My Penpal Goes Home

One day I received an envelope which contained a court notice that my penpal had an execution date. I freaked out! He was innocent, everyone told me. He would be exonerated. What was going on?

When the badman called me, I asked him about it. He said it was just a way to accelerate the case. My penpal's attorney was now ready to file appeals. I asked the badman to keep me informed.

Since I began writing, 2 inmates had been executed. The badman told me on the day of an execution, things were pretty somber, even though the inmate was moved a few days before to the holding cell. He said it was pretty hard to get to know someone, regardless if you liked them or not, only to know the exact moment he was being killed.

Everything on the row was business as usual. My penpal called me a few hours before one of the executions. I had thought they would be on lock down. The other inmates watched a movie during the actual execution. To take their minds off of what was happening, I guess. The badman told me they could hear the protesters outside.

My penpal was granted a stay, as expected, and was in court within a few months. His case was thrown out and the state decided not to re-charge him. By now I had a computer with internet so I was able to read the new articles and watch the news videos of him walking through the gates. The smile on his face spoke volumes!

He has been home now for a few years and is doing well. I speak to him a couple of times a year.

When I first came up with this idea, I truly thought everybody in prison was guilty. I thought he would be executed, my good deed would be done, and I would move on. While a better ending came, I still had intentions of leaving death row behind me, just as my penpal had done. But the badman had a whole different idea!


Two Days of Visiting

My husband didn't have too much to say about me going to visit my penpal on death row. If he knew one thing about me, it was this: I was hard headed, stubborn and when I got an idea there was no changing my mind. My plans were in place. So with tickets in hand, reservations in place, I made my way South.

I had never ventured this far from home on my own. I didn't know anybody that had ever been in prison. The closest I had gotten to a jail was when I drove by. And here I was going to death row, to meet a man I didn't really know, over 1,000 miles away from my home.

Once I got to the local town, checked into the motel, and I looked around at the emptiness, it really began to sink in. Was this something I could really do? Well, I had come this far. I wasn't one to back off on anything so I guess the answer was "Yes!" I got a good night's sleep, woke up early and after getting ready, made my way to the prison gates.

In no time, I had been checked in, driven to death row and was waiting in a room for my penpal to be brought in. Everyone I encountered during the process was very friendly and made small talk, asking if I was related to him, where I lived, and so on. I waited in a huge room that was in a corner, right inside the door that lead to death row. Inside the room was a table with an ashtray, and 4 metal chairs. The room had windows from ceiling to floor on both sides. I later learned this room was used for attorney visits. Why we were set up in that room, I don't know.

My penpal soon came. He had handcuffs with the belly chain around his waist and leg irons on. The guard removed the handcuffs, left the room and here we were-- face to face!

Our visit went well. I could tell from the beginning the poor man had some kind of mental illness. He talked of things I really couldn't understand. Plus, he had a southern accent which also made it difficult. But we (or should I say he?) had a good time. I left in the afternoon, telling him I would be back the next day.

Same routine the next day. At one point, a group of young adults came by. I later learned from the badman that they were college kids on a tour. I couldn't hear anything going on outside the room, but they all stopped outside the windows and stared in at us while someone (the professor?) spoke. It made me feel weird, as if we were on "display".

Both days, I saw lots of activity outside the room we were in. Many guards walking by. Trustees mopping and cleaning. Other inmates being led somewhere. I watched the inmates with the belly chains and leg irons, wondering if one of them was the badman. Except for a slight smile not one of them made an indication that he was.

After two days of visiting, I was in a rush to get home. Not to be home, necessarily, but to talk to the badman. I knew he would call me and he would fill in some blanks for me.


Preparing a Visit

It wasn't long before the letters I received from my penpal weren't enough. My curiosity about death row was high and I wanted more! Every letter to him was filled with questions. No matter what the badman wrote back, I still wasn't satisfied.

I laid in bed at night, thinking about my penpal, wondering what he was doing. During the day, I frequently looked at the clock, wondering the same.

One day, the badman wrote that it was my penpal's time to amend his visiting list. My penpal wanted to know if I would be on his list. He knew I probably would never come to see him but, the badman wrote, it would make him feel good to have someone on his list. I thought, why not? And sent my information to him. About a month later, I received a letter from the prison saying I had been approved.

