Inmates are looking for love from behind bars. Women reveal why they are connecting with prisoners through pen pal programs — and finding love
Inmates are looking for love from behind bars. Women reveal why they are connecting with prisoners through pen pal programs — and finding love

Love on the inside: From prison pen pals to lovers

There is no mention of long walks on the beach or cuddles by candlelight in this Sydney psychopathic killer's dating bio.

Northern Beaches man Richard William Leonard was just 22 when he shot Stephen Dempsey through the heart with a bow and arrow in 1994.

Just three months later he stabbed taxi driver Ezzedine Bahmad 37 times before disposing of the body with his 18-year-old girlfriend Denise Shipley.

But now the 48-year-old jailed at Goulburn Supermax is one of dozens of inmates looking for love online from behind bars.

His post on site prisoninmatepenpal.com states he wants a female pen pal for an "interesting and enthusiastic discussion" but is not picky. He added he "would love to talk to anyone really, that has the time to write" to him.

Double murderer Richard William Leonard is looking for a female pen pal.
Double murderer Richard William Leonard is looking for a female pen pal.

Another website, prisonpenpals.com, shares a list of gushy romantic success stories, with "Traci" posting: "I met the most wonderful man on the face of this planet all because of your website. I saw his ad and something spoke to me. I can't wait until he can come home to me and we can start our forever."

On the other side of the spectrum, a handful of Facebook groups expose inmate love rats, who allegedly manipulate vulnerable women for money.

Tam Lee, 32, has a full schedule speaking with several prisoners from different jails in NSW and Queensland who lean on her for emotional support after she connected with them through Facebook.

Tam Lee said started dating her prison pen pal after he was released. Picture: Supplied
Tam Lee said started dating her prison pen pal after he was released. Picture: Supplied

"They're lonely. I help as much as I can to try to get them out of their dark place of life," Lee says.

The stay-at-home mum says she fell in love last year with a man she began writing to at Wolston Correctional Facility.

"Just getting to speak to him every day. The more we talked, the closer we got. Through letters and phone calls, and visits," she says.

"We were partners. Another inmate would get on the call and say: 'You've made him really happy. He's a different person. You've completely changed his life around'.

"There are four women I know engaged and getting married (to pen pals). It is possible to fall in love with someone behind bars. I look at it as love isn't just on the outside, it can be on the inside too."

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But the relationship ended after 10 months when Lee's partner was charged with a further offence and had five years added to his sentence.

"He said it's not fair for you to sit around and wait," she says.

Lee says it was not easy dating a prisoner.

"Some days, I would be like 'I can't do this, it's too much'. But some days were the best days of my life," she says.

"On the outside you get to see a partner every day, but when you're dating someone in prison you don't know if they're even going to come out alive. Every day I'd answer that call and think: 'What is today going to be like?'."

A woman, who did not wish to be identified, met her husband by becoming pen pals while he served time in prison. Picture: Tim Hunter
A woman, who did not wish to be identified, met her husband by becoming pen pals while he served time in prison. Picture: Tim Hunter

A Sydney woman, who works as a carer and who does not want to be identified, met her husband of six years through pen-palling.

The 45-year-old had dated an inmate, Paul, for a few months when he "disappeared". She wanted closure so she visited his friend at Goulburn Supermax prison to ask questions.

"I wanted closure. I had to know if Paul actually liked me, or if he was just trying to get money out of me," she says.

The carer says she "just hit it off" with her now husband: "He would just ring me and write to me. The rest is history."

She says her husband had been involved with the Nomads motorcycle gang and jailed for robberies. The couple were married over the phone by a Muslim celebrant.

She says writing to her partner initially was "exciting" but now they mostly discussed the same things.

"What can they talk about really. My partner is locked up for most of the day," she says.

It is mostly women of a "caring" nature who write to inmates, she adds.

Mother-of-two Madison Bills, 23, says she knows the importance of a call or letter after she spent a month at Wacol's Brisbane Correctional Centre.

"It's so repetitive. I went completely crazy," Bills says.

"And you have the drama from other girls. It's nice to just hear your family or friend's voice. It's such an uplifting feeling."

She says she was "curious" when she wrote to a male inmate jailed for drug trafficking at Numinbah Correctional Centre upon her release.

Madison Bills said she would date a pen pal if they were not jailed for something “serious”. Picture: Supplied
Madison Bills said she would date a pen pal if they were not jailed for something “serious”. Picture: Supplied

"I would send in photos of myself. It gives them something to look forward to so that they're not there stewing. It can make a world of difference."

The pair met when he was released and they remain good friends.

"It is the same as meeting someone online. You've been talking to them for so long so it's really exciting," she says.

Bills says she would consider dating a pen pal if they were not jailed for "serious" crimes or sexual assault.

"If the connection was there, and knowing they were trying to help themselves and find work and support the family unit, I definitely would. You can't judge," she says.

Sydney forensic psychologist Kim Dilati says pen pal prison "friendships" should be encouraged, rather than "romantic relationships".

"Social support and intimate relationships are well-known protective factors that decrease the likelihood of offending," Dilati says.

"If pen pals can provide support to inmates by modelling healthy relationships and establishing open communication and connection, then it should be encouraged.

"However, rather than a pen pal dating service, platonic relationships should be encouraged because intimate pen pal relationships with inmates do not carry a high success rate."

The NSW Department of Correctional Services says "prisoners who keep in contact with family and friends are often more successful, cope better on release - and are less likely to reoffend".

Originally published as Love on the inside: From prison pen pals to lovers

A woman with the stack of letters she received from her pen pal in prison. She later married him. Picture: Tim Hunter
A woman with the stack of letters she received from her pen pal in prison. She later married him. Picture: Tim Hunter