It reads like a standard dating site profile: “I’m 32 years old, tall and fit (6’2″, 215lbs), SWM, seeking exciting adventurous attractive female pen pal who likes to write,” writes Brian Dickson.
Now Google him.
Dickson is currently serving a life sentence for the first-degree murder of a 23-year-old York University student during the course of a sexual assault in 2011.
Dickson is one of many violent offenders seeking to correspond with women through Canadian Inmates Connect (canadianinmatesconnect.com), a Toronto-based website that has divided public opinion over the ethics and safety the service offers.
Speaking with the Martlet, Canadian Inmates Connect founder Melissa Fazzina claims her site is well received. “I either get none or very few negative letters back from society,” she says. “For the most part it’s been amazing to see how many kind and compassionate people there are out there.”
Launched in 2012, Canadian Inmates Connect was initially a moneymaking exercise, but for the first four years, Fazzina said she funded the site out of pocket.
“I had come across an article in my local newspaper talking about an American pen pal website and realised we had nothing like that here in Canada for these guys . . . It didn’t take me very long to realise that I wasn’t going to make any money out of it, and after a few months it didn’t matter anymore because I started to get phone calls from these guys [inmates] . . . I started to get to know them.”
Fazzina says reading inmates’ stories helped provide a better understanding of why they committed the crimes that put them in prison. “Not that it justified it but it just made sense,” she says. “I don’t think any of them should be defined by their crimes.”
For an annual fee of $35, inmates are invited to post profiles of up to 250 words and one or two images to meet prospective pen pals. The website boasts over 300 male profiles and one female inmate, Canada’s only incarcerated dangerous female offender. “I don’t exclude anybody,” says Fazzina. “Number one: it’s a human right for anyone to join the site.”
Some users are incarcerated short-term, while others are ‘lifers.’ They are seeking friendship, romance, and legal assistance, and many are not shy to imply their particular needs.
Robert Dunkley is looking for love. “Don’t we all sometimes make mistakes?” his profile asks, accompanied by a picture of him tugging at the drawstring of his prison-issue tracksuit to display the top of his pubic mound.
“I’m looking for an Asian female to be my pen pal,” posted the aptly-named Emmanuel Innocent. Grant Fralic begins, “Hello to all the beautiful plus size women.” Drew MacPherson signs off with, “Pandora’s Box awaits. Are you game?”
The testimonials on the website come in the form of email excerpts from inmates closing their profiles. One happy customer is Vancouver Island’s Shawn Gale, who was convicted in B.C. provincial court of 68 offences, 19 of which were violent, and was deemed by his sentencing magistrate as a “frightful risk” in 2008.
He wrote, “Dear Canadian Inmates Connect, I would like to remove my profile on your website. I’ve met a pen pal who I’m writing. I’m a one woman pen pal kinda guy.”
The site claims that writing to a prisoner helps them reintegrate into society and reduces recidivism rates. But is it a safe practise? And who—if not Fazzina—is responsible if someone gets harmed? A disclaimer on the home page reads, in part, that “Canadian Inmates Connect Inc. is not responsible for any type of relationship that is developed through this site.”
“It doesn’t matter if you meet someone on the street or in jail—you still have to take the same precautions,” says Fazzina, who advises pen pals to Google their inmates.
“I think this site is a little bit safer [than dating sites] because you know what you’re getting yourself into. If you want to write a federal inmate, you know they’re in prison. You go to another site or meet someone on the street, they don’t have to tell you anything.”
One of the site’s biggest successes is 49-year-old self-described “career criminal” Terrence [last name withheld], who currently operates two businesses in Victoria.
During his last stint in jail, Terrence wrote a woman from Ontario. “It helped me to receive mail from people. I didn’t have any support or anything,” he says.
When Terrence was released from prison “with a pair of jeans, a T-shirt and nothing else,” he moved to Victoria with the support of his pen pal whom he continues to write and call.
“That’s what inspires me,” says Fazzina. “Over the past six years, I’ve heard back from guys and their family members. I’ve heard back from the women who have written these guys, and I just see the need for this. I see how much good it’s doing.”
“The power of communication is amazing,” says Terrence. “People don’t understand the power of one letter and how it can form a friendship. It’s like they believe in you.”