I truly had no intentions of visiting him. It never crossed my mind-- until I received the approval letter. Then it was all I could think of.

I wrote to my penpal but really meant the letter for the badman. I wanted to know all about visiting. How did it work? Was it safe? I had questions for him but also questioned myself. How would I get down there? What would my husband say? Visiting was not one of the no-nos he laid out to me when I first came up with this idea of writing a death row inmate. But yet, he probably thought it would never get this far.

What was I supposed to tell my family? There was no way I could be gone for any length of time and them not know. I spoke to my mom every day and visited just as much. While my brother never said another word to me about the day he was over and I told him about my penpal, I still wondered. Did he forget? Did he tell my dad, or our older brother, and no one was saying anything about it? I didn't know what to think. But I knew as the days went by, my curiosity ran deeper.

I didn't have internet access then so I was left to make phone calls. I called the airlines for information. What time does the plane leave? What time does it arrive? How far is it from the town I was going to be visiting? And then questions about the return trip. I called everyday, as if something was going to change.

I wrote the badman, asking him to call me. I had too many questions for a letter. And I wanted them answered now! I didn't have time to wait for the postman to bring me a letter.

After a few days, the badman called me. I told him my idea. I wanted to visit my penpal. At least, that's what I told him. In reality, I wanted to visit death row and that was the only way I knew how to do it.

I had begun reading and watching everything I could about prison life, death row, executions, etc. This was way beyond anything I could imagine! I needed to experience this for myself.

The badman helped me out with the arrangements. He told me the names of the motels in the area. He explained the routine. He even gave me the phone number to his sister in case something happened and I needed assistance.

The only thing the badman couldn't help me with was telling my husband what I was about to do. I mulled over it for weeks, running it through my mind. I had the whole conversation set in my mind when I chickened out and decided to make the arrangements and then tell him. And that's exactly what I did.

No One Likes A Tattle Tale!

I received a very large package from my penpal's attorney one day. As promised, he sent me documents on the case. It looked to me like the package contained every document ever filed and then some! I had a lot of reading to do!

I dug right in- scanning over news articles, motions, answers, etc. I was in heaven! This was better than any true crime book I could ever check out of the library! I decided to start, not in order, but with the appellate brief which was a good over view of the case.

As I sat down with a cup of coffee to begin reading, my younger brother pulled up. He walked in and saw all the paperwork strewn across the table. He asked me what was going on. I started telling him about my penpal. I didn't get too far into the story before he started yelling at me. He stood up and screamed, "What is the matter with you? You need to get out of this NOW!!!"

I didn't understand where he was coming from; what his problem was. My parents had raised us at be Christians. We went to church and Sunday school every week. We prayed for those who were in need, no matter what that need was. Wasn't I just doing what was expected of me? Putting out my hand to someone in need?

I tried to tell my brother he didn't understand. I tried to tell him that I spoke to my penpal's attorney and he had sent me this package. I tried to explain to him that the man was innocent and would be exonerated one day, but he wasn't listening. The more I tried to talk to him, the more angrier he got, and the louder his screaming became. He finally made his way to the door as he yelled, "I'm telling Dad!" I followed him to the porch and watched him get in his car and drive away.

All I could think of was that I was a grown woman. I had talked this idea over with my husband before I wrote Sr. Helen's organization for a name. My husband had set some ground rules which I was abiding by. There was no way I would put my family in any kind of jeopardy. So what was the big deal? I could see that this was not going to be a popular act. I decided to keep it to myself. Of course, my husband knew and now my brother. But that was going to be it.

By the way-- I don't think he told Dad because nothing was ever said about it. In fact, my brother never mentioned it again.


The Attorney

So we settled into our letter writing. My penpal writing to me through the badman and me writing back. In time, my questions were answered and I began to learn the day to day living on death row.

Occasionally, the badman would write a short note to me and enclose it in the envelope with my letter. He would tell me how much better my penpal was doing. He had a smile on his face, would go outside often, talk about me alot and even quit smoking! I encouraged him to attend church and he even signed up for a class to learn to read. I was very proud of him!

