Any man who responds to the 26-year-old one-time lab technician's personal ad would need to be understanding. A typical Californian, she enjoys "movies, outdoor activities, camping, swimming, and walking". But it could be a long time before she takes part in these pursuits. Katherine is in prison.
Her sales pitch - "I am sweet, kind, loving" - does not appear in the classified pages of a magazine or newspaper. It is posted on the Internet, at www.jailbabes.com, alongside a snapshot of Katherine taken at her high school graduation. Hers is one of 3,000 ads featured on this increasingly popular site that specialises in hooking up female prisoners with partners on the outside.
Few, if any, inmates in American prisons have direct access to the Internet. But through a word-of-mouth network, prisoners have been providing several Web operators with personal information. Inmates pass on photographs shot during their days on the outside and prison addresses, which are then sold by site operators to prospective pen pals.
These personal ads have some prison officials in the US worried that inmates are finding new ways to milk unwitting victims for cash. "We don't like it, but we can't do anything about it," says Renee Watkins, deputy warden of the Warrior Correctional Center in Oklahoma. "What concerns me is that there are inmates soliciting money from some people who probably don't have the means to give it." At present, New York is the only state that forbids inmates from relaying mail through third parties.
Ken Kleine set up Jail Babes in 1998. A retired paralegal and private eye based in California, he was looking for something to occupy his time. "I went to dinner one night with a bunch of friends, and the person sat next to me at the table was a woman on parole," he says. "I asked her what's the common denominator among prison inmates and she said, without a doubt, it's loneliness. That's when the idea struck me."
His dinner companion passed on the names and addresses of 10 friends who were still incarcerated. Kleine, 62, wrote asking them if they were interested in striking up a new relationship, and enclosed application forms. As soon as he had 100 replies, he invested in a computer and a scanner, then launched the site. It caught the eye of the American pornographer Larry Flynt, who contacted Kleine immediately with the idea of launching a tie-in monthly magazine featuring the stories of female ex-convicts. It was not the success that Flynt had hoped for, and is to be discontinued in December.
Meanwhile, Kleine works alone; his overheads are low, and he says he is making a small fortune. The service does not charge the women, but subscribers pay $7 for a name and address.
"Customers are choosing girls for two reasons," says Ken Kleine. "Either they're looking for a long-term relationship. Or, the opposite - they don't want commitment, they just want dialogue." This would explain why women serving life sentences are popular among Kleine's customers.
Kleine accepts that he is not popular with prison officials. "Most prisons don't like this one bit," he says. "At one prison I know of, the number of people visiting has quadrupled. At another, they used to have two officers on duty during visiting time. Now, because there are so many people visiting, mostly from Jail Babes, they've eight officers. "They're kinda bitter about that. They resent all that extra work."
However, Kleine is not the only one playing Cupid to convicts. Women Behind Bars (www.womenbehindbars.com) is one of the largest sites of this kind. Founder Frank Muniz of Florida boasts that his service has led to 33 marriages. His critics, on the other hand, contend that the service represents the common fears of the Internet writ large: that predatory criminals could use these sites to cheat or harm unwitting online correspondents.
"This is something I don't want to see going on," says Ida Ballasiotes, a Republican member of the House of Representatives who is co-chairwoman of its Criminal Justice and Corrections Committee. "I know of some individuals who are on these sites. I saw a guy who murdered his fourth wife and is being investigated in the death of his second wife, and talks about taking long walks in the moonlight. These are really manipulative people."
At Jail Babes, customers are kept in the dark as to what crime put their pen pal behind bars. "I found out very early on that the girls feel bad enough that they've been pre-judged based on the fact that they're in prison," Kleine says. "They would rather have the opportunity to make the first impression based on their intelligence, letter writing and their personality."
However, Kleine does caution customers to be wary of women who ask for money. "That's a red flag if they start asking for money right away," he says. "I would seriously consider discontinuing contact."