If ever there was a perfect pen pal, it would be housewife Brenda Lee Sui-fun. She empathises with her correspondents, regales them with stories about her life and writes regularly. But unlike most pen pals, Ms Lee never sends photos of herself. A volunteer for the Hong Kong Christian Kun Sun Association, she is forbidden to include pictures or reveal her contact details in the letters she writes to her 10 pen pals, all of whom are criminals doing time in jail. But that has not prevented her from developing a close relationship with the men convicted of such serious offences as drug trafficking, blackmail and murder. For the past four years, the mother of three has written to inmates serving long-term sentences at Stanley and Shek Pik prisons. Rather than being repulsed by their criminal backgrounds, she says she has grown to understand their feelings and fears. In response to letters in which she talks about members of her family and the problems they face especially during the economic downturn, the inmates pour their hearts out to her, revealing their criminal past and talking about life on the inside. Sometimes the letters are so heart-wrenching that she is driven close to tears. 'The inmates tend to have similar family backgrounds, coming from either poverty-stricken families or families with poor parent-child relations, which provided them with little supervision or loving care,' she says. 'They stayed away from home, wandering the streets from an early age, then mixed with gangs and later committed crimes.' Had they grown up in a more caring family, she believes, many would not have gone astray. Some may call her naive, even foolish, but she seems unconcerned, saying her objective is to demonstrate to the prisoners a genuine interest in their well-being. Only when pressed does she reveal the crimes committed by some of her pen pals, such as Wong Koon-ho, who was arrested two years ago for blackmailing drinks company Vitasoy. The 26-year-old was handed a 4.5-year sentence for demanding payment of $500,000 after pretending to have slipped poison into a batch of Vitasoy products. 'He told me he had incurred massive debts beforehand,' says Ms Lee, also an advocate for parental education programmes. Wong was arrested years earlier for stabbing and bludgeoning his brother to death with a television set. But he was released after a court ruled he acted in self-defence and concluded he had been a victim of years of physical and psychological abuse. Volunteers for Kun Sun - which has been serving prisoners for the past 20 years - write letters together at the association's Shamshuipo office, usually every week. This, says the association's ministry secretary, Henry Tang Sau-kwong, helps build a rapport. All the volunteers are Christian, although not necessarily their prisoner pen pals. However, most have responded to suggestions made during Bible classes or evangelical meetings held by the association inside the prisons and others have heard by word of mouth. Participants in prison all crave having someone to talk to on the outside, says Mr Tang, adding, 'They are afraid of being rejected.' Their eagerness to have pen pals has meant that, on the whole, they have been a trouble-free lot, he adds. 'There was only one who asked a woman volunteer highly personal, sensitive questions in his letter, he says, declining to give specific details. 'Our volunteers are generally mature, so they know how to respond even if a difficult situation occurs.' But recently one unfriendly letter arrived at the office. Written by a young inmate, it criticises the association for forbidding volunteers to send pictures of themselves to prisoners. The rule, says its author Fat Tsai, implies a lack of trust on the part of the letter-writers. His complaint, however, will likely be ignored. Keen to minimise the possibility of love affairs, the association also discourages visits by female volunteers to male prisons. Concern was heightened, Mr Tang acknowledges, after the headline-making marriage in jail seven years ago of the now acquitted murder suspect Patrick David Wong and Shirley, a member of another volunteer group, Prisoners Friends Association (PFA). A former flamboyant playboy, Chinese-American Mr Wong was charged in connection with the brutal murder of his former girlfriend in 1989. While at Lai Chi Kok Detention Centre, he struck up a friendly relationship with his future wife. Their romance blossomed after Mr Wong was transferred to Stanley Prison and started communicating with her through letters. In 1991, they were married, two years before his acquittal. The Correctional Services Department (CSD) is not pleased with 'in-prison' affairs either. 'Prisoners are not supposed to influence others,' says a spokesman. Getting too close to prisoners can also cause disappointment. Primary school teacher Tang Wai-tat, for instance, has been let down a few times. A 30-something inmate whom Mr Tang befriended was released only to break the law again and end up behind bars for another term. Another - an inmate in his 50s who had been at Shek Pik and whose family was on the mainland - committed suicide early this year, possibly because of poor health. The two had become friends over five years, with Mr Tang writing to him twice a month and visiting 'particularly on festival holidays'. Though the death came as a shock, Mr Tang says it did not make him more cautious about becoming friends with prisoners. 'Some have families that don't want to help them at all,' he says, adding that he sometimes sends his pen pals books to help give them marketable skills. Many prisoners, for instance, are eager to become computer literate. 'The resources in prisons are too limited,' he says. 'My impression is that the CSD is not offering much encouragement to inmates who may want to begin a new life when they get out of jail.' Some have also emphasised the difficulties in re-integrating into society, he says. Others have made their own discoveries about prison life or the people behind bars. 'There is a common perception that prisoners are people without culture, with no fondness for writing or reading, but I have found that some can write very well and have a clear line of thinking,' says Po Tin-wing, an assistant magazine editor who sometimes assumes the role of counsellor in his correspondence with prisoners. 'There are all sorts of people in jail.' Second-year public administration student at City University, Winnie Hon Wai-yee, says she hopes she can be at least a partial influence on some of the prisoners. Like Kun Sun, PFA keeps confidential the addresses of its 100 voluntary letter-writers. Both associations also have a small number of volunteers who write to English-speaking, foreign inmates. Most of Kun Sun's prisoner pen pals are male, given the 6:1 male-female ratio in Hong Kong's prisons. Since the lifting of a restriction last year allowing prisoners to mail only one letter a week, they are now free to write as much as they like. Among those who write to Kun Sun volunteers are some of the 20-odd prisoners who committed serious crimes before the age of 18 and were subsequently held indefinitely under 'Her Majesty's Pleasure'. Recently they have been told to serve a minimum 30-year sentence before another decision is made on their fate. Mr Tang is full of sympathy for the group: 'The 30-year minimum jail sentence is unfair to them, depriving them of the right enjoyed by other long-term prisoners of a chance of review after two years.' Soon there may be a new name added to the list of 120 currently receiving letters from Kun Sun. According to Mr Tang, the organisation has decided to approach notorious gangster Yip Kai-foon, a former collaborator with the recently arrested Cheung Tze-keung ('Big Spender'), who is allegedly responsible for the abductions of two local tycoons. Mr Tang says one volunteer has expressed interest in writing to Yip. 'As far as we know, he is being hospitalised and rather depressed at the moment,' Mr Tang says. 'But no matter what he has done in the past, we think we should show concern for him.'