Prisoner I have never met emailed asking to contact me. What now?
October 12, 2016 5:56 AM   Subscribe

What it says on the tin. I don't know this person and I've never lived in Indiana, where she is located. The service she contacted me through is called Getting Out and appears from a cursory Google source to be legit. A) how and why did she identify me as someone to contact, B) should I respond in any way, and C) is this a Thing?
posted by sciatrix to Law & Government (26 answers total)
A) It may be that you have the same name as someone she was trying to contact. B) Ignore this. C) It's some sort of thing.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 6:08 AM on October 12, 2016 [10 favorites]

There's a standard scam for prisoners doing this: basically contacting strangers and trying to suck them into sending money or goods, or if the prisoner really is getting out soon (often falsely claimed) to convince that stranger to support them with a job, living space etc. I'm not saying every prisoner sending letters like this is a scammer, just that one heck of a lot of them are --- and that goes double for someone like you, who has no other connection (say if they are a relative, a known friend/former coworker/whatever) to the prisoner. Just be very, very careful if you do decide to respond, for instance by only using a post office box for mail, never a street address, and never giving them a phone number.

I'd recommend you simply ignore this email, just as you would any sketchy email from anyone else.
posted by easily confused at 6:12 AM on October 12, 2016 [9 favorites]

this seems like the kind of thread where citations would really help avoid what could otherwise be kneejerk bias.
posted by andrewcooke at 6:14 AM on October 12, 2016 [19 favorites]

Wrong email address? I get all kinds of crap to my not-my-name at address because people gave out the wrong email address.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 6:17 AM on October 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Although Getting Out's website is trying to spin it as some sort of charitable service, it is run by Telmate, which is one of those for-profit prison communication services.
posted by interplanetjanet at 6:20 AM on October 12, 2016 [10 favorites]

If this were me, I would contact her back to say that you are not the person she is trying to reach.

On the one hand, this may be a total scam, and if she emails back scammily you can say no.

But on the other, think of some poor woman - probably pretty disadvantaged and with limited internet and address-research skills and access - thinking that you are her friend, or her mom's old friend, or her long-lost cousin or whatever, and then you never reply and she thinks they've cut her off. Sometimes people who haven't had a lot of internet experience write emails that seem weird to people who spend a lot of time on the internet, too.
posted by Frowner at 6:24 AM on October 12, 2016 [37 favorites]

Er--clarification, but there's no actual message from this woman, just her full name and the county jail she's currently in. Everything else is a form message from Telmate telling me that she is requesting to contact me and asking me to set up an account.
posted by sciatrix at 7:05 AM on October 12, 2016

I would absolutely contact her back and let her know that she's reached the wrong person. Worst case scenario, if she was trying to scam you, you don't have to respond to any subsequent messages she might send you after you tell her that you don't know her and that she probably has the wrong email address for someone. But the best case scenario is that you can help someone who, regardless of what she may have done in the past, is in an incredibly vulnerable and helpless position.

Imagine if you had no meaningful way to contact your parents, your kids, your friends, your spiritual advisor, whoever. Then imagine you reached out to that person the only way you had, and they never replied. And you had nothing to do all day but think about all the reasons they might hate you or be in trouble or be sick or dead, and there's nothing you can do to help or even to find out if they're okay. Please help this woman by letting her know she hasn't reached the person she was trying to reach. You don't have to become a part of her life, but telling her what went wrong with her message is the least you can do for someone who is pretty helpless.
posted by decathecting at 7:24 AM on October 12, 2016 [28 favorites]

Is your email published with any scholastic work, or on a lab webpage?
posted by Dashy at 7:25 AM on October 12, 2016

Oh, and also, as interplanetjanet alludes to, you may be able to save her some money, because she won't be paying to try to send messages to the wrong person. Those private telecom companies make huge amounts of money off inmates, so you can help make sure they don't get to take advantage of her and steal her money any more than is necessary for her to actually keep in touch with her loved ones.
posted by decathecting at 7:26 AM on October 12, 2016 [6 favorites]

You'll want to decide whether you want to or not, obviously, but it sounds like your communication should be with Telmate.

For all you know, this woman inmate told Telmate (or responded to some sort of "come-on" from Telmate) that "Yes, I'd like to connect with someone who fits Criteria A, B and C." Then, for reasons wholly unknown to you, you happen to be "someone who fits Criteria A, B, and C."

Telmate translates that as "Ida Inmate wants to connect with you, sciatrix."

As others have suggested, you could drop the matter. If you're so inclined, however, your first move should probably be a serious questioning of Telmate.
posted by John Borrowman at 8:16 AM on October 12, 2016 [4 favorites]

I'm betting that she fat-thumbed your email address. Unless the email has some identifying information about you (at least your correct name), I'd ignore it.

If you wanted to go above and beyond, you could contact her via snail mail at the jail and let her know she reached the wrong person, but I bet she already knows.
posted by sparklemotion at 9:04 AM on October 12, 2016

Is there an option on Getting Out's website to indicate you are not the correct contact?

I received a similar type of email from a different website that was also from an inmate I did not know, and there was an option to opt out because I didn't know them.
posted by Julnyes at 9:10 AM on October 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

It's probably a three-way phone scam. She'll say she can't contact someone important to her, then convinces you to three-way call, then you hang up and they talk and you are stuck with a VERY HEFTY BILL.

Or just the wrong email.
posted by Neekee at 9:14 AM on October 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

If I were in your shoes, I'd probably try e-mailing the company and saying that I do not know anybody by this name so the prisoner must have used the wrong e-mail address. I'd also state clearly that I have no intention of entering into any further communication on this subject and ask the company to delete my address from any databases.

