Originally created 09/14/99

Web sites offer romances with inmates



JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Robin Lunceford is looking for that special someone. Her personal ad on the Internet reads like a dream:

She's 5-foot-10, 135 pounds, a Greek artist, fashion designer and former Las Vegas dancer. Ms. Lunceford enjoys tennis, golf and hang gliding -- when she's not studying to be a curator of medieval manuscripts.

"I have an excellent sense of humor, just a kid at heart," says Ms. Lunceford, whose ad contains an alluring photo that shows her full red lips and long brunette hair. "I am seeking an older professional man for a long-term relationship. No games please."

There is one catch: Ms. Lunceford is inmate No. 160885 at Broward Correctional Institute in South Florida.

Her ad appears on an Internet site called Women Behind Bars, a surprisingly popular location featuring 1,600 female prisoners seeking jailhouse romances.

However, the fact that these women are locked up -- some for quite a while -- hasn't seemed to deter thousands of men from responding to ads like Ms. Lunceford's, said Frank Muniz, who operates the site from his Tallahassee home.

The ads do not say how to contact the women. Customers have to pay to receive the women's addresses: $5 for the first and $3 for each additional.

A former inmate himself, Mr. Muniz says he receives about 1,000 orders a month. At $18 per typical order, Mr. Muniz said he's easily taking in more than $10,000 per month and making "a pretty good living."

The service allows customers to peruse photos and personal ads, which list the woman's first name, height, weight and interests. About a third are from Florida, which has the fourth highest female prison population in the United States. Others are from around the country.

The ads don't explain why the women are in prison, but do say when they will be released. In Ms. Lunceford's case, the 36-year-old is serving 17 years for armed robbery and escape.

Since Mr. Muniz launched womenbehindbars.com three years ago, similar sites have popped up, including Friends On Both Sides, and Pen Pals.

Mr. Muniz's is among the tamer ones. Others, such as jailbabes.com, feature women in more risque poses.

Seeking a relationship with female prisoners has its advantages, Mr. Muniz's clients say. Many have tried the traditional routes -- bars and newspaper ads -- without much luck.

"They feel more confident these girls are going to write back," said Mr. Muniz, who says his service has led to 35 marriages.

Prison officials aren't as excited about this high-tech form of matchmaking, however.

The services have increased mail significantly and require correction officials to spend more time watching for scam artists.

"There are a lot of inmates who legitimately write looking ... to correspond with lonely hearts," said Jack Sapp, warden at Florida Correctional Institute in Ocala. "There are also those who develop scams that we occasionally pick up on."

Women tell sob stories about lacking money for soap, cosmetics or magazines, Mr. Sapp said. Bleeding hearts send money, not realizing taxpayers cover most prisoners basic needs.

"We try to stay on guard for these type of things," Mr. Sapp said.

Debbie Buchanan, a Florida Department of Corrections spokeswoman, said clients also should be aware photos or other information on these sites may not match photos or information the department provides on its Web site.

"When our Web site first came up, people called and told us the person they were corresponding with did not look like the photo on our site," Ms. Buchanan said. "Inmates are not always honest people."

For example, Ms. Lunceford's weight on the department's Web site is listed as 183 pounds, not 135 pounds. That photo is absent makeup, and her lush black hair is tied back. And Ms. Lunceford tells prospective sweethearts she is expected out "soon," but the department lists her release date as 2004.

Mr. Muniz, whose site gained national attention in USA Today and on Court TV, said dishonest people are everywhere, not just in prison.

He said he conducts quality control inspections, contacting clients to see which girls are hitting them up for money. If he finds one, he takes them off his site, he said.

Harold Rose is a single, 64-year-old commercial photographer in Calhoun, Ga., who has corresponded with 30 to 40 female inmates, including some he saw on Mr. Muniz's site.

Mr. Rose said he enjoys the companionship and occasional friendships that develop. His deepest relationship occurred with a woman he met in Jacksonville for a weekend after she was released.

During visits to prisons, Mr. Rose said he discovered "an awful lot of lonely hearted guys out there. The girls were taking them for a ride."

When asked for money, Mr. Rose would end the relationship.

Rick Amavisca of Fresno, Calif., said he decided to give Mr. Muniz's service a try after years of having trouble talking with women in person.

"Being a shy type person, I have trouble breaking the ice," Mr. Amavisca said. "Writing gives me a chance to collect my thoughts and ideas."

Lowell Bethel of Seattle said after his wife left him two years ago he discovered Mr. Muniz's Web site.

"They seem more real and very sincere," he said, "and willing to accept a man for himself."