GRIPPING the phone, I felt my heart thump with excitement. My pen pal Danny Robinson, 30, had just confessed that he had feelings for me.
And even though we’d only been talking to each other for a few months, I felt the same.
From our shared love of songwriting and Malorie Blackman books, to the chemistry when we spoke on the phone, there was something special between us.
But there was a problem – not just that Danny lived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, almost 4,000 miles from my home in Leeds, West Yorkshire – but that he was serving eight years for armed robbery in a US jail.
I’d never considered writing to a prisoner until early January 2021, when I stumbled across a video on TikTok of a woman explaining that she was pen pals with inmates in North America.
Intrigued, I decided to look up the website she mentioned – Writeaprisoner.com. It didn’t cross my mind that I’d find love there. Happily single since my last relationship had ended five months previously, I was just curious.
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Scrolling through face after face of prisoners whose offences ranged from fraud to murder, I read their bios. Many sounded like dating profiles – “You should be hot and ready for flirting,” said one, which immediately made me keep scrolling. Then I saw Danny’s.
He explained that he was from Milwaukee and in jail for armed robbery. He’d committed the crime in his mid-teens, been released after eight years, but breached his parole aged 22 so had been re-sentenced to serve the full term. He was set to be released for the second time in 2025.
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Admittedly, it didn’t sound good. I’d grown up in a “normal” family, worked hard at school, built my career, and never so much as shoplifted as a kid.
But he also spoke about his love of reading, music and chess, as well as his hopes for the future, including his desire to set up a non-profit organisation for prison reform and his ambitions to find a trade. He came across as articulate, kind, thoughtful and interesting – not to mention handsome.
So, even though I’d never had a pen pal before, I wrote him a brief letter telling him about my job as a recruitment consultant, life in Leeds and how I also loved music and reading.
For about a week, I waited anxiously for a reply, but nothing arrived, so I assumed he got lots of letters and wasn’t fussed about mine.
'I felt my stomach somersault'
But around a month later, I received an email asking my permission to be added to the prison’s email system. I didn’t even realise that inmates had access to computers, but I agreed.
Within hours, Danny and I were emailing each other – casual at first, with short detail of our lives. After about a week and a half, he tentatively suggested a phone call, and I agreed, though I didn’t send him a picture of myself until two weeks later.
The first time I heard his American drawl, I felt my stomach somersault. It sounded so different from the Yorkshire twang of the guys at home. Within days we were chatting on email and the phone several times a day.
Danny bought credit to use the prison’s facilities – they had a mobile that guards would bring to his cell. The conversation flowed like we’d known each other for years.
Gradually, Danny opened up about prison life – the tension and one-upmanship between inmates. He also spoke of his troubled childhood that led him to turn to crime. He talked of his remorse and how he’d worked hard in prison to get his advanced high-school qualifications, plus skills in joinery, building and electrical work.
After several weeks, I realised I was developing romantic feelings – and thankfully he felt the same. As happy as that made me, I still had concerns. What kind of future could we have? Danny’s bail stipulations mean that even after his release, he has to stay in the US.
After several weeks, I realised I was developing romantic feelings – and thankfully he felt the same.
But I put that to the back of my mind. Of course, when I broke the news to my family and friends, they had their misgivings. Some mates thought I was joking, and some of my family were terrified Danny was going to take advantage of me.
But I reassured them that he’d never asked me for money, I was his only pen pal, and I trusted him implicitly.
Still, some people tried to dissuade me when I decided to use a combination of my savings and Danny’s money to fly to Wisconsin to meet him in November 2021. I knew they just wanted to protect me, but I was determined.
After arriving in Milwaukee following a 20-hour flight with two layovers, I went to stay with a friend of his. There I got dressed in my best clothes and a full face of make-up ready to meet him at the prison.
As I walked through a metal detector, my heart was racing. But as soon as I saw Danny, the nerves vanished. It was like coming home. Sitting across from each other at a table in a room filled with inmates, visitors and guards, we sneakily held hands – which is forbidden – and even had a kiss when the guards weren’t looking.
Every day for a week I went to see him, and on my final visit I broke down at the thought of having to return home. I was more certain than ever that Danny was the one for me.
'Make do with sexy emails and phone calls'
Since then, we’ve grown even closer, but there are still hurdles. It’s hard not being able to plan weekends away or be intimate in real life.
We have to make do with sexy emails and phone calls – Danny shares a cell with one other inmate, and they give each other privacy during calls by putting on headphones and turning the other way.
I’ve also had to rethink my long-term plans, like getting married in my local church and settling down in Leeds.
I won’t have the life I envisaged as a little girl, but ultimately I want Danny more than that.
We’ve been dating for over a year now and have talked about having children one day. Most people are happy for me – my friends have talked to Danny on the phone, and though my family still have reservations, I know it’s out of love.
I sometimes post about Danny on TikTok, which inevitably attracts trolls, who say we must be cheating on each another and that he’s a scammer – but I just ignore them.
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I’m saving up to go see him again this summer, and counting down the days till his release in 2025.
I’m so glad I watched that video – I can’t wait to spend the rest of my life with a man who happens to be a prisoner, but is so much more, too.
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