Travis, 39, had been in prison for 13 years. Melissa was the second person he communicated with through Write a Prisoner; he thought she looked gorgeous and he was impressed with her handwriting. “She seemed like such an interesting and accomplished person,” he said over email. “I found that when I wrote to him [back] the words just flowed. It was almost like love at first sight. … We had such an immediate and deep connection.
After his sentencing, Travis had given up on the relationship. When he joined Write a Prisoner, he was looking for a pen pal because prison life had been more tedious than usual. Due to COVID-19, his dog training program had been halted as the prison did not allow human visitors. “It slows down the days,” he said. Instead, he worked as a janitor (for 45 cents an hour), exercised, wrote (both fiction and non-fiction), watched television, and made desserts with commissioner’s ingredients. He had heard about Write a Prisoner many years before from a friend, but at the time he didn’t have $65 for the fee.
Travis and Melissa started talking to each other for 40 minutes a day on the phone. Then they moved to video visits every two weeks. Travis would go to a room in the prison equipped with a monitor and an old-fashioned telephone; Melissa would access the Zoom-like service from her personal computer. He paid for the phone calls and she paid for the video tours, which were $20 an hour. Soon they were in love.
But Travis feared losing Melissa once she found out what he had done. After being together for about a month, he wrote her an email. “In a moment of intense stress and thoughtless panic when [I] took care of [my] 11 month old girl, [I] knocked her down and killed her,” she recalled writing. At the time, he was married, had just lost his job, moved in with his father and was using cannabis. He told her that he had since attempted suicide in prison.
Melissa didn’t respond for about a week. He emailed her again. “If you hate me, tell me,” he wrote. Then he called, fearing that this was the end of the relationship. But Melissa had never received his email. In any case, she had known about his crime from the start. “I told him outright, I think he should have been put in jail. … He took a life,” she said. “What he did is deplorable. But he takes his time for that. … We have to be able to forgive people and not define them by the worst time in their life. Instead of separating, they got even closer.
When Melissa would tell her close friends about Travis, their first question was often, “What does he do?” And one time she said to them, “They [were] like, ‘Oh fuck,’ she said. “There’s such a stigma around convicted people, and people are quick to judge.” So she decided not to tell anyone else, including her family.
On March 11, 2022, six months after first contacting Travis, Melissa drove over three hours to finally meet him in person. When she arrived, the staff took her to the prison visitation room. “It kind of reminded me of a kindergarten cafeteria. There are little plastic chairs and little plastic tables,” she said. She wasn’t nervous, because she felt like she had known Travis forever. When he entered the room, he was wearing the required orange jumpsuit and orange sandals. “He was worried about what I was going to think. But I was like, ‘[I’m] there to see you, not your outfit,” she said. They hugged and kissed, as five correctional officers watched. One was in the room with them, and four others were outside, separated by glass walls. Travis and Melissa weren’t allowed to touch each other again until they said goodbye.
Travis is due out next June. They plan to get married. He wants to work as a veterinary technician or a truck driver. “I always tell him…I’ll help you find a job, but it won’t be easy,” she said. “Ex-prisoners come out of jail thinking they’ll have a fresh start. And unfortunately, the company does not provide this.
Although Travis is counting the days until he can be with Melissa, they appreciate how their relationship has developed. “This period of separation gives us time to get to know each other on an intellectual level,” he said. “It gave us a solid base.”