The badman told me about my penpal's case and how confident his attorneys were that his case would be overturned. I began praying for both of the inmates that were now a part of my life, and their families as well.

One day I received a letter from an attorney in a neighboring state, asking me to call him in regards to my penpal. I called him and we talked for a length of time. He was representing my penpal pro bono. The attorney assured me that my penpal would indeed walk off death row. The attorney told me a little about the case and promised to send me some documents I could read.

The attorney told me how glad he was that my penpal had someone to write to. I told him about the first few letters I received and how I was almost scammed. He guaranteed me that my penpal would not do such a thing but warned me to be careful of the others.

Even though we promised to keep in touch, I never spoke to the attorney again.


The Truth Comes Out

I noticed right away that the third letter from my death row penpal was different. The envelope was in a different handwriting. My first thought was something had happened to him. Like I was that important already!

I ripped open the envelope and began reading.

The letter began with an explanation of who the writer was and that he was writing on behalf of my penpal. My penpal was illiterate! The writer explained that my penpal was excited when I began writing to him. He had nobody to care about him. Nobody wrote to him. Nobody visited him.

My penpal was so proud of the birthday card and letters that I wrote to him that he carried them in his pocket, telling anyone that would listen. My last letter to him made him angry. He was upset with the inmate that wrote to me, asking for money and clothing. He had no idea twhat was written in those letters. He hoped I would not quit writing.

The writer said he was my penpal's "next door neighbor" and promised my penpal that he would read and write the letters for us. The writer warned me that since my address was out there, someone else might write to me.

I felt sorry for the man. He came from a poor family. He had nothing and nobody.

I wrote to him and also included a note for the writer, thanking him for his honesty and thoughtfulness. I also included my phone number for my penpal to call me. He called me the same day he got my letter. I could tell he was mentally slow. It was hard for me to understand his speech. And what I did understand was hard to comprehend. Nonetheless, I could tell he was happy to have someone to turn to.

That same day, the write called me. He said he wanted to explain what his letter was all about. He said he heard the other inmates talking about me They called called me "vanilla shake", meaning they were planning on shaking me for whatever they could get in my penpal's name. He said he would watch out for both myself and my penpal. If he heard anymore he was planning on going to the authorities.

I thanked him for his kindness and told him if he ever needed anything, well, he had my address and phone number. He said he was alright at the time.

That was my first contact with the "badman".


My First Letters From Death Row

I finally received a letter back from my new penpal! He thanked me for the birthday card I sent. He told me about himself, his family, the town he came from. He told me about his case and that he was actually innocent. Hmm...weren't they all innocent?

He then told me he would be going to court soon and did I think I could send him some money to buy a few things so he looked presentable? He said he needed some new jeans, a few shirts, underwear, tennis shoes, and oh, just some extra money in his account for cigarettes and snacks. In a way I was shocked that he would be so bold to just ask outright for "things" so early into our friendship. But yet, in another way I wasn't. I had read about people in prison and how they played games and ran scams on those on the outside. I didn't sign up for this, I thought to myself. I decided to write back and just ignore the whole "buy me" thing.

My second letter to him was full of questions. What did he miss the most? What was his day like? I wanted everything down to the details. Did he watch tv and read a lot? If so, what shows did he watch; what did he read? Does he see the sun, grass, flowers? When was the last time he heard a bird sing? I tried to imagine living on death row and then tried to think of things I took for granted.

His second letter back to me answered a lot of my questions. He lived in a small cell and was allowed out for one hour a day to shower, make calls, visit with "friends" on the row, or go outside. He saw sunshine, birds and flowers everyday. He watched a lot of tv: football, wrestling, racing, The Young and the Restless (that made me chuckle). He answered my questions but left me with more.

And again, he asked me for money.

I wrote back immediately. I decided to just be upfront with him. Tell him there was no way I could send him money. All I had to offer him was friendship. Take it or leave it.

And then...his third letter to me knocked my socks off!!!


The Book That Started It All

Here I was, starting to read a book I had previously abandoned to the basement. Little did I know how it would change my life! What book could possible do something like that? Dead Man Walking by Sister Helen Prejean.

