She had spent her life in small towns on the outskirts of Toledo, working the kitchens at truck stops and nursing homes.
Growing up, much of her extended family was buttoned-up and church-going, and she often felt like an outcast, with her nose ring and tattoos and two kids by two men.
Renea read out a post that one of her clients had asked her to put on his Facebook page. “Everybody stops and looks her way, and when she talks everybody shuts up and listens,” she read aloud to her son Phil, who chuckled. ” Eventually, she drifted to other tasks: helping prisoners look up old friends, sending them stock quotes and sports scores (for their fantasy leagues), and checking crowdfunding pages where they’re raising money for legal bills.
“That’s the other type of shit that makes me hard-up! This is what Renea, who is 47 and lives outside Toledo, Ohio, does for up to 100 hours a week, stopping only for new “Game of Thrones” episodes and smoke breaks and calls from her boyfriend, Jimmy, who is currently incarcerated in Kentucky and who she met through the business.
Other businesses, like Inmatefone and Phone Donkey, sell forwarding numbers so prisoners can avoid long-distance charges.
She sees herself as a social secretary for people who have been deprived of the forms of communication that are now ubiquitous almost everywhere except for prisons.
And she sees the sources of this loneliness, too; prisoners send messages to family members over and over and don’t get responses.
“It’s like reading the Enquirer every day.” enea found her first pen pal, Wayne, in February 2015.
Sipping from a big cup of iced tea, Renea handed Phil a stack of pictures to scan and post of men and women looking for pen pals.
The posts, which cost for three months, typically feature a few photos — often shirtless — and bios that read like dating classifieds (“I’m a very fun and exciting person to be around!
The site, “Ask a Convict,” has a “serial killers” tab, and founder Jon Nolan said that while some people do harbor unsettling romantic proclivities, others are just curious to ask questions like, “What is it like to kill someone?
” Nolan was initially curious, too, but eventually, “it got pretty dark and depressing,” and he would get letters featuring “a run-on sentence about wanting colored pencils and enjoying strangling women.” He eventually abandoned the site, though it is still online.