“So this is going to sound a little crazy, but I’m crazy,” Miranda Lapkin said to her 50,000 TikTok followers.
On January 2, in Victorville, California, Lapkin — known to her followers as “macdaddygangsta” — found herself alone in her kitchen.
It’s here the 20-year-old shared her decision to look for a connection on writeaprisoner.com, a platform through which people on the outside become pen pals with those who are incarcerated.
After a few moments, she turned the camera from herself to her computer screen. “So, he committed burglary,” Lapkin said, pointing to an inmate’s profile, which included his photo. “I’m definitely not one to judge, but maybe he’ll steal my heart,” she added with a laugh.
Lapkin’s video has since been viewed more than 986,000 times — and she isn’t alone.
Since January, the hashtag #writeaprisoner has swelled to over 60 million views on TikTok. While teens who are partaking in the trend say they’re not in danger, some experts are wary of the potential for harm.
The majority of those participating in the trend are young women, teens, and girls, who search writeaprisoner.com to find a romantic partner or start a platonic relationship with an inmate.
The young women record themselves scrolling through the website, often pausing to comment on an inmate’s appearance. After settling on a prisoner, they write a letter, seal it in an envelope with photos of themselves — sometimes bikini-clad, sometimes clothed — and mail it off to a correctional facility.
They tell their followers to stay tuned for updates.
More often than not, these videos are underscored by Britney Spears’ single Criminal, in which she sings, “Mama I’m in love with a criminal / And this type of love isn’t rational.”
While Lapkin said in an interview that she intended only to become friends with her pen pal, she did eventually develop a crush on him. For others, a romantic relationship is the goal.
“The way it is set up, [writeaprisoner.com] looks like it could be a dating website,” Lapkin told Digital Trends. “For some people it is.”
Lapkin said she noticed other users following the trend, posting videos of a “more romantic” nature.
TikTok user Emmy Espinal was one of them.
“Men on Tinder, Bumble, Hinge are usually straight and to the point,” Espinal said in an interview. “They want to hook up and that’s about it. They’re also very vulgar, and it’s such a turnoff. The incarcerated men are so much more respectful, at least the guy I’ve been writing. He hasn’t been weird at all, hasn’t crossed a line, or made me feel uncomfortable.”
In February, Espinal shared this same sentiment with her 1,500 TikTok followers in a video that has been viewed 130,000 times.
“I will explain to you why all men should be incarcerated, why we should take away all of their freedom, because when we do, it works,” Espinal said in the video. “All the free men are out here being nasty in my DMs when this man just wants to know how’s my day is going.”
Espinal, 23, said she has gone from writing letters to speaking with her pen pal nearly every day.
Coincidentally, both Lapkin and Espinal studied criminal justice in college and credit their ability to empathize with inmates to their education. Espinal said that younger generations are more educated on the justice system than others. This makes talking to inmates a lot easier, she said.
TikTok did not respond to requests for comment from Digital Trends.
While Lapkin and Espinal chose to start relationships with inmates with nonviolent offenses — burglary and drug possession, respectively — this isn’t the case for everyone.
On TikTok in January, 17-year-old Amaya Jones shared her decision to write to Gavon Ramsay — a 19-year-old inmate in prison for aggravated murder, aggravated robbery, kidnapping, and abuse of a corpse.
According to court records, Ramsay broke into the home of his 98-year-old neighbor and strangled her to death in 2018. At 17 years old, Ramsay was sentenced to life in prison.
“I found Gavon,” Jones said in the video. “He murdered someone, but he’s cute.”
Jones’ video has since been viewed 900,000 times and several users have tried to warn her of Ramsay’s crimes. In an update, Jones told her followers to quit worrying. “I know what I’m doing, I did this before,” she said. “My ex was in jail, so I know what I’m doing.”
In an interview from Grafton Correctional Institution in Ohio, Ramsay said that he and Jones never became romantically involved. Ultimately, he stopped writing to Jones after a friend outside of prison told him his messages were being shared on TikTok.
“She was trying to post everything,” Ramsay told Digital Trends. “I find, like, she posted like our messages on there, and I just really wasn’t thrilled about that. Like it’s not a message for the whole world to see it between me and you.”
Ramsay is currently appealing his sentence.
The most popular website associated with the trend, writeaprisoner.com, was founded 20 years ago, and there are approximately 11,000 inmate profiles listed on the platform today. It requires inmates to pay $50 to create a profile and $40 to have it renewed after one year.
Additional photos, text, and blog entries also come with a price tag.
Since most inmates do not have access to the internet, the company sends brochures to prisons so they can create a profile by mail. Alternatively, friends and family can create an account on behalf of an inmate.
The platform — free for visitors — gets approximately 360,000 hits a month, according to SimilarWeb.
