• Prison pen pal; Virginia.

    Danielle Laskie with Timothy Wright Jr on their wedding day. PIC: Supplied

There are more than two million people behind bars in the United States. Kate Stanton meets an Australian woman who fell in love with one of them.

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On the day of her wedding, Danielle Laskie drove to Buckingham Correctional Center, a 1000-man prison in the US state of Virginia. She had seen it for the first time just days before — a beige-grey mass rising from the green Virginian landscape, like a concrete castle.

Ms Laskie, a 47-year-old woman from Melbourne, only 149 centimetres tall, made a gentler impression. Instead of a bridal gown, she wore a blush pink pantsuit with delicate pearl detailing at the neck.

“The hugeness of it just hit me,” she says.

Inside, her groom awaited.

Ms Laskie, a genial woman with a warm face and blue eyes, has a compassionate heart. She works in health care. She loves animals and has made a hobby out of showing horses, dogs and cats in her spare time.

Two years ago, she watched a television documentary about American prisoners who described feelings of abject loneliness and abandonment. They often lost contact with friends and family. One man who spoke only to his mother had no one left to talk to when she died.

“That really touched something within me,” says Ms Laskie.

She started searching the internet, where dozens of websites connect inmates to pen pals around the world. WriteAPrisoner.com, Meet-An-Inmate.com and Friends Beyond the Wall are just a few. They look like dating websites, with tens of thousands of men and women prisoners — from all over the world, but mostly America — reaching out for companionship.

Their posts read like modern-day messages in a bottle, cast out to the great wide web in the thrilling hope that someone out there will read them.

“I write this request wishing for the Universe to allow the perfect opportunity for a special person to cross my path,” says Arturo, an Illinois inmate in for murder.

Brian, a Florida inmate in prison on drug and murder conspiracy charges, is also a poet: “Poetry provides my mind with food, such waste not sharing a taste of my friendship cake baked with lurch for the hungry of heart.”

Other inmates are more direct. “What I’m looking for out of this website is a friend with open possibilities,” says William in Oregon.

Prison, by definition, is meant to be lonely. It’s where we send people we don’t want to be around us. But permanent seclusion is not the inflexible punishment it once was. The internet has made it possible for Australians, as far away as we are, to be digital next-door neighbours, or more, with people we might otherwise never have known. That was the case for Ms Laskie, whose life took a remarkable turn when she clicked her way into a new world.

Ms Laskie says she ruled out many of the profiles on PrisonPenPals.com. “Players,” she says, “looking for groupies to hand over their money”.

But the bare-bones listing of a Virginia inmate, Timothy Wright Jr., caught her eye. He was a 28-year-old ex-Marine in prison for first-degree murder, serving a 63-year sentence with no option for parole.

He simply noted his interests and military service.

“There was something about it to me that seemed honest,” says Ms Laskie. She wrote to him and, four weeks later, received a six-page letter in return. Mr Wright, more wordy on paper than in his profile, described his love for his family.

“I got to the stage where I don't really discuss it with [some friends] because I think they're very closed minded. They don't understand the American justice system. They don't get it.” — Danielle Laskie

Their relationship began casually, a unique friendship that stretched from his 2m-by-3m prison cell in central Virginia, over thick walls and barbed wire, and 16,000 more kilometres to her home in Cranbourne.

They wrote pages to each other the old-fashioned way, through the post, though letters were read first on his side by prison officials. They also used JPay, a private inmate services company that allows people to write emails that are then printed out at kiosks in each prison and handed to inmates. They started speaking over the phone, after finding a reasonably affordable phone plan that allowed Ms Laskie to call the prison using a US number.

It was a hodgepodge of technology, both analogue and digital, that connected them to each other.

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“We just wrote as friends getting to know each other and with no pretence for more,” says Mr Wright.

He has a light southern drawl and a friendly but careful way of speaking. He is very polite.

He told The Citizen in a JPay message that he stays out of trouble in prison, avoiding alcohol, drugs or gang membership. When not in his cell, he prefers to spend time on the weight ground or in the law library.

“I have a few acquaintances and only several true friends,” he says. “Anyone who says otherwise is just trying to fit in.”

Mr Wright says he was born and raised in central Virginia by strict, religious parents who kicked him out of home twice before his 18th birthday. In 2006, he served one combat tour in Ramadi, Iraq. He was married briefly to a woman who now lives in California with their son and his former stepdaughter.

In 2008, when he was 22, he was convicted of the murder of a 19-year-old man named Justin Baumgartner. Prosecutors said Mr Wright shot the victim in a rage over a girl they were both allegedly dating. Mr Wright has long denied the love triangle and the charges, citing the wavering testimony of his co-defendant, the son of a then-deputy sheriff. Mr Wright was sentenced to 63 years, plus five years for injuring another inmate before trial.

