There are as many reasons for corresponding with a death row inmate as there are those who do so, each a little different from the others. But the common element to be found among them all is one of mercy and compassion.
We know from the exonerees and current inmates, that lingering for years on death row is an excruciating experience in and of itself. It is often called a death before dying, because it is an isolating, anxiety-ridden and incredibly lonely existence. They are denied any human contact, often for decades and because of the well-documented mental, physical and emotional deterioration this condition causes, it is widely considered a form of torture. Regardless of a person’s guilt or innocence, torture is something that the vast majority of people objects to and find intolerable. For a first hand description of how it feels to be isolated on death row, please visit this site.
It is also important to consider that the people who end up on death row are disproportionately poor, undereducated and underprivileged. Addictions and mental illness often are mitigating factors in the crimes they’ve committed. And considering that there are now 156 individuals who have been found innocent and released from death row nationally, there are undoubtedly cases of innocent people subjected to this punishment through no fault of their own. Given all this information, it is not to say that most of the individuals there have not committed very serious crimes. Those that have should be held accountable, and the public has a reasonable expectation to be protected from danger.
By corresponding with a death row inmate, you validate their unconditional basic human dignity. Even just having written contact with a person on the outside of their prison cell eases the feelings of isolation and loneliness, lessening the torturous condition that has become for them their daily experience. It is a matter of compassion and mercy rather than one of judgment.
If you decide you’d like to become a pen pal, there are some basic guidelines that will help make it a positive experience for both you and the person you write to.
Your role is one of friendship and support. Do not ask about their case or offer legal advice. Be very careful not to build false hope or make promises you cannot keep. Individuals may choose to initiate communication about their case, but is best left up to them. If you want that information, it is very easy to find via a Google search. Be upfront with your pen pal regarding what you know about him if s/he brings it up.
Communicate with your pen pal the way you would when getting to know any other person. Tell them about yourself without being too personal-what you do, what your interests are. Other suggestions include discussing current events, music, sports, books and movies. You may want to share with them why you are writing and your level of experience or knowledge with the death penalty. Try to respond regularly to letters or emails sent and set limits if the correspondence becomes more than you can commit to.
Because the prisoners are isolated and lonely, friendship may not be easy and sometimes they may confuse your kindness with something more. This can be a problem. Be friendly but cautious and honest. Remember that you are in control of this relationship, and should not divulge any information about yourself that you are not comfortable with. They naturally want to connect a face with who they are communicating with, but you are not obligated to send any pictures if you would rather not. There may be rare occasions when things don’t work out with a particular individual, and that is expected. You can then choose to correspond with someone else or not.
Additionally, prisoners must purchase even some of the most basic things like a pillow. They obviously have no means of earning money, and so may ask you if you will give them some. Again, you are not at all expected or obligated to do so, but should be clear about your feelings in this regard if it should come up.
IJPC is happy to connect you with a person who has requested a pen pal and to help with any troubleshooting you may need. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.