Since 1977 (when executions resumed in the United States after the Supreme Court had ruled the death penalty unconstitutional in 1972), over 1,000 people have been executed in the United States. Thirty-eight states have capital punishment. Right now there are more than 3,000 people awaiting execution in this country. The average stay on death row is 12 years.
Letters can bring a ray of hope to the darkness of death row isolation. For those on the outside, learning to know just one prisoner can dispel some of the misconceptions and fears about prisons and the people locked away inside them.
Jesus’ call for us to visit those in prison is clear. Perhaps correspondence can be a form of visiting. And perhaps you will be led, as others have been, to go beyond correspondence and will want to visit face-to-face. That is up to you. We ask only that you begin by writing a letter, and that you keep up your part in the correspondence with openness, as faithfully as you can.
Here’s how it works:
- You decide you would like to write to someone on death row.
- You send us your name, address, age, and religious affiliation (if any) via e-mail.
- We send you a letter from someone on death row who has requested a pen pal, along with some guidelines for writing.
- You write and mail a letter to the person on death row and anticipate receiving a letter from your new friend. If you do not feel comfortable using your return address, we will mail them for you.
- When your correspondence is established, contact Death Row Support Project (DRSP) to let us know how it is going. If you have questions or concerns, contact DRSP coordinator Rachel Gross at (260) 982-7480 or via e-mail.
If you have not had much contact with people in prison, perhaps a few suggestions would be helpful. Please forget any preconceptions or stereotypes you may have of people in prison. They have much in common with those of us outside prison. In your first letter, explain why you are interested in writing to someone on death row. If there is a letter from the prisoner enclosed with this, there may be things in it to which you can respond.
- Introduce yourself, describing yourself, your family, your work, and where you live. It is good to mention that you received the person’s name from DRSP.
- Feel free to ask questions about prison life, about the person’s interests, where s/he is from, whether s/he has any appeals in progress, etc.
- Do not ask right away about the person’s crime, but let him/her volunteer that information.
- It is good to ask questions, because it gives the person something to which they can respond, but do not ask too many at once – especially in the first letter. Let trust build between you, and always try to share as much about yourself as you ask the other person to share.
If you feel you will only be able to write, for example, monthly, make this clear to the prisoner. It is important not to promise things that you will not be able to do.
If you want to send things like books, stamps, stationery, or food, ask first whether the person wants them, whether they will be allowed to enter the prison, and how they will need to be sent. Regulations vary from prison to prison, and therefore DRSP is unable to provide that information.
Please put your name and address on the outside of the envelope, as some prisons will not allow mail to be delivered to prisoners without this information.
The person may ask you to send money – if you feel good about that, then send it. Never feel obliged to respond to a request for money by sending some, but always respond honestly. If you do send money, be sure to find out in what form it must be sent, and if you need to be on a special list to send it.
You may want to visit this person in addition to writing. That would be great! Just ask him or her if s/he wants you to visit, and what the hours and restrictions are. Through the DRSP, we hope to encourage visiting, active concern for the person’s court case, support for the family where needed, and any other helpful efforts.