In the age of e-mail, instant messaging and Twitter, Matthew Esler is an old-fashioned pen pal. Over the past decade, he's corresponded via snail mail with dozens of people, mostly women, from around the world.
Esler, 31, is no anti-technology Luddite. He just doesn't have much choice. Serving the tail end of a 21-year sentence for a murder committed when he was 14, he lives in Faribault's state prison, where inmates don't have access to the Internet.
Esler is one of thousands of convicts trying to expand their options for communicating with the outside world through prisoner pen-pal websites. For fees ranging from $5 to $100, they can mail photos and a short written profile to sites such as writeaprisoner.com, prisonpenpals.com or lostvault. com. The sites provide the inmates' mailing addresses and all correspondence is done via traditional mail.
At writeaprisoner.com -- one of the most popular sites with at least 2 million page views a month -- there are currently 65 profiles of men in Minnesota prisons, but no women. While many of the men aren't from Minnesota and didn't commit their crimes in this state, others' names have a familiar ring because they made the local news.
Thomas Rhodes' profile features the buff bod of an ex-wrestling champ and a sensitive poem, but no mention of his 1998 conviction for murdering his wife during a family vacation in Spicer, Minn.
Former Mound resident Jeff Skelton's gentle guy-next-door smile doesn't look like it could belong to a man who shot his ex-wife's lover five times in 2005. Brian Batchelor is upfront about being imprisoned for committing first-degree murder during an aggravated robbery in 2002, but the details he omits are even more chilling -- he asphyxiated his girlfriend's Burnsville neighbor after having previously been charged with stealing her car.
Esler, who according to court records shot and killed a woman at random when he was a juvenile, has spent more time behind bars than he has on the outside. His baby-faced profile picture might make some young women swoon if it was on the cover of People magazine instead of a rap sheet. But he isn't using the site to find love, he said.
Esler, whose anticipated release date is December 2014, said about 70 percent of his pen pals have been women.
"I'm not too concerned with using this for a romantic type thing," he said in a recent phone interview. "For me it's mostly just friendship and to talk with interesting people out there."
Not all prisoners across the country have this option. In Florida, prison officials have banned inmates from posting on Internet pen-pal sites.
"Our objection is that they often aren't truthful," said Florida Department of Corrections (DOC) spokeswoman Paula Bryant. "We've had instances where prisoners try to get money, or male prisoners say they're female or vice versa and establish romantic relationships with a pen pal, or lifers who lie about release dates."
Other states, including Pennsylvania, Indiana and Missouri, also have varied restrictions on the use of pen-pal sites by inmates, but the Minnesota DOC has no regulations forbidding it. Spokeswoman Shari Burt said she doesn't know of any cases in which a Minnesota inmate broke a law by scamming a pen pal, but "we feel people should use caution when interacting with strangers on all social network sites -- especially when they know that stranger is incarcerated."
Adam Lovell, founder of writeaprisoner.com, has sued the Florida DOC for what he sees as a violation of First Amendment rights.
"These guys are in prison," he said. "People know what they're getting into, and if they don't, we make it very clear when you get to the site. All the mail that goes in and out of prisons goes through the guards' hands. It's the most regulated mail I'm aware of."
Lovell pointed out that the bottom of every profile includes an "Incarceration Information" section with links to the prisoner's crime as well as the DOC of jurisdiction for more details.
Esler said he has tried different pen-pal sites over the past 12 years, and has received "a few hundred" responses. Some come from as far away as Singapore and Germany, but very few are from the Upper Midwest. Some correspondences have lasted for years; others are a one-time thing.
"They come and go; some you don't click with," said Esler, who currently writes about a letter a month to each of seven or eight pen pals.
For all the concern that inmates might play their correspondents as easy marks, the tables can be turned. Some prisoners have been duped into falling in love with people on the outside who claim in their letters to be half their real ages, or say they want to get married when they already are.
Esler acknowledged the vulnerability, adding, "that's a risk on their part, too. If you have a longer sentence, you really feel like you know so few people after a while. Your visitors trail off drastically and you feel like you're losing touch. If you want to feel involved with the world and stay current, to see things through someone else's eyes and have them see through yours, it's a good outlet."
Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046