Vicky White had a spotless career as a prison guard in Alabama. The 56-year-old was a highly respected widow, her colleagues “trusted her with their lives” and she was viewed as an “exemplary employee” by the local sheriff. She was days away from retirement and had told colleagues how much she was looking forward to spending more time at the beach.
Until she shocked the world by running away with an inmate who was serving 75 years for a series of violent crimes whilst facing trial for murder.
It is believed that Vicky helped Casey White (no relation), 38, escape the jail after becoming romantically involved with him. They were on the run for 11 days, sparking a nationwide manhunt, until they were arrested in Indiana. Tragically, Vicky has now died after shooting herself.
“It’s a lot more common than people realise,”’ says Louis B. Schlesinger, professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “You can go into any state prison and find a number of cases of women who have been romantically involved with inmates, whether they’re correction officers, nurses, teachers or psychologists. I’ll bet there’s not one prison in the States where that’s not the case.”
The phenomenon of being attracted to a criminal has been given the name “hybristophilia”, from the Greek hybridzein, to commit an outrage against another, and philein, from the verb to love.
Schlesinger believes women become hybristophiliacs because of the dynamics involved. “They know where their boyfriend is at all times, which some people need. Sometimes, they have a need to feel needed, and the relationship organises their life – where they go on weekends, when they’ll call and the drama. An inmate becomes very dependent on a woman who visits him and sends him money, so these women can feel really sought-after. Then there are women who gain vicarious status through getting involved with notorious inmates – and the media has an interest in them.”
He believes that in most cases, women “rationalise away” the crimes their partner has committed – either convincing themselves they were innocent or when relationships have formed in real life, as in the case of Vicky White, being manipulated by the criminal saying they’ve changed. “These guys are highly manipulative. They’ll tell women what they want to hear – how beautiful and smart they are. These are men who are constantly working people to get you to work for them.”
Philippe Bensimon, a criminologist who spent 27 years working for the Correctional Service of Canada, separates it into two categories: passive hybristophilia, where people create a fantastical, romantic obsession that leads to actions like writing letters to inmates, and active hybristophilia, where the fantasy becomes a real, perverse relationship that typically leads to a woman committing crimes with her partner, such as the cases of Fred and Rose West or Ian Brady and Myra Hindley.
“In America it’s sometimes called the Bonnie and Clyde syndrome,’ says David Wilson, emeritus professor of criminology at Birmingham City University. He labels it “folie a deux” and believes it could be applied to what happened to Vicky White. “She would have been simply consumed by the narrative, where he’s dominant and she’s subservient.
“I think given the fact she was a prison guard and trusted, he would have played on what their life would be like in retirement. She would have got caught up in his ability to weave a tale that over time sounded plausible until the bubble burst and she realised what she’d done.”
The idea of a woman falling for a dangerous criminal might sound unlikely but, as Schlesinger points out, it is more common than we think. Murderer Charles Manson received more post than any other inmate in US prison history, even receiving a marriage proposal from a young woman who he went on to marry when he was 80 and she 26. Doreen Lioy fell for serial killer and rapist Richard Ramirez after seeing him on TV in the Nineties, finding him “charming” and believing him innocent. And recently Chris Watts, who is in a Wisconsin jail after murdering his pregnant wife and two young daughters, has received photos from female admirers desperate to see him.
“These aren’t just women who can’t get anyone,” says Schlesigner. “They’re often highly educated, attractive and articulate. They organise their lives around these fantasy idealised relationships.”
There is little data on hybristophilia, but it is widely believed to affect women more than men. A study by Dr Bensimon found that out of 300 cases between 2005 to 2015, more than 70 per cent of cases of sexual misconduct involved female staff. He believes this is because there are many more women working in male prisons than men working in female prisons, and in some cases, the empathy can lead to “the gaze of the mother, the big sister, the friend” to whom the prisoner will confide. “We must not forget that the presence of women in a man’s world has a weight, an inevitable force of attraction,” he says.
Prof Wilson thinks the attraction could be linked to evolution. “If you want your offspring to survive and there are big scary monsters out there, it’s an evolutionary adaptation to date a big scary monster. It’s a way you can ensure your DNA will continue as opposed to the DNA of another woman. I think as time has moved on you still see elements of that because sadly women have to deal with the violence of men.”
Schlesinger adds that very often women are the victim of crimes committed by these perpetrators. “They want to understand what happened and how not to get fooled. The majority of women who view crime shows are women. Generally speaking, women are very intrigued by the fact that so many of these guys look normal.”
That innocent curiosity could – in a small percentage of cases – lead to a gradual obsession with a criminal that comes out in letter writing, which is all about creating an idealised, romantic fantasy. But in a situation where the woman has close contact with an inmate, it could – as with Vicky White – lead to a relationship that has devastating consequences.
It’s why experts are calling for further research in this field, while Dr Bensimon urges prison administrations to start facing up to this reality and give staff training to avoid this happening again. “No one is safe from having to face this fine line that must never be crossed, especially not in a world like that of prisons.”