Renea Royster turned a pen pal friendship with an inmate into a business helping prisoners do everything from post updates to Facebook to find dates online—and she’s making more money than in her job at a Walmart deli.
There are at least 50 sites that help people find pen pals in prison, according to The Marshall Project, but that’s not exactly what Royster does. She’s the go-between between inmates, their pen pals, and the rest of the world. Inmates don’t get access to the internet, and so pay her to use it and send them the information they want. On a daily basis she’ll send sports scores to inmates for their fantasy league and help someone look up old friends.
For $20 for three months, she and her son Phil help create a pen-pal ad and maintain the correspondence. Given that she’s asked to include details like “My best feature is 11 inches, uncircumcised,” these often read like a different kind of ad. Once, a woman sent one of her clients a naked photo he couldn’t see, so she described it to him. He asked her to respond: “Dayammmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm baby!”
For $50, she’ll maintain your Facebook for three months. For $125 a month, she’ll be a personal assistant and, as one man requested, help you research medieval England for your novel. Royster has her customers hand out business cards and flyers in common area, and makes about $1,500 in two weeks. The business has also brought personal gains: She met her boyfriend Jimmy, who is incarcerated in Kentucky, through the work and they have tattoos with each other’s names.
From a legal standpoint, there are tricky parts to the business. Back in April, Texas passed a new rule preventing prison inmates from having active social media accounts even if they were being run by someone on the outside. Facebook has a form that lets law enforcement report an inmate’s account to be taken down if it violates social-media rules. But for many others, Royster’s services and her time—up to 100 hours per week—are available.