Ms Laskie believed in Mr Wright’s innocence. She began fighting small battles on his behalf, mailing frequent letters to the Virginia Department of Corrections about its medical care, its food and the way officers monitored their letters. She also launched a website and established social media profiles for Mr Wright, where she posted petitions campaigning for his release and connected with others who were passionate about criminal justice reform.

After months of intense, sustained contact, they fell in love.

“I knew I was in love after the first six months of knowing her,” says Mr Wright, now 30. “I went through my list of experiences  what makes a person I can fall in love with  and she was everything I ever prayed for.”

“I was attracted to so many things about Danielle,” he says. “She had an insane work ethic, strong drive, very organised, stayed on top of things; she was tenacious.”

Ms Laskie says they talked so much she felt like she could tell him anything.

“Talking about every single subject you can think of, talking about family and hopes and dreams,” she says. “Talking on the phone we’d have, like, an hour call every second day.”

“It just shows there are no boundaries if you’re willing to put the work in,” she adds.

But their relationship does beg questions. Ms Laskie is risking a life without physical intimacy for a prisoner who lives on the other side of the world. What if she’s wrong about him? How can this work?

“I can imagine that it is very difficult to understand,” says Mr Wright, who believes many inmates have sinister motivations for making contact with women outside prison. But he insists that’s not the case here.

“She was in a place in her life that she could pursue a relationship with circumstances as challenging as mine and I was at a place that I could give everything short of a physical relationship to her,” he says.

Their situation does make people uneasy, including some of Ms Laskie’s friends and family. Her mother worried about her daughter’s unusual love affair until she chatted to Mr Wright a number of times on the phone.

“She absolutely loves him now,” Ms Laskie says. “She thinks he’s absolutely wonderful.”

Many of Ms Laskie’s friends, however, were less moved. They asked whether she could be sure she wasn’t being used, whether she could trust that he was as innocent as he claimed.

“I got to the stage where I don’t really discuss it with them because I think theyre very closed-minded,” she says. “They don’t understand the American justice system. They dont get it.”

 

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Ms Laskie’s contact with the Virginia Department of Corrections and her intimate knowledge of Mr Wright’s case (she has copies of his trial tapes) awakened her to a bloated and inefficient prison system in desperate need of reform.

The US jails more of its citizens than any other country in the world, thanks in large part to decades of harsh drug sentencing and other “tough-on-crime” measures that disproportionately affect black and Hispanic people with tragic consequences for entire communities. More than two million Americans live behind bars — that’s about 716 inmates for every 100,000 Americans. Australia, meanwhile, has 196 inmates per 100,000 people.

As a result, American prisons are often overcrowded and underfunded. Private companies, such as the JPay emailing service Mr Laskie uses to talk to Mr Wright, make millions of dollars from incarcerated citizens and their families.

Of course, many inmates have committed terrible crimes, so people have a limited interest in helping them. And in all but two states, incarcerated felons lose the right to vote, meaning politicians don’t feel compelled to help them.

Adam Lovell, the founder of WriteAPrisoner.com, says pen-pal websites give inmates the opportunity to make their voices heard in a country that doesn’t want to listen to them.

He says pen pals are a “lifeline to the outside world”.

“Loneliness is crushing, especially in the environment of prison. Most inmates are looking for a reason to go on,” he says.

“[Pen pals] are also someone who inmates can be vulnerable with. In prison, vulnerability of any kind can be dangerous. This is not true with a pen pal. It gives them an outlet to let their guard down and simply be human.”

Mr Wright’s incarceration gave Ms Laskie a deep and purposeful connection to a cause on the other side of the world. This is her biggest adventure.

“I just feel so passionate about it. I just want to make changes,” Ms Laskie says. “Even if Tim were to get out in a couple of years, I would still keep going. I just cannot stand the unjust treatment and the apathy of people. It kills me.”

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Last March, Ms Laskie booked plane tickets for a two-week trip to the US to visit Mr Wright in prison. Before she left Australia, he asked her to marry him. They had never met in person.

She said ‘Yes’.

“You just know when its the right person,” she says. “It all happened very quickly but it just seemed so right. It just seemed so perfect.”

In October, a nervous but excited Ms Laskie flew to Virginia, which promotes itself with the slogan “Virginia is for lovers”. It is the east coast’s gateway to the American south.

Ms Laskie met Mr Wright’s grandparents at their home in Mechanicsville, a middle American township two hours drive south of Washington, DC.

The day after her arrival, she drove a hired car 90 minutes west to the prison. She went through security and made her way to the visiting room, large enough to fit 100 people, where inmates can meet with loved ones for hours. She was nervous. They had sent each other photographs, but what if he thought she looked older in person?

