Looking for love: Prisoners on the Internet
Author: Digital Producer: Jane Mo, Investigative Reporter: PJ Randhawa
Published: 10:20 AM CST February 3, 2018
Updated: 9:17 AM CST February 5, 2018
INVESTIGATIONS 4 Articles
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Looking for love: Prisoners on the Internet

INVESTIGATIONS
Chapter 1

The $300 murder

40 y/o, Single, Murderer

He was originally supposed to use a tire wrench.

But as soon as the door flung open, Timothy Baxter changed his plans and shot 19-year-old Tyler Middendorf in the chest.

"My son died for 300 to 400 dollars," Scott Middendorf said. It's been eleven years since his son was killed in an armed robbery.

"He'd be 30. He'd have kids."

Though Baxter was sentenced to 17 years in Bowling Green, Missouri, he still lives in the same world as Middendorf: the internet.

A handful of the 2.2 million inmates in the United States have 'dating profiles' on websites, that connects them to potential pen pals and romantic partners.

Baxter's profile on LoveAPrisoner.com says, "I am a good person that made poor choices and has learned from them."

Drag the toggle in the middle to the left and right to see Baxter's 'dating' profile v. mugshot

"It's appalling," Middendorf said. "That is a freedom I believed was denied to prisoners, and it's appalling. I'd like to see it stopped."

Chapter 2

Blood on the bridge

"Hi I'm Kelli...

...and I'm looking forward to sharing all my thoughts, dreams and hopes, desires and fears with someone, I'm intelligent, good hearted, down to earth, funny and sexy."

Crystal Lowder read out loud the dating profile of the woman who murdered the father of her children.

Drag the toggle in the middle to the left and right to see Hoard's 'dating' profile v. mugshot

"I just can't believe she would even say she is good hearted and down to earth because of what she did," Lowder said. "And she knows what she did."

In 2015, Kelli Hoard stabbed Robert Berry 37 times with two different knives at a bridge over the Platte River.

"She can still write or visit her kids," Lowder tearfully said. "She's a grown woman. Richard was still young. I'm still young...our babies...it's crazy."

Hoard writes that she feels cared for when people send her letters.

"I have made a few great friends in the process," she writes. "I also met one special person I really care about and has really helped me through some hard emotional things that I could not talk to others about."

READ Kelli Hoard's full letter to the 5 On Your Side Investigation Team:

Chapter 3

LoveAPrisoner.com

Who's writing...and why?

Prisoners write profiles to these 'pen pal' and 'dating' websites to fight the byproducts of incarceration-- isolation and loneliness, hopelessness and boredom.

"The people you interact with, you don't have a choice with who they are or when can interact with them," Abe Medaris, a psychiatrist at St. Anthony's. "There's anxiety, irritability, frustration."

The question remains...why do people feel compelled to write to prisoners?

Dr. Medaris says people often write to feel in control.

"I don't have to wonder what's possible, I already know what that person is capable of doing, number one," Medaris said. "And then number two, I already know that person is incarcerated so I can enjoy all the benefits, they're going to be very pleasant with me, I'm interacting with them, so all the exchanges I have with them are positive."

Websites like InmateMingle and WriteAPrisoner states the services provide prisoners with moral support.

Crime victim advocates say 95 percent of state prison inmates will eventually get out, and creating strong relationships (like marriage) on the outside can help reduce recidivism rates.

Inmates in the state of Missouri are not allowed access to the internet, so these websites are usually heard through fellow prisoners or publications with advertisements shared in the prisons.

Prisoners then send letters to these sites with what they want on their profile, photos and some money.

Drag the toggle in the middle to the left and right to see Kohut's 'dating' profile v. mugshot

Very few states have any laws that regulate how inmates use the internet.

In 2007, a ban was put into place in Missouri to protect the public against mail and romance scams that were being run by inmates.

"You have a group of largely criminal individuals with a lot of time on their hands, and they can be fairly creative," Medaris said. "They can't use those skills on one another because they're all adept and understand them. The only outlet they have then is through the mail."

Letter from Missouri inmate upset with the ban

Inmates who continue to use sites will receive prison conduct violations, which could land them in segregation cells or limited time on the phone, recreation or other privileges.

Chapter 4

Dating profile v. mugshot

These are the online profiles and mugshots of inmates in Missouri and Illinois.