In addition, authorities cited the relative ease of raising bogus money orders--the nation's single-largest prison scam.
One scheme known to investigators as the Parchman Money Order Scam has waxed and waned at the Mississippi Penitentiary in Parchman for 15 years, said Mike Hesse, Memphis, Tenn., postal inspector whose jurisdiction includes the prison.
In 1987, about 60 prisoners there were involved in a bogus money order scheme soliciting pen pals through personal ads in magazines.
Typically, authorities said, an inmate writes to his victim saying he is in prison because he made a mistake, is serving a short jail sentence and is financially secure. Then the letters become more intimate with the inmate asking for the pen-pal's phone number and starting to call collect.
Usually, the prisoner will talk about relocating near the victim to begin a sincere relationship and then send his pen pal a $1 or $5 money order, altered in the prison press shop to read $100 or $500. Believing the prisoner to be an innocent victim, needing money for attorney fees or other reasons, the pen pals will help smuggle the cash in.
Once the inmate feels he has bilked the victims as long as he can, the relationship is ended.
In 1985, postal investigators found more than 3,500 money orders at the Mississippi prison with an altered value of $1.6 million. In 1989, the value was $1.4 million, of which $400,000 was recovered--from the victims themselves.
Brian Kennedy, Los Angeles area director of Prison Fellowship Ministries, a Christian organization founded by Watergate figure Charles Colson, said he warns many well-meaning pen pal volunteers against giving their addresses to prisoners.
A recent episode of the comedy television show "Golden Girls" dealt with a surprise visit from a prison pen pal with whom one of the women characters had carried on a torrid correspondence, figuring that he was safely guarded. Such episodes can occur in real life and are far from funny, authorities say.
Kennedy said that some prisoners "prey on well-meaning volunteers to do a number of things--to get them money, to do special favors, make contacts in the community for them, send in special items for them. Sometimes they intimidate the volunteer. 'If you don't do what I ask you, I'll do this or that, hurt your family.' It's rare, but it happens."
Kennedy said he trains pen pals to communicate clearly that they want nothing more than a friendly relationship by mail and not to respond to sexual propositions.
The most vulnerable are gullible people who think they understand an inmate's mentality, he said. "I'm real scared for people like that," he said.
The Advocate accepts personal ads from prisoners but also prints periodic warnings against bogus ads and scams.
On the other hand, some prisoners complain about pen pals writing them, then cutting off contact abruptly, said Mike Riegle, office manager for the Gay Community News, an 8,000-circulation publication that goes to 600 prisoners and carries a Prisoners Seeking Friends column.
Despite negative experiences, he encourages prison correspondence. "Any kind of contact they can maintain to make them feel like a human being is crucial," said Riegle.
In some cases, authorities have transferred scammers to other prisons in an attempt to break up gangs, but attempts to stop scams have had spotty results.
At Parchman, prison officials agreed to take away conjugal visits of scammers and place them in a special lockup, Hesse said. "The money order problem went down to zero." But inmates petitioned a federal court in Jackson, Miss., claiming that they were receiving punishment without being charged with a crime.
When officials could not prove their claims, they were forced to release them and the problem "skyrocketed," Hesse said.
Viator said the FBI and the U.S. attorney's office have also investigated the scams, but no charges have resulted.
In an attempt to crush the scams, Angola last year initiated a so-called Scam Tier--a special row for inmates convicted by an in-house review board of scamming. On the row, the only communications they are allowed are monitored by prison officials.
Nearly all the 20 inmates on Scam Tier have joined a class-action suit, now pending before a federal judge, claiming that the privacy of their attorney-client relationships has been violated.
Though a lower court magistrate has already ruled in favor of the inmates, Viator said she is not fighting a losing battle.
"If we lose, I'll take it to the court of appeals. Even though the right to attorney-client privilege is important, other things can outweigh it."
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