“It was just a surreal feeling,” Ms Laskie says, “to have spoken to this person for two years and to feel so close and to be in love with the person but to finally meet them.”

She waited there, butterflies in her stomach, until her fiance entered the room.

He was strapping and tall — 190 centimetres — with thin-framed glasses over big blue eyes. He gave her a kiss.

“It just hit me. It really hit me,” she says. “He was everything I expected. He had the most beautiful smile. Very soft, caring and it just felt right.”

Buckingham Correctional allows visitors who have come long distances to have extra time with inmates. Ms Laskie was entitled to five visits, each six hours long.

“The first day she hardly spoke,” Mr Wright says, “just giggled a lot which made me laugh more than I have in years.  

“We did discuss where we were at in our relationship, plans and dreams for the future, travel and aspects about my case,” he continues. “We spent a lot of time laughing, looking into each other’s eyes and holding hands.”

 

 

After her first visit, she returned to Mr Wright’s grandparents’ home, a Mechanicsville retirement community where the houses all look the same. They were warm and friendly people, and they took her to Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, a southern country-themed chain restaurant and a veritable institution of the US interstate system. For Ms Laskie, it would have been a crash course in “real America”, a place where shot guns and deer heads line the walls, where they serve sour cream in little packets like sugar.

Mr Wright is close to his grandparents, who believe firmly in his innocence. His grandfather was a Virginia state trooper.

“They definitely want to see him out before they both pass away,” Ms Laskie says.

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The wedding took place on Ms Laskie’s third visit. Though she wore her pink suit, Mr Wright had to wear his everyday prison blue jeans and button-down shirt. They had organised for his grandparents’ Baptist pastor to meet them at the prison, where the prison chaplain would watch over the proceedings. Mr Wright’s grandparents were witnesses. The visitation room had been double-booked, so they married in the prison officers’ break room instead.

Mr Wright chose not to write his vows but to speak them from the heart. He told Danielle he never dreamed of such a day. He offered her everything he had. They sealed the marriage with a kiss.

“I couldn’t have been more happier than if I were free with her,” says Mr Wright. “This was a day I never thought would come again for me, and definitely not in prison and with such an amazing woman.”

Ms Laskie, who now goes by Laskie-Wright, says the ceremony went quickly. “I just I think I was so excited. I dont know if that happens to everyone that gets married. It seems a blur.”

Twenty minutes later a guard broke their reverie; the festivities were over and Mr Wright left. Virginia’s prison system does not allow for conjugal visits, meaning he and his new bride could never be alone together. The newly minted Ms Laskie-Wright dropped off her marriage documents at a courthouse and returned to his grandparents’ home, where they had organised a get-to-know-you dinner with his parents and other family members.

WriterAPrisoner.com founder Mr Lovell estimates that “hundreds” of weddings have resulted from pen pal relationships since he started the site in 2000, though these are relatively rare.

“After 16 years of service, you’re bound to experience some weddings,” he says.

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After two more visits with her husband, Ms Laskie-Wright returned to Australia with renewed urgency to fight for his exoneration. In a justice system that is slow to act, they face an uphill battle. Without money, they will have to find legal experts who are willing to work pro bono. High-profile cases, such as those featured on Making a Murderer and Serial, give them hope that someone will take up their cause.

A record 149 people were exonerated in the US last year. But it’s a paltry number compared to the numbers in prison at any given time. Still, Mr Wright and Ms Laskie-Wright have hope. They speak as if he will leave prison one day, as if he will see Australia.

“Danielle and I will gladly consider it a second home when I am free,” Mr Wright says. “I think we are going to spend time extensively travelling Australia once I am home, get to really enjoy and appreciate what makes it such a great place.”

Ms Laskie-Wright plans to visit him again next year when she accrues her annual leave. Eventually, she would like to move to Virginia to be near him.

Until then, she often tells new acquaintances her husband is “overseas”, an explanation they seem to accept.

“A lot of people wouldnt understand the situation and you couldnt make them understand,” she says.

In Australia, her story is extraordinary, almost preposterous. But in Virginia, she says, she found comfort and camaraderie in other women whose lives revolved around prison. She met one woman outside the visiting room who had married an inmate who has no chance of release.

“I thought, at least Ive got a lot of hope,” says Ms Laskie. “Shes obviously very happy and in love. That gives him something he never would have had and it makes him feel like hes special to someone.

“Because I think a lot of guys, when they go in there, they think society just thinks theyre all animals and they forget them.”

For now, however, Ms Laskie has broadened this community of women all the way to Australia. Most people may not understand her story. But at least she has a new family that does.

“Theres just some kind of letter of understanding there that people know where you are and how you feel. And then you come back home and you just dont have that.”

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 An edited version of this story also appeared in The Sunday Age and Sydney Morning Herald.

 

 

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