Cell mating

Aug 30, 2000 at 12:00 am

Ronald Bishop’s marriage of 20 years collapsed nine years ago. Since then there have been many lonely moments, he says.

So when the 53-year-old oil-processing supervisor from Liberty, Texas, hooked up with Carol Sevilla, he was elated. Now he has someone to cherish on Valentine’s Day, someone special to hang up a stocking for on Christmas, and a partner with whom to share life’s disappointments and victories.

“She’s the best thing that’s happened to me,” Bishop says. “We’re in love.”

Bishop, however, has never met Sevilla.

That’s because Sevilla, 25, is an inmate at the California Correctional Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, Calif., where she is serving time for second-degree robbery. She and Bishop have corresponded since he obtained her address 10 months ago from an online dating service called Prisonbabes.com. Bishop said once Sevilla is released they plan to live together in Texas.

“It’s the best $4.50 I ever spent,” Bishop said of the fee he paid for the address.

Prisonbabes is one of a handful of online services that matches men with young, single women behind bars. Most sites include pictures of the women, as well as their biographical profiles and release dates. Criminal records are not provided. Clients choose whom they’d like to correspond with, then pay a small fee for the address. After that, they’re on their own to write letters, make calls and arrange visits.

Use of the service has led to six marriages and many happy relationships, according to Prisonbabes founder, Skip Harris, 36, of Stockton, Calif.

But Kim Gandy, executive vice president of the National Organization for Women (NOW), said the sites “attempt to exploit women in difficult circumstances.”

She’s not the only one voicing concern. Some clients complain that they are the ones being victimized by dishonest prisoners, while some psychologists question whether the relationships are healthy.

Lonely hearts behind bars

The inspiration for Jailbabes.com, another online service, came in a flash for its founder Ken Klein. After being dismissed from his paralegal job, Klein, 63, of Orange County, Calif., was looking for work. When a friend who had been in prison mentioned the loneliness she felt while incarcerated, Klein had his idea. The former inmate he knew offered to round up some prison friends to participate, they passed on the word to other inmates, and in 1997 Jailbabes was born.

The site has since featured more than 3,000 women in 28 states. Klein says it attracts 60,000 to 70,000 hits per day, yielding hundreds of customers.

The site’s success can be explained in part by the glut of young, single women in jail, he said. Many women get in trouble early on in their lives, Klein said, because “they come from broken homes, and may not have any place to go after high school, if they went to high school at all.”

That explains the supply. But the demand is fueled by other factors.

Referring to his “jailbabes,” Klein said, “You don’t have to buy them lavish presents or jewelry. That’s not allowed. But you can talk about sex, politics or religion and have a chance to see if there’s any chemistry.”

Corey Habben, a clinical psychologist in the Chicago area who specializes in men’s issues, said there’s a less elaborate explanation for the attraction: desperation.

“The prospect of going to a club or bar to meet someone,” he said, “is more daunting than having a captive audience.”

Fantasy or real love?

The attraction might also have its roots in men’s sexual fantasies, according to John Ross, a clinical professor of psychology at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York whose areas of expertise include men’s sexuality and sexual fantasies.

“The whole culture puts a kind of premium on kinkiness and breaking all sorts of taboos,” Dr. Ross said. “This would be one sort of major taboo to be broken, to be involved with a woman who’s a criminal.”

Yet another explanation is offered by Wayne Myers, a professor of psychiatry at Cornell University’s Weil College of Medicine in New York. He said that while women have been known to start romances with murderers and other hardened criminals because of the “danger aspect of it,” the case of men being attracted to women behind bars is an entirely different matter.

“It’s very much rescuing the fallen women, the damsel in distress,” said Myers, who is a sex-addict expert. “You are saving the (woman) from the state she has fallen to and you’re going to bring her back from her fallen state, back to respectability. And therefore you become very manly. There’s a sense of hyperpotency there.”

Can these women be trusted?

Some relationships fostered through the services, however, seem to be on shaky ground.

Bishop, the Texan, says that his girlfriend Sevilla told him she is Asian, has been in prison only three years, and is to be released in December 2001, at which point she will move to Texas to start her life anew with him.

But Margot Bach, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections, which operates the prison in which Sevilla is incarcerated, tells a different story.

According to prison records, Sevilla is an illegal immigrant from Honduras serving an eight-year term. Her earliest possible release date is February 2003.

There’s more. Bach said that California inmates must generally serve a three-year parole period in their counties of residence, which in Sevilla’s case is Los Angeles.

That’s no surprise to David Smith, a 58-year-old computer programmer from Hartford, Conn., who has contacted eight or nine incarcerated woman over the past two years using various services. He says that although he has now found a stable relationship using one of the services, he had been lied to repeatedly by other women.

“The big problem,” he said, “is that many of these girls are writing many guys, sometimes between 15 and 20 of them, and promising to marry five or six of them.”

The motivation, he said, is money. Except in the case of his current mate, every woman he has written to has asked for cash in her first letter.

“It starts with $20, which I have no problem sending,” Smith said. “But by the time you write a half dozen letters, $20 has turned into $200 or $300.”

Harris, the founder of Prisonbabes, said he does not check the accuracy of the claims made by women on the service, but regrets any dishonesty on their part. Klein, the operator of Jailbabes, said he only makes inquiries when he comes across information that appears “suspicious.”

That is of little consolation to Bishop. When told of the discrepancies between what the California Department of Corrections and Sevilla had to say about her record, Bishop said, “looks like the service ought to have dug a little deeper rather than just taking her word for it.”

But even if Sevilla lied, “I can understand that,” he said. “There are things I haven’t wanted to tell her either. This really doesn’t change nothing.”

Michael Goldman is a Columbia News Service staff reporter. Send comments to [email protected]