Adam Lovell, the founder of writeaprisoner.com, said the website offers inmates like Ramsay “a support system to help them cope, not only while inside of prison, but also when they reintegrate upon release.”
Lovell notes that the company does not promote the platform “as a means to seek romance.” Rather, “most of our users are only interested in becoming friends through the mail.”
Inmates’ names, ages, photos, zodiac signs, crimes, and bios are listed — and several of them indicate that the inmate is looking for a partner.
The platform’s tagline reads “Prison Pen-pals & So Much More.”
While TikTok is largely known for its dance challenges, young women writing on the social media site to inmates is a much more serious topic than teens ensuring they’ve mastered some dance moves.
According to experts, the popularity of this trend could be the result of a variety of factors, from the desire to “fix” an inmate to the media’s voyeuristic portrayal of those who commit violent crimes.
Robert Sternberg, a professor of human development at Cornell University, suggested that women may be acting out a savior fantasy with their pen pals.
Despite how much these women may want to help their pen pal “recover,” Sternberg said it would be unlikely they would reform due to a relationship founded on TikTok.
Young women may also be drawn to criminals due to their sensationalized portrayals in pop culture, said David Schmid, author of Natural Born Celebrities: Serial Killers in American Culture.
For decades, Schmid said, some young women have become infatuated with men who have committed extreme crimes of violence. Pointing to the trials of infamous serial killers Ted Bundy and Richard Ramirez, Schmid said that “the court was populated mostly by young women and these women would try to pass notes to Bundy and Ramirez during the trial.”
Schmid also blamed the “prison porn” industry — TV shows and movies that exploit prison populations for content — for driving a fascination with the incarcerated.
“On the one hand, it can humanize those individuals who are behind bars. So rather than seeing them as monstrous, we get more insight into the daily routines and into the circumstances that led them to jail in the first place, and potentially that’s going to make us feel most sympathetic and empathetic toward them,” he said.
With feelings of sympathy and empathy at play, these television programs make people “see the humanity of these prisoners,” Schmid said. These feelings can eventually lead people to reach out to inmates as a “sign of expressing the feeling of sympathy with them.”
But such shows can also dehumanize inmates.
“These shows obviously are highly sensationalistic, but very voyeuristic, and we’re encouraged to sort of consume them without really giving much thought to these people as individuals; instead they’re just kind of like a class that’s defined by otherness more than anything else,” Schmid said. “It’s not about sympathy, it’s not about empathy. It’s the same kind of thing that would make you want to sort of poke a stick at a tiger when you visit the zoo.”
While some women may be fueled by sympathy or empathy, others may be writing inmates to simply engage in the trend, according to Schmid.
Joan Harvey, a Newcastle University psychologist who specializes in risk perception and risk-taking, said teens may be jumping on the trend to impress their peers.
“Younger women doing this might do it to boast to their friends about it and may stop the fad when it no longer impresses them,” Harvey told Digital Trends.
Teens may also be engaging with the letter-writing trend as part of a larger social backlash against fast-paced conversations, said Quentin Humphrey, a youth culture editor at the trend-forecasting company WGSN.
“Society is headed into an intimacy recession, so things that facilitate deeper human connection, like writing a letter, will become increasingly popular,” he said.
Writing letters feels “slower and more personal,” Humphrey explained. “For them, a quick response isn’t as fulfilling as a personable one.”
Humphrey said that this phenomenon could be chalked up to teens seeking a connection “with a single individual on a deeper level.”
Aasia Davis, a correctional officer at the New Jersey Adult Diagnostic Treatment Center — a correctional facility for sex offenders — has witnessed the repercussions of women searching for love among inmates.
Davis has seen little regard for women being treated as individuals. “A woman will come visit one inmate, then a few months later, a different inmate,” she said. “They pass women right along.”
Inmates often trade or mail photos and letters they receive from women to other inmates, Davis said.
Ramsay also said that trading photos and letters is a frequent occurrence among inmates.
“If what they say in the letter doesn’t catch your eye or anything, [prisoners will] go give it to somebody else,” Ramsay said, adding that other inmates will respond to the mail.
“They’ll say something like ‘Hey, my dude wasn’t really feeling you, but I thought I’d write you because I liked your pictures or your letters,’” he said.
Miranda Lapkin has experienced some of this firsthand.
Lapkin said not only has she received letters and photos from men she’s never contacted, but she has run into trouble with her own pen pal.
“This one girl that messaged me said that her and him have been dating for like a year-and-a-half and it’s kind of hard to contact him about it since it takes so long,” she said. “That has been the hardest part, getting instant communication back.”
Lapkin’s pen pal should get out in 2021 with good behavior, though she said “anything can change.”
Whether or not they end up together, “I’m hoping to still stay friends with him,” she said.