If there's no way to do this on the contact form you can probably find an e-mail or snail mail address with a little Googling. To me, this seems like a reasonable compromise between helping a disadvantaged person out if they just made a mistake and keeping yourself safe from scammers.
posted by rpfields at 10:36 AM on October 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

It could also be that she contacted you on purpose for some reason -- have you done anything that might get your name out there? My mom was once contacted by a prisoner who wanted to correspond about a book she wrote that he read while in prison. (Although in that case, he read it in a study group, and communication was initiated by the minister who ran the group, not by the prisoner himself.)
posted by phoenixy at 10:46 AM on October 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Do not contact the prisoner.

Put the letter and its envelop in another envelop and mail it to the warden of the prison. This is more likely a scam of some sort. You do not want to establish a chain of contact with any prisoner you don't already know.

A worst case scenario has this prisoner notifying a contact on the outside that you might be approached for some reason or another, none of which will ever be in your best interest.
posted by mule98J at 10:46 AM on October 12, 2016 [5 favorites]

Just delete it and move on.
posted by fixedgear at 11:07 AM on October 12, 2016

I get a ton of misdirected e-mail, including prisoner communication requests from total strangers. I've always ignored them and have never had any further trouble.
posted by phatkitten at 11:37 AM on October 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Just fyi, based on my experience earlier this year using a different service for inmate phone calls: whoever sets up the account adds the phone numbers that the inmate may call. Calls to other numbers will not go through, the account is password protected so numbers can't be added by others, and 3-way calls are prohibited. Also, there is no other way for inmates to make calls (from jail in Cook County, IL, anyway), including to notify family that they need an account in order to make calls.

Assuming you received a message intended for someone else, I'm sure the woman will appreciate knowing of the mistake. Hopefully, Telmate will deliver the message. Given the rates* these services charge, it's the very least they can do.

*Unreasonable—albeit, miles better than what inmates at Cook used to pay.
posted by she's not there at 11:38 AM on October 12, 2016

I've found a way to contact the GettingOut/Telmate people directly and have sent them an email saying, essentially, that this lady added me as a contact and it looks to have been an error, and would you let her know that? Please don't charge her for the error, either. I'll see what they say to that.

It seems unlikely that she emailed me by accident, because I have an uncommon full name which is shared by perhaps 2-3 other people on the internet and my email address consists of that; I've never received anything intended for the other two sciatrici before via email. But who knows? I once tweeted a simplified version of my email this summer, which is the only time I think I've posted it online, and it's listed in my university's directory. That said, it seems odd that anyone might want to contact me based on my work, since I'm a fairly obscure graduate student with one publication so far--not even done with my current PI! My only publication isn't something I would expect anyone who isn't in my discipline of academia to have run across or be particularly interested in, either.

(I checked, and the email was definitely sent to my legalname address, not the address I usually use for people who interact with me under my sciatrix handle. That's honestly the one I would have guessed might have made someone want to contact me before today, so ymmv. Is this the sort of thing where she might have put in to contact me based on my email address, or might she have contacted me based on just my phone number?)
posted by sciatrix at 12:03 PM on October 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

I don't think she mixed you up with someone else. Honestly, I'm guessing this is some kind of scam for attention/money or something like that, and you probably won't be sorry if you just ignore it. You may very well be sorry if you open this can of worms and let her contact you, though
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:56 PM on October 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Assuming that a prisoner must be running a scam is--come on, dudes.

This isn't really a problem; if she contacts you again, ignore it.
posted by listen, lady at 5:59 PM on October 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

I don't think it's so much that this person is a prisoner, but that they are a total stranger who wants to communicate with you. I wouldn't respond to any complete stranger who randomly emailed me out of the blue.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 10:59 PM on October 12, 2016 [5 favorites]

Just FYI, don't trust Telnet to actually get any kind of message to her, even if they write back to you. They have no incentive to tell her she's contacting the wrong person, because if they pass along such messages, they'll suck up less money from people with misdirected mail. Plus my experience (which is fairly extensive) with these companies is that there is zero customer service. Think of it like a cross between Comcast and the DMV, but with literally a captive audience. I once had a mother trying to contact her child for seven months after his father had died, and they kept re-routing her to the same wrong inmate even after all three parties (mom, child, and wrongfully contacted person) told them repeatedly that they were getting it wrong. They only fixed it after a lawyer threatened to sue on behalf of a class that would have included more than a thousand prisoners with similar issues.

I know everyone is inclined to assume that all prisoners (or really, any vulnerable stranger, apparently) are scammers. But honestly, most prisoners aren't trying to pull something; they're trying to do their time and go home. Most of them are parents trying to talk to their kids or kids trying to talk to their grandmas, and they are lonely and scared and trying to maintain some connection to a world they hope to eventually rejoin along with the rest of us. Assuming that anyone in prison must be malicious and out to get us is why recidivism is so high, and why there's no meaningful rehabilitation, and it's why there's so much abuse in prisons, because when prisoners report it people assume they're trying to pull a scam. Sorry if I've gotten preachy, but ignoring prisoners because we assume they're all constantly lying and scheming to commit new crimes against us is how mass incarceration happens.
posted by decathecting at 1:46 PM on October 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

...ignoring prisoners because we assume they're all constantly lying and scheming to commit new crimes against us is how mass incarceration happens.

And giving out personal information (even if its just verifying you name and email address) when answering every email that arrives from unknown persons and companies, is how people get scammed(one way or another).

Its totally OK not to respond to this email.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 5:04 PM on October 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

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