By Jackson Holtz, Herald Writer
EVERETT — Call it targeted panhandling.
Devit Steward liked to crack open a phone book and look for names and addresses of people he thought might have money to spare and a generous heart. Then he mailed off hand-written notes asking for a donation.
Here’s the catch: Steward, 57, has been doing that from behind bars at the Snohomish County Jail, where he’s serving a 180-day sentence for driving with a suspended license.
Steward said he’s broke and needs money to help him get started when he gets out. A few extra bucks for the jail commissary would be nice, too.
“I use my imagination and it’s not against the law,” Steward said in a telephone interview from the jail. “I’m just asking for charity.”
In late July, Steward sent one of his letters to John Lucas and his wife, who live in an affluent south Snohomish County neighborhood.
“When I’m released I will have nothing,” Steward wrote. “I’m asking for financial help before being released. This money is to be used to rebuild my life when I’m release(d). May the LORD BLESS YOU and all that you have.”
Lucas said he was surprised and concerned at the solicitation. An assistant manager at a pharmacy, Lucas said he lives in a nice neighborhood but isn’t wealthy.
He said he’s worried someone more vulnerable might actually send Steward money.
“I’m probably not the only one who got this,” he said. “I’m sure it’s a scam of some sort.”
The letter Lucas received wasn’t the first Steward sent. Steward said he started sending letters from behind bars 10 years ago at the Washington Corrections Center in Shelton while serving time for a vehicular homicide conviction.
“Some people may be offended by it,” Steward said. “But since they’ve put the phone number in the phone book they’ve already given consent to be contacted by the public.”
When Steward sent the letters from the Snohomish County Jail, he wasn’t breaking any jail rules, said Jim Harms, a jail spokesman.
Indigent inmates, such as Steward, are given three letters a week in an effort to keep them connected with the outside community, Harms said. They are allowed unlimited letters to attorneys.
“I don’t think it was a good idea that they allowed them to do it,” Lucas said. “My wife was upset about getting something from a prisoner in jail.”
Steward directs people to mail money to him at the jail, or use a new Internet service, www.jpay.com, that allows people to give inmates money online.
After Lucas brought the letter to the attention of jail officials, the rules were changed, Harms said.
As of Friday, inmates no longer may solicit money from strangers, Harms said. If inmates are caught, they face possible sanctions, including loss of privileges and being placed in isolation.
“Mail should be limited to family and personal friends to maintain community ties,” Harms said.
The jail provides counseling and referrals to destitute inmates to help them in the transition out of jail, he said.
“We don’t give them $10 and a bus ticket,” Harms said. “We try to teach them what services and programs are available in the community.”
Steward said he has no intention of contacting the people he’s written to when he gets out of jail.
“For the sake of their security and the sake of my security, I wouldn’t want that to happen,” Steward said. “I’m just looking for financial help.”
Charity to the poor is a blessing, he said. It’s a practice he’s followed during better times.
“I certainly have contributed money to people that were lesser,” Steward said. “It’s God’s will that we do that.”
Reporter Jackson Holtz: 425-339-3437 or email@example.com.