How To Find Out if Your Prison Pen Pal is Playing It Straight: The Background Check


Most Golden Hearted people who choose to have prison pen pals won’t need to run a background check. So, why bother to learn how to do it? After all, most such Correspondence Angels can’t even afford the cost of a background check, at least not the full version.

Our regular readers already know where this article is heading, though.

My wife and I have been writing to incarcerated females for nearly sixteen years at this point in time (summer, 2012). Out of more than two hundred correspondents, we’ve gotten at least somewhat close to eight or ten and offered a room in our home to seven of them.

Not all at the same time, of course. We simply figured (and still figure) that one or two additional women living with us could be a multiple win situation. Pam’s various disabilities are not likely to get better over time. We could use the help, a gal getting out of prison can use a place to live, and…

Admittedly, our batting average has not been exactly spectacular. The very first girl to whom we made that offer was absolutely awesome, but circumstances she could not control short circuited her plans. From there, it went downhill at a brisk pace: Five straight disappointments, like this:

1. After three years of writing, Taz becomes evasive about her precise out date in Nevada, gets out and gets hammered, gets caught doing the nasty with a guy in a Las Vegas alley, and gets slammed right back in the slammer.

2. Also after three years as a pen pal, Angel in Kansas shows her true colors by trying to pry more Christmas money out of us a few months before her scheduled release. When I decline, she attempts to work Pam and me against each other, always and ever a fool move. She is immediately cut off from all contact; end of story.

3. Lara in Wisconsin, in touch for 18 months, quits writing and/or calling after we tell her of our need to move from Colorado to Arizona in 2009. We never did figure out why.

4. With a full five years of letters and phone calls under her belt, Tawny gets out of prison in Georgia…and instead of joining us, heads to Florida to be near her adult children. Pam’s heart gets truly broken this time, but we do understand. Except that Tawny fearfully stalled for nearly a full year when it came to telling us about her change of heart; that sucked.

5. Denise in Arizona scammed our pants off. We’d been writing and talking on the phone for two years, and I’d gone to visit her twice. The second visit, timed ten days after her release from prison to (supposedly) a halfway house (with parole), finished raising some warning flags for us.

A few days later, as has been noted in another post, there’d been several verbally vigorous altercations between Denise in Phoenix and us at the Border Fort. We severed the relationship and blocked her phone calls.

But as it happened (there are no accidents), we had retained a private investigator just hours before things blew apart. He had our $500. It was nonrefundable.

“Let’s start with a full background check,” we told him, so that’s what he did over the weekend. Pam and I figured it couldn’t hurt to know exactly what sort of criminal beastie we’d encountered, just in case. The demonic presence we’d faced during our telephone confrontations–and even her current photos, which I’d taken in Phoenix with the Canon PowerShot–looked nothing like the girl we first met.

No, no, not a photo of somebody else. It was definitely her. But my oh my, how she’d changed, and not for the better.

Pammie, especially, couldn’t wait for the investigative report to arrive.

No, these are Gambel's quail, not San Quentin quail.

No, these are Gambel’s quail, not San Quentin quail.

Late Monday, the report arrived in my email. We’d known of the felony forgery that had put Denise in prison in Arizona plus a couple of marijuana charges and one instance of jumping probation in Oregon.

We had not known that our PI’s investigation would turn up a dozen aliases and more than 50 criminal incidents spread out over 21 years in 6 states.

Okay. Time to condense all that down to a summary of the more serious crimes. Here you go.


1. Age 21: Utah. Two forgery charges 3 months apart. Sentenced, but description of sentence not described by the State.

2. Age 24: Oregon. Fugitive complaint (jumped probation pursuant to a marijuana violation).

3. Age 28: Texas. Two open can DWI’s on back to back days in June. Sentence: $300 fine, 101 total days jail.

4. Age 29: Arizona. Wanted for marijuana violation.

5. Age 29: Washington state. DUI. $685 fine, one year jail.

6. Age 30: Washington state. (December) Driving while license suspended. $10 fine. (February) Theft. $75 fine, 30 days jail. (April) Assault. $75 fine, 30 days jail.

7. Age 31: Iowa. Drunk driving. Fine, amount not listed.

Note: From the ages of 32 through 35, Denise did not generate any public criminal records that our investigator could find.

8. Age 36-37: Arizona. During a 9-month period spanning the last half of 2006 and the first quarter of 2007, nearly a dozen criminal charges were leveled against her. When she was busted in March of ‘07 with checks in her possession that did not belong to her, the jig was up and her one woman crime spree was, for the moment, over.

In the end, she was able to plea bargain everything down to one felony forgery charge, producing her first state prison sentence of five and a half years, plus another three years of probation for marijuana violations.


As I said, we’d known about the Oregon run and the Arizona spree…sort of. Denise understood we’d checked the Arizona Department of Corrections website. That showed the final charges for which she was doing time but not the full 9-month spree backstory…and she did not tell us about all of that.

One of the most curious things about her known criminal record is not how habitual she’s been, but rather how completely the authorities have missed her lifelong, bone deep involvement with her drug of choice, which is meth. She told me during our 3 hours of face time in Phoenix that meth had been her thing from the beginning.


So, am I warning folks, preaching about the dangers of them thar dastardly dangerous criminal types and their lying, snake-crooked ways?

No. Not really. We’re still involved with the system. In fact, we have one pen friend with whom we’ve been in touch since late 2005. She’s got a while to go yet, won’t get out until 2017, but when she does, she’s coming to live with us.

Would it be wise of us to have a background check run on her?

Nope. That girl, we know inside and out.


