Jail Babes is an introduction agency which offers access to a captive market. The women represented there advertise their charms, their interests, and their release dates; they are all incarcerated in American jails. About the only information missing from their advertisements is their crimes. I imagine most are in for drugs, like practically everyone else in America.

The difference between an American politician and a jailbird appears to be what while both are tremendously upbeat about their own charms and qualifications, only the politician will ever admit to any flaws of character. Charlesetta, from Texas, is 20 and describes her occupation as "cosmetologist": "I am very honest, loving fun, outgoing, sexy, open minded faithful, trusting, understanding, caring, and have a great sense of humour." Her only flaw would seem to be a difficulty spelling: "I enjoy swimming, sexercising, traveling, camping, modeling, posing for photography, romancing on the beach and massaging your body" but I don't think that can be the weakness that landed her in jail. She would like to meet a man of 38 to 65, with a susceptible or at any rate weak heart.

Most of the ads, though, are unbearably poignant. Lakreasha, 24 and with three children, of whom the oldest is 12, describes herself as "a very honest, outspoken outgoing, fun, adventurous, loving, understanding and respectable person." you wonder what a telephonist like this is doing in a place like that. Glori has four children, the youngest a year old, and is in jail in Colorado. She is pictured in a white T shirt, in front of a Christmas tree and a barred window in a whitewashed wall. Her hands are clasped in a pose suggesting prayer. She loves "the outdoors, long walks, watching sunsets, horseback riding " but won't be released to experience any of these things until June next year.

The whole operation is run from California by a company which charges $7.00 for an introduction to each girl, though bulk discounts are available. The tone of their advice is sternly moralistic: "It is important that you personalize each letter that you compose for each lady. We do not want to discourage you from writing to as many ladies as you want to. We do, however, remind you that it is very easy to discover if a man is sending out numerous letters to the ladies using a duplicated letter and changing only the name of the lady. This is not a sincere effort and will not produce the desired results that you would hope for."

It's safe to say that this could only happen in a market economy; but beyond that it is difficult to know what to feel about this introduction agency. Is it worse than the ones which already deal with Russian or Thai mail-order brides? At least these women are not being sent to a foreign country, even if a huge part of their attraction must be the disparity of power between the suitor and the object of desire. Considering all the terrible the ways in which women are exploited in American jails, this seems to be one of the least objectionable. But it is still a deeply upsetting place to visit and an English visitor will leave it with a heartfelt shudder of "only in America."

Except it's not only in America. Thanks to the magic of the Internet, these women appear all over the world. Jail Babes is a web site, rather than a traditional printed catalogue; and it's extraordinary how little difference this fact makes. Communication with the women still takes place by traditional snail mail. In one sense this is only yet another mail order catalogue imperfectly transferred to the world wide web, of which there will be hundreds of thousands by the end of the century.

Yet the technology does make one important difference to the effect these shops have; and that is to strangers all over the world peer into them. Jail Babes is only accidentally a global business. It is impossible to imagine it emerging or flourishing outside the Californian culture in which everyone is selling themselves; it is not the kind of America than everyone wants to imitate, even if it contains the world's largest collection of unwritten Elmore Leonard novels. If I want to understand a new country, I start by reading the small ads in the local newspaper. Nothing so precisely defines a community. On the Web, soon, you will be able to read everyone's small ads from everywhere. Someday, perhaps, poor Glori will be able to read her own.

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