Texas petition seeks ban on sex offender pen pals

BEAUMONT — Lori Williams was searching online last year when she found a plea apparently written by a Texas inmate looking for pen pals to write him in prison. The accompanying photo was of the man who cut the phone line at her Corpus Christi home 20 years ago, woke her from her sleep and sexually assaulted her at knifepoint.

"My name is Robert Torres and was born in 1965 in Lubbock near where Buddy Holly grew up. I am six feet tall, weigh 200 pounds, and my hazel eyes reflect my olive skin," the posting read in part. "I seek to connect with women who are romantics at heart that can share my most cherished dreams. I welcome all women that are open to the possibility of true love. I answer all letters and a photo of you gets one of me in kind. God bless and I await your response."

Torres was caught two months after assaulting Williams, and he is serving several concurrent life sentences for aggravated sexual assault at the Mark W. Stiles Unit in Beaumont. He is not eligible for parole until 2026.

Torres said in an interview that he didn't post the ad and has no pen pals. But after getting over her shock, Williams says she's determined to change Texas prison rules to make it harder — if not impossible — for some inmates to solicit correspondents from behind bars.

"When I discovered that he had an online ad and read the contents of that ad, it was definitely a setback as far as my healing," she said. "And it seems incredibly unbelievable that that's taking place and that people don't know that it's taking place."

An online petition she launched at Change.org has drawn more than 116,000 signatures asking Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to bar prisoners convicted of violent offenses from soliciting the public online. State Rep. Matt Shaheen, R-Plano, has already promised Williams he'll introduce legislation in the 2017 session to crack down on prison pen pals for sex offenders.

The push comes as state prison officials continue adapting to social media. TDCJ recently imposed new rules prohibiting inmates from having social media accounts that are run by third parties on their behalf.

Currently, inmates are allowed to have pen pals and can use online forums or postings to seek them out, according to TDCJ. Letters go through the usual prison vetting process to ensure they comply with prison correspondence rules, said agency spokesman Jason Clark. Inmates do not have direct access to the internet, he said.

Shaheen said he was surprised that inmates like Torres had that ability until he heard from Williams.

"We're wholeheartedly supportive of her and what she's trying to do," Shaheen said. "I have a high confidence that this legislation will get passed."

Williams also reached out to Abbott's office, which she said directed her to lawmakers.

Though Torres has inspired an online movement, he said no one writes him, not even relatives. And he said no one to his knowledge has published anything on his behalf or with his permission. "I'm not writing anybody," said Torres.

The department does not have an internal protocol to determine through letters whether an inmate is part of pen pal service, Clark said.

Torres's posting is on friendonline.org. Joost Hogenboom, the site's creator, would not say whether Torres arranged the notice himself, citing privacy. Generally, though, inmates reach out to the site via mail, asking to put a pen pal request online and the content is mailed in, said Hogenboom, who lives in the Netherlands.

With its new social media policy, TDCJ can now ask companies like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to shut down inmates' accounts, Clark said. But he said pen pal services are different and harder to track.

Taking precautions, Hogenboom said he hid the tab on the website for Texas inmates until he can independently sort out the implications of the new policy. The links to pages with pen pal information from Texas inmates still work, he said.

Social media restrictions and efforts to regulate pen pal services run the risk of impeding First Amendment rights, inmate advocates argue. Prisoners largely retain their First Amendment rights, said Alex Friedmann, associate director of the Human Rights Defense Center and managing editor of Prison Legal News, a monthly publication.

Prisoners already don't have direct access to the internet or the outside world, he said.

"I would submit that prisoners should have the right to human contact and communication, just like every other person," Friedmann said. "And they aren't sent to prison to be socially ostracized. They're sent to prison to serve out their prison term. That doesn't mean they should be social pariahs and not be able to communicate with people on the outside."

Attempts to restrict such access are shortsighted, and making inmates miserable does not help rehabilitate an offender, he added.

"Ultimately, that does not help society," Friedmann said. "It does not help when you put somebody in a cage and you beat them up for years and years and then you let them out and say, 'there you go, now you can live a life that is free of crime.'"

Click here to read this story in its original home with our content partners at The Texas Tribune.

Copyright 2016 WFAA


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