Wanted: Pen(itentiary) Pals : Relationships: Prisoners who place personal ads may be looking for love, or have darker motives. The women who answer are willing to take the risks.

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"Incarcerated, single black male, 36, 6'1, 230, seeks full-figured, open-minded woman who loves herself as is, and is serious in building a friendship through meaningful communication, race is not a factor"

When it comes to relationships, Jerome Merritt is not judgmental.

He wrote his personal ad in a 16-by-6-foot California state prison cell in Lancaster, where he is scheduled to remain until at least 1999. He said he is willing to accept flaws in a potential romantic partner as long as she can overlook his 10-year sentence for robbery and sexual assault.

"There's someone for everyone," Merritt said. "I'm looking for a person who won't look down on me because of my past."

Thousands of male inmates statewide place similar newspaper ads each year, according to officials with the state Department of Corrections. (The practice is far less common, authorities said, among female prisoners). It is well known within prison walls that many inmates placing ads are just after money, valuables and/or revealing photos.

There have also been reports of inmates attacking their correspondents after being released.

But for a few inmates, the plaintive letters addressed to anyone who has pocket change for a newspaper carry a sincere, desperate plea for romance.

"Damn right, I'm looking for a wife," said Robert Parker, 45, serving a sentence of seven years to life for kidnaping and robbery convictions. While incarcerated in Lancaster, he has placed several classified ads.

"We're people who made a wrong turn in life," he said. "That doesn't mean we're ostracized from society. We have wants and needs like everybody else."

Merritt, in trouble with the law since he was a child growing up in a single-parent home in Compton, had previously served 18 months for snatching a purse and four years for armed robbery. The latest convictions came in 1990.

When he gets out this time, the muscular, soft-spoken inmate hopes to settle down in his hometown and start a business. "Something small, like a 99-cents store," he said.

And he does not want to do it alone. Six women answered his most recent ad. He is still writing to two of them.

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Joan Meller, 51, has lived in a Mojave mobile home since a back injury forced her to quit a custodian job in 1991. She said she answered Merritt's ad out of curiosity and loneliness, and found him a gentle and willing listener. But through experiences with inmate correspondents, she had learned to hold off on a romantic relationship.

"I want to see if he still feels the same way when he gets out," she said. "A lot of people say things when they get in there and when (they) get out it's not the same story."

Barry Licata, a supervisor for the Van Nuys Parole Unit, said no agencies keep statistics, but he estimates that "maybe one in a hundred" letter exchanges develop into a romantic relationship. He guesses that only about 1% of those relationships end up in a successful marriage.

Inmates agree that it's a long shot.

"Usually it comes to an end because while the man was doing time . . . the woman had come to expect the relationship to always be a given way, and she was nearly 100% in control of it," said Wayne Conway, an inmate at the Lancaster prison. Conway's comments came by letter because he did not want to be interviewed in person.

All that changes, Conway said, after the inmate is released.

Inglewood parole agent supervisor Allan Taylor recalled one correspondence relationship that ended in violence.

"We had this one case a few years ago where we kept telling this one girl, 'Don't marry this gang rapist,' " Taylor said. "But this girl, a beautiful girl, married him despite our efforts and then she got raped and thrown over the side of a cliff by this guy and his gang."

The woman survived, he said, and eventually left the state, refusing to testify against her husband.

Alfred Coodley, a psychology professor at UCLA and a psychiatric consultant to various court and law enforcement agencies, said that women who answer ads are often seeking instant acceptance.

"They simply blot out the reality of what they're doing and the type of person they're dealing with," Coodley said. "They frequently imagine because of their positive qualities, they can affect this individual 100% and turn them around from a criminal to an ideal human being."

Once every three months, Meachel Daignault, 30, drives from Harbor City, near Long Beach, to Lancaster to see her fiance. She would go more often, she said, but her budget does not allow it. She began corresponding with inmates during a particularly difficult time in her life, following a miscarriage and the death of three friends.

"I felt like I was in kind of a prison," said Daignault, while on her way north on the freeway. "I was on medication and stuff. I felt like maybe I could understand their case because they're in a prison too. They had bars but I didn't."

Her mother, Lavonda Brandt, 50, was along for the ride. She had a more cynical view about inmate correspondents.

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"I think they get together and they go over each others' notes," Brandt said. "They'll say 'tell her this' or 'send this.' "

Daignault started writing to Eric Ford, who is serving a 14-year armed robbery sentence, four years ago. They are scheduled to get married in a lunchroom at the prison in December, her third marriage and his second.

They have endured a stormy on-again, off-again engagement. Daignault said she and Ford, 27, argue frequently about everything from her not visiting enough to her hairstyle. She said her fiance also tends to do bizarre things such as claim he has brain cancer in an attempt to get money and sympathy.

"I believe I'm going to have to be hard on him," she said. "I don't think he has a motivational bone in his body."

Ford, who said in a telephone interview that he might dump Daignault for a Bakersfield woman--and then a week later denied it--said he thinks Daignault is being a bit harsh on him.

"I have never lied to her," he said during an interview at the jail. "Well, OK, I have, but I've always told her the truth afterwards."

Each of the 1,000 to 1,500 pieces of mail that arrive daily at the Lancaster prison is inspected by correctional officers to make sure nothing included is illegal, such as child pornography, said prison spokesman Dean Crenshaw. Otherwise, he said, sexual content is not censored.

"We're looking for anything that would stand out in a letter, like assaulting or killing somebody," Crenshaw said. "We also look to see if there's any mention of drugs, escape, or any letter that would look like it's in code of some kind."

Meachel Daignault said she will send her fiance $5 to $10 every few months, but that's all. "Eric has asked me for a TV set, a radio and tennis shoes," she said. "I'm like 'Screw you, buddy. You got yourself in there. Buy your own TV set.' "

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