By Claire Schadler, pen pal with the Death Row Support Project (DRSP) of the Church of the Brethren
For the past year, I’ve been a pen pal with a death row inmate in the Florida prison system. I didn’t know what to expect when I started, but I didn’t care what crime my pen pal had committed. I originally needed to decide beforehand whether I was ok with writing to someone who had committed a serious crime. Once I made that decision, I signed up.
Even though I had made that decision, I still Googled my pen pal’s name. I read newspaper articles about him and watched CCTV footage of one of the crimes he committed. It wasn’t easy to see. But, looking him up didn’t change my conviction that the death penalty is wrong, that he doesn’t deserve to be treated the way he is being treated, and that if being my pen pal provides him with one glimmer of reprieve, then this experience will have been worthwhile.
My first email to him, I was more formal than I tend to be in my everyday life. His first letter to me had none of the formality that mine had. He told me to call him by the nickname that his family uses, chatted about himself, and ended the email by asking me why I had signed up for DRSP. His first email was this refreshing breath of directness, honesty, and sweetness. I wanted to answer his question with the same tone so that he understood my intentions for being a part of this organization. My response to him took time. I wanted to strike the right tone, and doing that required me to think.
Then, I didn’t hear from him. Trying to be patient, I let time pass until I realized that I had messed up the payment method for the email system and hadn’t actually sent my email. When I heard back from him, he was having internet problems. Over the past year, he often starts his emails with an apology about his tablet device or Wi-Fi. Recently, he wrote, “Sorry for such a delay in response, I haven’t been in the right state of mind lately and didn’t want to email you with a depressed state of mind but I’m feeling a little better now.” Of course, there could be any number of reasons that he can’t get back to me.
I’ve been told that people in prison just want pen pals to get something from the person on the outside. I was worried about that. My pen pal talked to me about his money concerns, about his mother not being able to afford anything for him, and about not having a lot of food. But, he has never once, in over a year, asked me for anything. Around Christmas, I sent him money for a Christmas basket that he said he was hoping he could get from his mom. He didn’t expect it from me or ask for more or do anything other than thank me.
Most recently, we decided we would start a book club together. He said he liked action thrillers and told me a few authors that he likes. I bought two books, not realizing I needed to send his book to him directly from a third-party seller. I asked Dina at DRSP for some advice about sending books, and she told me about Hamilton Books, which was cheap and included a section in the shipping address to put an inmate’s ID number. I just sent a copy off to him and hope we can jump into a fictional world soon.
I’ve had such a fulfilling year writing to my pen pal. Sometimes it’s hard, and I feel like I’m talking too much about my life. Sometimes, I feel overly privileged because I tell him about the places I have lived and the countries I have traveled to. Sometimes, I overthink what I can ask him or what I should talk about. Sometimes, I don’t hear from him for weeks. Sometimes, I don’t have time to write him back. Sometimes, I think about the Google search I did when I first received his name.
But, after a year, I think about those things less and less. I write my responses more easily, more naturally. We talk about tattoos and New York City and my job and dogs and art and friendship and Florida and my husband and his mom and his possible resentencing and exercise and food. I send him photographs of the mountains where I live. He also calls me “Ms. Claire,” and signs off his emails with “your friend.”
This testimony was originally featured in an email newsletter by Death Row Support Project, connected to the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy of the Church of the Brethren. Learn more about Death Row Support Project at www.brethren.org/drsp or support its ministry today.
(Read this issue of eBrethren.)