In 2007, the MSNBC prison docuseries Lockup: San Quentin Extended Stay featured an inmate named David Silva. He enjoyed torturing his robbery victims, which he described in detail to Lockup’s documentarians in an eerily calming drawl, and is currently serving 521 years for multiple consecutive life sentences. He also happens to sport a winning, lazy smile. In December of the following year, someone with the username alwaysanniieee turned to Prison Talk Online (PTO), a forum for the “prisoner support community,” to find a way to write to him.
Days later, multiple PTO users responded to alwaysanniieee’s call with precise details on how to locate inmates within the California Department of Corrections’ jurisdiction. One offered Silva’s CDC number. Another, in 2010, provided his mailing address, saying he’d been moved from San Quentin. Seven years after that, the thread was still alive on PTO with yet another user chiming in to say they wanted to write to Silva, too, so long as he wasn’t “weird.”
Most of the people who visit the “Lost in the System” section of PTO’s forum aren’t looking for their favorite Lockup personalities. They’re looking for loved ones, long lost friends or brothers or ex-husbands whose letters have been returned to sender or who have been transferred to unspecified locations. Using inmate locators like VINElink (a service originally created to help crime victims’ keep tabs on offenders) and the Bureau of Prisons inmate locator, PTO moderators and fellow users regularly respond to these seekers with pointed, helpful information.
Outside of PTO, this assistance is difficult to come by. The prison system is opaque when it comes to inmate transfers. Though prisoners are technically allowed to alert a contact on the outside with a single letter, many transfers happen with little to no notice, leaving loved ones in the dark. A 2015 report from Truthout thoroughly details the injustices incarcerated people suffer during transfers, including the lack of warning ahead of their moves and distancing from family members. PTO helps bring some transparency back to this rights-infringing practice, while simultaneously providing a forum for discussion about prison weddings, criminal immigration issues, LGBT relationships, Hepatitis C, parole, employment, education, recidivism, and “loving a lifer.”
Contributors to PTO’s forums seek advice on falling in love with prisoners on death row — “If ‘feelings’ started taking over, should you still write to your pen pal?” one asks —and look into whether same-sex marriages can happen behind bars. PTO staff and users unfailingly respond with encouragement and tough love. “Put him in the rearview mirror, promptly!” wrote one “Super Moderator” to a user whose probation-violating boyfriend had recently turned violent.
On the surface, PTO doesn’t look like the innovative and unique resource it is. Dotted with gifs that would make an early 2000s MySpace user blush, the forum lets participants show their flair with dancing smiley faces and sparkly, butterfly-shaped “tickers” indicating how long it will be until their loved ones come home.
To be fair, the forum was created in 2001. David, aka “Fed-X,” (who does not provide a last name on the forum and didn’t respond to my requests for comment) founded PTO after his release from federal prison, where he’d been sentenced for 27 months for charges related to the sale of a deer rifle, as he wrote in PTO’s first post. After a number of false positives from an ionizing drug detector wrongly prevented family members from visiting their relatives where he was locked up, David got the idea for a forum, as the post puts it, “where our families and those that care could come together with a united voice, one that the administration would hear better.”
Close to two decades later, PTO has become a full-fledged resource for the friends, family, and lovers of incarcerated people, along with those entering or leaving the prison system. It currently counts about 8,000 active users, mostly in the US but from as far as South Africa and Japan. There’s a rigid “staff” hierarchy (as with most forums, all PTO moderators are volunteers), with “Administrators” at the top rung. One Administrator, who preferred I refer to her using her PTO username, Patchouli (which is accompanied by animations of two dancing stars, a gold bar, and a blinking newspaper on the site), has been using PTO for “almost 12 years.” She’s 61 “years young” and has been wearing patchouli oil since age 14.
“PTO is not like many other [forms of] social media,” Patchouli told me in an email. “We do not tolerate drama. No catfights. No name-calling. No bullshit. PTO's purpose is to provide information, support, and understanding.”
Several years ago, the husband of a woman I’ll call Ro received a 213-year prison sentence for participating in nine robberies. Due to mandatory minimum sentencing bills Congress passed in the 1990s, multiple robbery and firearm charges mean Ro’s husband will likely spend the rest of his life behind bars. When her husband began his sentence, Ro wasn’t aware of PTO, and she found that most people in her life couldn’t empathize with her plight. She hoped Google would lead her to a community of women whose close family members were also incarcerated. (Not everyone in Ro’s life knows about her situation, so her full name and her husband’s name have been withheld from this story.)
“I looked, and what I discovered was that people were so negative,” Ro told me. “They were living up to this stigma that I was always trying to live against.” This stigma consisted of “glamorizing the criminal lifestyle” and condemning the government, while Ro, who is upbeat and fast-talking on the phone, wanted to participate in something “constructive.” Since she couldn’t find the positive community of her dreams online, she created one.
Between the group’s Facebook page and website, the Strong Prison Wives and Families (SPWF) community now has around 30,000 members. Visitors usually find the group through an internet search or word of mouth. Though most members speak English, they hail from all over Europe and as far from the US as Australia.
Some discussion forums, like “Creative Letter Ideas,” aim to keep relationships between free and incarcerated people fresh. “My husband and I recently exchanged ‘sex surveys’ with each other,” wrote “Starclipse” one year ago. (There’s also an “Rated-R, Sex 101” group I couldn’t enter unless invited.)