I live in a northern state that doesn't have the death penalty. That's not to say we don't hear or read about it in the news. We will get an occasional story-- the one that made the "headlines" or the execution didn't go quite as planned. I have read other books about the death penalty, but nothing like this: a personal account of someone who befriended death row inmates and then was with them at their moment of execution. And so, I opened up the book and began the journey.

I finished the book over the weekend. In fact, I think I read it twice! It is an easy read and not too long. It left me thinking about people on death row. What was it like? How did they "live" knowing this was how they were going to die. I could not imagine! To give up everything... It saddened me.

At the end of the book was a small paragraph with the address of Sr. Helen's organization. I decided to write and ask for a name of an inmate. I don't even know if they do that anymore. It took about month before I received a postcard back. I had a name and a note which said "May 7th is his birthday. You might want to start with a card. Good luck!"

I looked at and reread that card for a few days, thinking about what to do. Did I want to even start something like this? More than likely he will be dead in a few years, I reasoned. How hard would it be to write a few letters and give the guy a smile once in a while?

So I took the advice I was given and bought a birthday card. I mulled over what to write for a few days. Not coming up with anything...oh, really? What do you say? Happy birthday and oh, by the way, I'm sorry? I decided to just write a short note, mail it and see what happens.

I waited 2 weeks and heard nothing back. Surely, he got the card by now! Why wasn't he writing back? I was getting angry! I went out of my way to be nice. I gave attention to the "worst of the worst". Someone society has forgotten. And he was ignoring me! That didn't sit too well with me so I wrote again. This time it was a long letter. I told him about myself, my kids, my husband, my town, my state. I told him about snow. I finished the letter by saying I wanted to be his penpal, but if he wasn't interested in writing to me, I would understand. I mailed this letter and began the waiting game again.


Let's Start At The Beginning

Do I start at the beginning-- how we met-- and work from there or do I start in the here and now, working my way backwards? I often think back to how we met, the day we met, even though it was by phone. (Does that count as a meeting?) That's a story in itself!

And then again...I often think of these past years. Looking back at everything both he and I have been through, not only together but individually. It has definitely been a long and winding road.

But I guess it should be first things first, so here goes...

I was in my mid 30's; he a few years younger than I. I guess you could say I was at a "bored" place in my life, although he wouldn't like me to use that word. I was a homemaker with 2 young teenagers. My husband worked long hours as a laborer to get us the comforts of life. I also had projects and causes going on in my world and was in-between, looking for something to occupy my time.

I was also a voracious reader. I guess I took after my dad who was known to read the encyclopedia if nothing else was at hand. Growing up, our household subscribed to 3 daily newspapers. The news was on our television as often as possible. (This was before cable and my siblings and I always joke how my dad would have loved CNN.)

I hated school but loved the library! Does that make sense? The information oozing out of that building was awesome! I could spend hours upon hours just browsing the shelves. I was becoming my dad-- reading everything and anything that caught my eye.

When the kids came along, they came along to the library! I signed them up for every activity the library had just so I could have a few moments to myself to browse. When it was time to leave, we walked out of the building loaded with books!

It wasn't long before I found the "Current Events" section and read my first book on injustice in the United States. It was a book about the Scottsboro Boys. I remember thinking, "surely, things like this don't happen now"! Or do they??? That book changed my way of thinking about many things: racism, the criminal justice system, our rights, etc.

It wasn't long until I read all the books on injustice and then began going to the bookstore to buy books that my local library didn't have. It was nothing for me to come home with 2-3 books at a time. I admit, some of them I didn't read. Some went to the basement shelf before their time. And some were read more than once.

So, one long winter day, I found myself without a book to read. I headed to that basement shelf to see what was down there. After so many years of reading and buying books, the "shelf" had turned into a whole wall, with a box for the overflow. I really needed to go through my books and either donate them or just throw them out. But that wasn't my thinking that day.

I rummaged through the box and -- SUCCESS!!!-- found a book I hadn't read yet. I remembered buying it. The cover caught my eye but once I got it home, I said "nah". Something about it just wasn't that interesting anymore. It wasn't long before the book found its way to the box in the basement. Now here I was, dragging it back upstairs. And just like the book about the Scottsboro Boys changed my way of thinking, this book would change my life.