see, such as Prison Legal News. Inmates then can write to the company and request an application. An inmate receives paperwork through the mail, fills it out and mails it back. Either the inmate or someone on his behalf can send a check or money order.
Lovell and his team then place the prisoner's information online.
Between 4,900 and 5,400 profiles are active on the site on any given day, Lovell said.
Although the site reaches prisoners throughout the country, Florida prison officials have tried to prevent state prisoners from placing ads on WriteAPrisoner.com and other sites.
The department's rules are clear. Inmates are prohibited from placing ads in magazines, newspapers or other publications, and they also must not post ads or other information to Web sites.
Any inmate who violates the regulations will be disciplined.
Corrections officials warn that inmates may be trying to meet new people by mail in order to scam their pen pals out of cash.
But when inmates already have pen pals, the Florida Department of Corrections has no objections.
"We can't stop them," said Jo Ellyn Rackleff, a spokeswoman for the corrections department.
Lovell sees the Florida prison system's stance as a threat, so he is suing. His co-defendant is a South Florida woman named Joy Perry, who runs two pen-pal services: Freedom Through Christ Prison Ministry and the secular operation Prison Pen Pals.
The suit names the warden of Union Correctional Institution in Raiford; Florida State Prison in Starke; Lowell Correctional Institution in Ocala; and state corrections secretary Walter McNeil.
"These pen pal relationships help prisoners cope with prison life while incarcerated and also assist in their transition back into society upon release," the complaint reads. "Some are able to establish sincere religious beliefs through pen pals. … Some inmates are able to find housing and employment through a pen pal which can help them get established upon their release."
The case is set for trial in October in federal court in Jacksonville, Fla.
The Miami, Fla.-based attorney representing Lovell and Perry is ready for the fight.
"They have no examples of why the solicitation of pen pals shouldn't exist," said Randall Berg. "They've done no studies."
For now, Lovell continues his operation, convinced that WriteAPrisoner.com provides a valuable service to prisoners.
His latest project is to build a system to link inmates with employers who are willing to hire ex-cons.
"We do resumes for inmates — right now we have 900," Lovell said. "We don't charge for those."
Personals may omit key detail — or not
A typical WriteAPrisoner.com personal ad includes a photo showing the inmate to his or her best advantage.
Women's photographs are usually head shots. Men often have full-body photos or ones showing off well-muscled arms.
Inmates describe themselves the way many people do on the outside in personal ads: open to new experiences, spiritual and family-focused. Occasionally they slip in that they desire to move.
Sometimes they mention their current location, sometimes not.
Sylas Brownridge is in the federal lockup in Coleman. He was sentenced to 33 years in prison in 2007 on charges of being part of a crew that committed armed robberies of businesses and banks in 2004. In two robberies, he carried a gun and aimed it at employees in a restaurant and a jewelry store.
His ad reads:
Hello to all you beautiful women out there. How are you doing at this present time? Hopefully God has blessed you with all that you desire, as He has done for me, by blessing me with this golden opportunity.
But before I get carried away let me introduce myself. My name is Sylas but everybody calls me June. I'm 24 and I'm from South Central Los Angeles. My birthday is September 21. I stand 5'10" and weigh 152 pounds. I have a cool physique and a laid back personality. I consider myself caring, honest and confident. I would honestly like to get to know someone as a person. I'm not a bummy dude, I do no faking and I'm down to earth.
What I look for in a woman is beauty. Beauty, to me, is personality, sense of humor, honesty, loyalty and understanding. I believe in my heart that all women are beautiful.
I am also looking for a friend.… Friends are people who let you be yourself. We can be the best of friends and establish a bond and talk about any and every thing under the sun. Whatever we choose to be, I want it to be based on trust. I want to meet a person who sees me for who I am, with all my faults and still be down for me 100 percent.
Donald Schacht II, who is also at Coleman on charges of trying to rob a mail carrier with a 9 mm pistol, has this to say:
I'm really into movies, music, reading and cooking. (Would love to be cooking us dinner, preparing for a movie this minute, but hey …) Not a huge outdoors type but do like going to concerts or amusement parks — I love that awful junk food you usually find there; you know, the fried candy bars, caramel apples dipped in the crushed peanuts, funnel cakes, etc.? Ummm … yeah … just a happy-go-lucky person here.
Additionally, of course, I am no perfect saint but also no career offender either. I'm in federal prison and get out in 2012. I'm only 24 years old. My case involved U.S. Mail and was a result of a couple of bad decisions. So I'm serving out my debts to society but looking forward to the future, knowing in my heart that I have learned from this experience.…"
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.