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— My computer monitor lights up with a picture of a bare-chested, buffed-up, tattooed male, maybe 30 years old, with black hair and mustache. Alongside the photo is a headline announcing "Jeff Rendall's Personal Message to You." Underneath the picture and banner is the following text. "Are you tired of being lonely? Are you tired of meeting Mr. Wrong? I'm a bright, sincere, financially secure Christian, searching for an understanding woman willing to forgive a man's past mistakes....

"Hobbies & Interests: I find great pleasure in planting and cultivating a vegetable garden during the springtime. I love a roaring fire on a cold winter night, rainy days with nothing to do, and the sound of high heels on a hardwood floor."

Jeff Rendall D-70983. Expected release 2001. P.O. Box 4000-11-129 Vacaville, CA 95696

I shake my head. Currently, Mr. Rendall is a bright, financially secure Christian doing time in Folsom prison.

Mr. Rendall's missive is posted on the World Wide Web. I found the site courtesy of a friend who e-mailed me the Web address along with a note saying, "Take a look at this." It turns out prisoner personals on the Web is an industry. You pay $10 to $30 a month to a firm, compose your personal ad, and they post it on their site. If someone replies -- and they do -- the service downloads the incoming e-mail, prints the letter, and forwards it to the prisoner/customer via U.S. mail. Prisoners do not have direct access to the Internet. (Interested readers can check out www.pennpals.com /www.inmate.com/ and www.cyberspace-inmates. com/.)

Like everything else, prison ain't what it used to be. Single-man cells have gone to two-man cells, new regulations limit access to the prison law library, grooming standards have been instituted, free-weights have been removed from exercise areas, visiting hours (which had been a seven-day-a-week program) have been reduced to 12 hours a week or less. Vocational and educational programs have been cut back.

Prison sentences are longer, and more of us are seizing the opportunity to live inside a cage. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice statistics, "If recent incarceration rates remain unchanged, an estimated 1 of every 20 persons (5.1 percent) will serve time in a prison during their lifetime." Think of that for a moment. There are 269 million people living in the United States. That means over 13 million of us will spend time in prison at some point in our lives. And this is prison -- not juvenile detention, not probation, not city or county jails, but prison, the last stop on the incarceration food chain.

Further, "Based on current rates of first incarceration, an estimated 28 percent of black males will enter State or Federal prison during their lifetime, compared to 16 percent of Hispanic males and 4.4 percent of white males." Nowhere on this earth is there a higher imprisonment rate than found in the good old U.S. of A.

As in much else, California leads the pack, warehousing more humans behind bars than any other state in the union. More than 626 out of every 100,000 Californians are incarcerated. Consider this: the New York Times reports that California spends $4.3 billion on higher education and $4.4 billion on youth and adult corrections. A prison guard with six years' experience earns more money than a starting tenured associate professor at the University of California. Being a prison guard is the last good blue-collar job left. All you need is a high school diploma and six weeks at a training academy. Six years and a couple promotions later you'll earn $44,000 a year, plus retirement, sick leave, vacations, health care, job security -- a package of benefits long, long gone from the private sector.

Over the last ten years one California State University campus has been built. During the same period of time, 20 prisons opened. Higher education in California lost 8000 jobs over the last ten years. During that time, 26,000 jobs were added to state correction departments. The California state budget has grown at an average of 7 percent a year for the last decade. At the same time the California Department of Corrections operating budget has increased 14 percent a year. In 1985 there were 7570 prison guards working in California. By 1990 there were 14,249 employed prison guards. Four years later, that number was 25,547.

Fifteen years ago there were about 35,000 inmates in California prisons. Today, there are close to 135,000 in 31 prisons. It is estimated by the year 2000, due to "Three Strikes" legislation, California will have 210,000 inmates, enough people to make the 11th largest city in California.

I get up and walk to the kitchen, make a pot of coffee, return to my computer, and begin to scroll through page after page of prisoner personal ads. At first the experience is like walking through a rat-infested alley filled with beggars. Each beggar is running a low-rent scam and each supplicant is so thoroughly locked into the scam mind that conversation is impossible. Regard:

"Military background: What I did is classified except what was brought out in my case and the Senate, so here it is.... Special Op's Group #3, U.S. operative on a covert & Military Group (Black Op's Group unreported) run by the Christians in Action from 1987 to present. (That's all my lawyer says I can say.)"

And: "DEAR FRIENDS: A little close to 15 years ago, I filed an International Complaint against the United States Government and all of its agents, before the International Court of Justice. While these charges were being presented...."

William "Ivory" Browner. Expected release 2007.

And: "I am a tall, athletic, romantic, white male. Snow skiing, scuba diving and surfing are my favorite sports.... Mostly I enjoy all kinds of stimulating conversation; especially 'hot talk.' The more intimate the better, if you can think it, you can say it...to me.... Thank you for reading my sincere request."

Larry David McGinty. Expected release, 2000. SP-Solano H69124 5-241L, P.O. Box 4000, Vacaville, CA 95969-4000.

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