“One thing I have started to do with my Ginger is when he was home I would annoy him with memes I saw online, so now I write them down, attempt drawing images if needed, gives him a good laugh,” wrote “Furmom” two months back.
At work, no one knows that Ro is married to an incarcerated man. “I’ve had many members lose their jobs for quote unquote other reasons,” she explained, and fears she could suffer the same fate if her employers found out about her husband. On SPWF, she’s free to be herself.
Another place where people can be out and proud about whatever the heck they are, for better or for worse, is Reddit. So naturally, there’s a significant forum there for ex-cons, r/ExCons. The ExCons subreddit, which now has over 4,800 subscribers, was born out of an AMA in which 3,500 Redditors asked the formerly incarcerated Chris Cash questions ranging from what concerned parents can do to help keep kids out of crime (“be involved and don't be judgmental,” he offers) to “What’s your favorite apple type?” (Granny Smith).
For Cash, the subreddit offers access to resources he didn’t get after his six years in prison. Having just celebrated his 20th year of freedom, Cash now runs a warehouse in the retail division of Buckingham Manufacturing, which makes safety-planning equipment for the climbing industry (my brother, an arborist, may have used their products). But when he first came out of prison 20 years ago, Cash — an articulate, bespectacled man with a deep voice and a thin frame — had trouble finding work.
“It’s part of the sentence that the judge doesn’t tell you when he gives you your time,” Cash told me over the phone. One of his goals with r/ExCons is to start an “open source guide” with resources for people exiting the prison system, organized by state and focusing in part on job placement. “You see a lot of job resources, but not any that focus on that segment of society [the formerly incarcerated],” he said. “A lot of [employers] shy away from people coming out of the system.” Having jobs ready for the formerly incarcerated upon release would prevent them from “just getting thrown back in,” Cash believes.
Cash has already started a Wiki with his subreddit’s co-moderators that includes information on getting jobs, opening up bank accounts, and applying for social services straight out of prison, but he wants to do more. “One day, I’d like to be able to work in the industry where you’re helping others in terms of getting out and stopping recidivism,” he said, envisioning a portal “like Priceline.com” where the formerly incarcerated can enter queries and get everything they need to know about, say, applying for housing assistance in their areas. After gaining momentum discussing his idea, Cash sighed. “I’m just such a little guy on the pole.”
Resources for formerly incarcerated people and their loved ones exist outside of these forums. One seeks to provide assistance “through Jesus Christ,” inherently limiting its user base. Other websites look more like service or job aggregators, many of which, as I learned from Omid Ghaffari-Tabrizi, a lawyer who specializes in erasing criminal records and Cash’s subreddit co-moderator, are years out of date. “The vast majority of other sites…look like someone just put a couple ads on it and let it run on autopilot,” Ghaffari-Tabrizi said. None of them foster a community or answer visitors’ questions directly like r/ExCons, PTO, and SPWF.
“The biggest things that I’ve seen come out of [r/ExCons] is that sense of community,” said Ghaffari-Tabrizi. “Human beings are social creatures. You need that community to feel fulfilled in life.” Finding people to commiserate with uniquely ex-con problems, like being stuck in an unfulfilling but high-salary job due to a past violent felony, can be difficult outside of forums meant specifically for the prisoner support community.
Communities are also necessary to enact change. In 2016, r/ExCons moderators helped raise $3,500 for the athletics program at Gainesville State School, a juvenile detention facility in North Texas. Cash met Ghaffari-Tabrizi (himself not a former prisoner) for the first time when the subreddit’s moderators traveled to Texas to tour the detention center.
The lawyer describes the pair’s relationship as one of reciprocal helping. Ghaffari-Tabrizi helped Cash restore his post-prison voting rights, and in turn, Cash has given him “a different perspective.” Even though Ghaffari-Tabrizi regularly works with formerly incarcerated people, knowing Cash as an ex-con, a “good guy,” and a close friend deeply humanized the ex-prisoner population for the lawyer. “It’s easy to say it’s black and white when you don’t see and hear and learn about the backgrounds of folks that get caught up in the system.” Today, Ghaffari-Tabrizi is Cash’s youngest son’s godfather.
Similarly, SPWF seeks to distance prison wives from the stigma of being, well, prison wives. “You must be stupid, you must be uneducated, you must be unattractive,” Ro described the assumptions directed toward her. “Before I started this, I would have been judgmental to somebody in my shoes, as well.” That’s part of why there’s a photo section in SPWF’s website. Members post selfies identifying themselves proudly as the lovers of inmates, and their posts receive the sort of positive feedback that is rare in the real world.
As of 2016, the US boasted the highest rate of incarcerated people per population in the world — 655 inmates per 100,000 people, per data from the World Prison Brief, totaling up to a national prison population of over 2.1 million. Multiply that number a few times to account for prisoners’ friends and family, as well those formerly incarcerated and their families, and you’ll get a sense of how many millions of people in the US are desperately in need of help navigating the prison system.
“One out of three Americans have been arrested,” Ghaffari-Tabrizi pointed out. “It’s taboo only because people don’t talk about it. They don’t want to talk about it.” But thanks to those behind r/ExCons, PTO, and SPWF, at least some people are trying to make it easier.