Writing to a Death Row Prisoner
Deciding to writeI had been reading an online column called "Deadman Talkin'", for many years. Deadman Talkin' is written by Dean Carter, a prisoner on Death Row in California. I've found it fascinating to read about conditions and daily life, and also to realise how long people spend there. If they were convicted as a young adult, they might spend most of their life in prison before they are executed.
I also enjoy getting another perspective on the world by sponsoring two children and writing to their families - one in Mali, one in Sri Lanka. Writing to someone on Death Row would give me another insight and might provide him with something to do.
So writing to a prisoner was in the back of my mind already when I saw this article on BBC News Online. It mentioned Life Lines, a group of people who write to death row residents.
I read Life Lines' website and decided to join. I pay a small annual fee, for which I receive the name and address of a prisoner, plus copies of their quarterly magazine - one for me, and one to send to "my" prisoner. I also have contact with a co-ordinator for the state in which my prisoner resides, so that he can advise or intervene if necessary - for example if the prisoner becomes romantically attached.
First contactA few days after sending the form to join Life Lines, I received two copies of The Wing of Friendship magazine, and this was followed by a call a couple of days later, giving me details of the prisoner to whom I should write.
Of course, I used the internet to look up M and details of his conviction. Curiousity got the better of me! He received the death penalty, so you can imagine that it was a serious crime. However I will give no more details, except to say that he has contributed some short articles to websites carrying writing by prisoners, and he appeared on other sites looking for a penpal, and seems to have accepted the sentence. That's a relief - I was worried that I would be given someone who protests his innocence and wants to discuss his case, which might make it hard to get through and befriend them. Instead he sounded like he is bored and would love someone to write to.
I sent a letter of introduction in late May 2003 and I waited to see how he responded. To my delight he wrote back at once and I received the letter in mid-June.
The letter I received was articulate, friendly, appropriate and peppered with humour. He also mentioned (briefly) his crime and conviction, which really broke the ice (because otherwise we might have danced around it and not liked to discuss the whole reason he is in Death Row and looking for a penpal!) He sounds like a nice guy, and I'm really glad I bothered. Receiving his first letter was a real relief, and I wrote back straight away with no second thoughts.
He started writing back - it takes a month to get a letter there and a reply back. After a few letters we were talking honestly with each other, and he shares amusing anecdotes and warm humour as well as some simply shocking stories. It's a rewarding friendship and I look forward to the letters.
For anyone thinking of writing to a prisoner, I'd encourage them to contact Lifelines right away.
A few tips
- you must be aged over 18 to write to a Death Row prisoner in the USA unless you are a relative
- be sure to put your return address in full on the envelope - preferably on the top left corner of the front - or your letter will be held back for a few weeks
- your letters are opened and may be read by prison authorities, but his letters to you are not (and may bear a prison stamp stating this)
- you may be able to send small things like stamps and bookmarks, but anything like books has to come direct from a mail-order company
- don't worry if there's a delay! Prisoners can be busy with their legal visits or their work and may not be able to reply straight away. Or the cause could be as simple as running out of stamps
- they aren't allowed to keep much old mail, so you may need to jog memories when referring to comments in previous letters
- it can be hard for them to get a photo of themselves to send you, they might have to wait for a relative to send them one
- they enjoy jokes, so send a page of jokes (from here or any of the many online joke sites) with your letter, then they have something to share with the other guys
This page last updated: 01 September 2022
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