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Prisoners' families help themselves

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An ex-con starts a Web-site to help families deal with the hardships of loving someone on the inside.

Peggy did the one thing you aren’t supposed to do in her profession: fall in love with an inmate.

Peggy was a corrections officer in New Mexico when she met Mark, a prisoner serving 15 years for second-degree murder. After a few months of romance with Mark, their relationship was discovered and her career as a prison guard was over.

Her former colleagues, friends and even some of her relatives shunned Peggy for her illicit love. She felt alone and she turned to the one place where she would be accepted and understood: the online community of Prison Talk.

PrisonTalk.com is a place where relatives and loved ones of prisoners come together and share their hopes, experiences and pain. The site is divided into sections covering issues that might confront someone dealing with the prison system, such as visiting information, jail living conditions and support groups. Most of the more than 5,000 prisons and jails in America are profiled in detail so that a visitor or future resident can learn about a facility. Also, the site lets people shunned by society get together and talk about issues that most people never have to deal with.

"At the time all this first happened, I felt like the only person alive who had chosen love over a career.” said Peggy, 26, who did not want her real name or the name of her lover used. “When I found Prison Talk I realized that I was not alone at all. I have found that there are a ton of people who are going through the exact same thing and the support and advice they have given me has been invaluable.”

David Frisk started the site in 2001 to help people such as Peggy. Frisk served 27 months in a federal prison in Beaumont, Texas for illegal possession of a prohibited weapon by a felon. He was caught trying to pawn a hunting rifle while serving a suspended sentence for what he calls joyriding. While in prison he came up with the idea for Prison Talk.

“I wanted to create a place for family members of prisoners could get together,” said Frisk, 35. “The only people who are as isolated as inmates are the people who love them.”

He said he was inspired to create the site after his mother underwent a drug test in order to visit him--a requirement for visitors at many prisons--and tested positive. Although he said the test was later proven to be a false positive, she was not allowed to visit him for six months.

“When you are a prisoner’s relative you have few rights,” said Frisk, now a photographer in his hometown of Houston. “How can someone learn to deal with the system? That’s why I wanted to create this site.”

After he was released to a halfway house in September 2001, he put his plans in motion. He started the site using his savings and some credit cards, later bringing in ex-convicts to help him run the site. Frisk said the site, which now has more than 140,000 members, has grown because it satisfies a need that wasn’t being met.

He runs the site with the help of more than a 100 volunteers, nearly all of them with experience dealing with the prison system, whether from being inside or having a loved one incarcerated. Most of the information about prisons and prison life comes from people who have been there, said Frisk.

Prison Talk provides a wide range of information for families of the incarcerated and is very useful, said Jeff Mellow, an associate professor of John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York who specializes in the study of inmate re-integration into society. Prisoners’ families have a hard time finding even the most basic data on dealing with the prison system, he said. Since most prisons in the United States make little effort to help families, Mellow said, Prison Talk allows prisoners’ families to help themselves.

“This is a rare case of a community that is isolated and marginalized getting together online and making things happen,” said Mellow. “People who have dealt with the system pass on their knowledge and wisdom to people who have no one else to turn to.”

For instance, in New York State many prisons are located upstate hundreds of miles from where many relatives live, making it hard for them to affording the trip, Mellow said. The site makes it easier for visitors to find each other and pool their resources to organize rides. Also, Prison Talk provides information on every prison in the United States. Visiting information such as what to wear-visitors aren’t usually allowed to wear the same color as inmates-how to put money in prisoner commissary accounts and under what general conditions prisoners live is provided. The site has areas for people in specific situations to communicate; relatives with parents in prison, partners of sex offenders, those who are serving life, and lovers of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in prison.

George, 46, is a Canadian who fell in love with a man who was a prisoner. He said not only had he never met anyone in his situation before coming to Prison Talk, he had never met anyone who had been arrested before his romance. He had a six-year relationship the man which has now concluded.

Life was difficult for George and he felt he could not tell anyone about his relationship. He stumbled upon Prison Talk while looking for information about the prison where his lover was incarcerated and was shocked to find people in the same position.

“Where else could I find people in my situation except for Prison Talk?” said George, who asked that his real name not be used. “It has made my life so much more livable. I found fellowship and in a way freedom from feeling like I was the only one. I was no longer alone.”

Though no one verifies what’s on the site, both George and Peggy said that people on the site also give good advice.

Peggy relayed the story of a woman from Italy who had become pen-pals with a prisoner on Death Row in Alabama. The woman had fallen in love, and wrote on the site that the prisoner had asked her to move to Alabama. “What should I do?” she asked in the section dedicated to women who love Death Row inmates.

The answers were immediate and definitive: all the postings advised her not to move. They told her it was alright to visit, but definitely not to move to be near him.

If not for people with more experience on Prison Talk, Peggy said, the woman may have really screwed up her life by blindly moving to be closer to a man who was soon to die.

Peggy, who now works as a seamstress, doesn’t know if her relationship with Mark will survive his release in a few years, but she credits the people of Prison Talk with helping her maintain the two-year relationship.

“Choosing to love a felon or someone in prison is something that general society looks down upon us for,” said Paggy. “On Prison Talk I feel like I don't need to justify my decision or my relationship. I can be myself here and receive the support I need.”

E-mail: ram2171@columbia.edu