Special note for those who are thinking of writing to people in prison: Don’t let this page frighten you away from the idea. If all you do is write to people to lighten their lives a bit, something as heavy as a $500 background check is hardly ever necessary or even advisable. It’s only when (a) you’re inviting your pen pal to your home and (b) you suddenly start seeing warning flags…yeah, then it’s something to think about.

And finally: We had this background check done by JB Investigations, LLC. and feel they did an outstanding job. Didn’t take long to get it done, either. So yeah, if you happen to need a PI based in the Phoenix area (though I found them in the Sierra Vista yellow pages), I can and do heartily recommend the firm.

6 thoughts on “How To Find Out if Your Prison Pen Pal is Playing It Straight: The Background Check

  1. Hello. I read your story. I found you by searching for AZ penfriends. My name is Debra. Though i have been living in BC Canada for the past fifteen years, I am from Chicago. My guy is Incarcerated in AZ Dept. of Corrections. I will be visiting AZ next year and would like to forge a connection with someone there who might be willing to allow me to stay with them for a couple of days and perhaps be willing to drive me to and from my visitation. I can help with some expenses, gas, etc. Pleawse feel free to run a background check on me. I took early retirement after an injury. I am a Registered Nurse. I have had background checks done every year in the US and Canada to maintain my license, which is still active. I have three grown children who have their own families. I hope that you and your wife will be willing to get to know me. I admire your work with released prisoners. Thank you so much, Debra

  2. Debra, I do respect your need to get down this way to see your guy, but we are not going to be able to help at this time. I’ll explain a bit about that in a separate email to you.

  3. What is it that your trying to achieve by writting these women?
    You’re either bible thumper or looking to have a threesome

  4. Jump to conclusions much, Samuel?

    I certainly don’t owe anyone an explanation, but here it is, anyway–not for you, since it’s not likely to do you any good, but for the benefit of our other readers:

    1. When I was growing up on a western Montana ranch in the 1940’s and 1950’s, we were situated roughly 45 miles downstream from the men’s prison at Deer Lodge. We got to know men who had done time, some who were yet to do time, guards, the works. Unlike a lot of the general population, our family never saw them as lesser beings than any other members of society.

    2. I had begun writing women in prison in 1996, just a few weeks before meeting my wife–in large part because I’d had such poor luck with my marriages to “normal” gals that I figured a woman In prison who had lost everything might have developed a more realistic view of the way the world works.

    3. By the time Pam and I committed to each other in January of 1997, I was engaged in correspondence with a number of women and, as it happened, a couple of guys, too. Nothing romantic about the guys; they had simply become aware of my correspondence with inmates and were reaching out for any outside world contact they could get. Pam and I decided to keep on writing rather than abandon any of these folks.

    4. The correspondents changed over time, but we were seldom without at least of couple of women (the men eventually quit writing–their call, not ours) correspondents. Then, two years into our relationship, mine and Pam’s, her disabilities began falling on her head like several tons of bricks. It eventually became painfully obvious that her progressive diseases were going to keep on progressing.

    5. I’ve always been determined that no woman of mine is ever going into a nursing home–and in Pam’s case, being stuck in an institution like that would kill her in short order. So we added a new element to our correspondence, letting the women know that we would provide room and board for the RIGHT girl (meaning one, more than anything, who got along well with both of us and could be trusted) in return for helping me take care of Pam.

    Now, how has that gone? Well, we’ve “gone through” more than 200 correspondents over the years. The vast majority eventually choose to quit writing for their own reasons. Several committed to come live with us but were too heavily addicted (substance abuse) and got back into trouble the moment they got out of prison–and well before ever reaching us, by the way. But two ladies are now committed to helping with Pam’s care, and they’re the right people, too. Neither is here with us yet, but they will be.

    I assure you that I’m no “Bible thumper”, as you put it, though I am a member of a non-Christian religion (which does not believe in proselytizing or preaching in any way). It’s pretty clear that you, however, do not believe in helping any of your fellow human beings who may have had the misfortune to end up behind bars for whatever reason. Our efforts, on the other hand, have sometimes had amazingly positive results. I’ll share just one example, our friend Tawny:

    Tawny was introduced to us in 2005 by a prison pen pal with a Golden Heart who simply believed Pam and I would get along very well with Tawny–which we did. The friendship that grew between us over the years was crucial to Tawny, especially because her young adult children were estranged and she had no contact with her family. However, about a year before she was due to be released, her son and daughter both got back in touch, encouraging her to come live with or near them, which she did. Happy endings all around, but shortly before her release from prison, Tawny wrote us to state, “I will never forget you two and what you did for me.” She went on to say that she had no idea how she would have survived the final years of her sentence without our support.

    THAT’S why we do what we do.

    And that’s the last time I’ll explain myself; the next derogatory comment will definitely be deleted.

  5. I recently started writing two female inmates at different prisons. I also had a girlfriend who was incarcerated during our relationship. People just don’t understand the heartbreak and abandonment these folks go through in the worst times of their lives. You’d be amazed how much a simple hello brightens up their lives. I truly believe bad things happen to good people and who are we to judge others. It’s been a positive experience for both sides. I commend you both for your willingness to reach out to the forgotten. Especially at Christmas when the reality of prison really hits home. I bid you good luck for you and your Mrs. Sir.

  6. Thanks for your comment, Empathy. You’re absolutely correct about the heartbreak and abandonment experienced by inmates. A huge percentage of our many correspondents were largely–and all too often totally–“written off” by even their formerly close family members. Every word you wrote is dead on. We appreciate your commendation of our efforts and salute you for your efforts as well.

    May the blessings be.

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