“I am six feet tall and my hazel eyes reflect my olive skin… I seek to connect with women who are romantics at heart… that are open to the possibility of true love”.
These are lines from the online dating profile of Robert Torres – a man who is serving four concurrent life sentences for aggravated sexual assault, including the rape of Texas nurse Lori Williams at knifepoint 20 years ago, while her two daughters slept in a room nearby. His other victims included a 63-year-old woman and her 16-year-old granddaughter. The advert contains no mention of any of these crimes.
Lori became aware of Torres’ profile as the result of an internet search. She told BBC Trending, “I keep up with his whereabouts. I know he is serving multiple concurrent life sentences, but it brings me peace to know where he is and keep tabs on him. When I googled his name I found a prison pen pal site where he had posted an online profile.”
She said that she immediately asked the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) to take it down, but much to her surprise they were unable to act, given that the advert was posted to a third party website called friendonline.org.
Lori then discovered that – although inmates don’t have access to the internet – they can post online adverts by sending a physical letter to a prisoner pen pal website. Further correspondence is carried out by mail. These services are advertised inside prisons.
“I felt like I had been gut punched, because although convicted and in prison, he still has access to reach other women, groom, manipulate and cause harm.” Lori told Trending. “He is a violent sexual predator who does not see himself as such.”
Lori felt she had to do something. She launched a change.org petition calling for the state of Texas to ban violent felons and perpetrators of sex crimes from using written communication to post online profiles with a view to soliciting pen pals. Similar laws are already in place in Florida and Indiana. The petition’s target is 150,000 signatures and among the intended recipients are Texas Governor Greg Abbot and the Chairman of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice.
“People have signed from all over the world” said Lori. “There have been many victims and survivors who have expressed gratitude that this is being pursued, and encouraging me to continue progress on this issue,” she added.
Lori explained to Trending what motivated her to go public. There is a “humiliation and embarrassment” in revealing something “very personal” she said. But feeling let down by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, she felt compelled to take action. Torres reportedly said in an interview that he didn’t post the ad and has no pen pals.
So what steps are being taken by the state of Texas?
Texas State Representative Matt Shaheen pledged to bring forward legislationto prevent perpetrators of sex crimes from using written communication to post profiles on websites, with a view toward soliciting pen pals. And in April 2016, theTDCJ updated its criminal handbook to prohibit prisoners from having personal pages on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram being run on their behalf.
Despite launching the petition, Lori doesn’t believe there should be a blanket ban on prisoners’ external communications.
“I am not against prisoners communicating and writing to family, friends, attorneys, or maintaining and establishing relationships with individuals who seek to mentor or minister to this population. Advertising and solicitation is another matter.”
So is there a case for prisoners seeking pen pals in the outside world?
According to Charlotte Barlow, a criminologist from the University of Birmingham “Prisoners corresponding with the public can be a useful rehabilitation tool, reduce re-offending and can enhance prisoners mental health and well-being.” But in reference to Torres, Barlow added “Prolific sex offenders such as this are often seeking to gain power and control over their victims and are often very manipulative, therefore the fact that he is able to actively seek a romantic relationship is concerning when considering his offending history.”
Speaking specifically about the rights of prisoners in the UK: “Anything that is sent to prisoners is supposed to go through a screening process and prisoners are supposed to have limited access to social media and the internet. Furthermore, if an inmate is convicted of domestic and sexual violence, all letters they receive and send should be checked. However, perpetrators of domestic and sexual violence can often be very manipulative, so there may be things that ‘fall through the cracks’ and are missed.” said Barlow.
Former Tennessee prison officer, Judith A Yates knows first-hand how manipulative prisoners can be, even from behind bars “I saw a lot of manipulation. I saw a lot of lies. They wouldn’t be honest about why they were incarcerated, and they took advantage of a lot of people.” She added that “Inmates can request people to send nude or lewd photographs…then they’ll just trade them around and such like baseball cards. It’s just amazing what these people can trick people or manipulate people into doing.”
But David Fathi, director of the National Prison Project at the American Civil Liberties Union is resolute that any prisoner, even violent, should not be denied their First Amendment right to free speech.
“His [Torres’] punishment is incarceration…even people who commit terrible crimes, of which this certainly is one, don’t forfeit all their rights as a result. It’s a fundamental principle of freedom of expression as it’s enshrined in the US constitution that the fact that someone doesn’t like speech, even if it’s painful to hear, doesn’t license the government to suppress it,” said Fathi.
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