Hello, everyone! My name is Anna. I suppose you could consider me to be the creator, editor, and administrator of Muninn’s Roost. I am not the author of any of the posts—except this one, of course— and my role on the blog is simply to serve as the bridge between Tod and all of you. He is the author and I work behind the scenes to make what he writes accessible to the public.
More importantly, I am Tod’s pen pal, and I am very grateful for that.
Not too long ago, Tod wrote a post giving some advice to would-be pen pals of death row inmates, speaking from his own experience as someone who has been on death row for about twenty years. You can find that post here.
This will be a post about the other half of the pen pal equation—that is, the perspective of someone in the free world.
Before I start, I would like to give you a few disclaimers.
First of all, my opinions, experience, and thoughts that I will be sharing here are my own. Please feel free to take any and all of what I say with a grain of salt. I do not claim to be an expert on this.
Also, please note that some of what little expertise I can claim may not be applicable outside the state of Arizona. Every state, every prison, and every unit is different.
Not to mention, the things your pen pal experiences on a day-to-day basis will be different in many ways from what Tod describes, especially if they are not located in Arizona. So, listen to your pen pal, and ask questions—don’t assume that everything you know from reading about Tod’s experience necessarily also applies to the person you are writing to.
The pen pal service that connected Tod and me is the Death Row Support Project. I highly recommend DRSP, but if you choose to use another service, know that some things about my experience with the matching process might not apply to you, because every organization does things a bit differently.
Let me be blunt: I am not here to blow smoke up your back end. I am not going to sugar-coat anything, because that won’t do either of us—or your potential future pen pal—any good. I am here to tell you the truth, some of which is not pleasant or nice.
In no way am I trying to discourage you from becoming a death row pen pal—just the opposite; I want to equip you with the information and give you the advice I wish someone had given me before I began this journey. I hope you do become a pen pal, and I hope this helps you get some idea of what to expect.
With all of that being said, I would like to share with you some thoughts about what it is like to be a pen pal to someone on death row, and offer some advice that might be useful to a new or prospective pen pal.
I. Know Yourself
So, you want to be a pen pal?
No, I’m serious: why?
What about this appeals to you? What are you hoping to get out of it? Why do you want to be a pen pal?
This isn’t a right-or-wrong-answer kind of question; it’s just something you should probably spend some time thinking about.
You don’t even have to know the answer. I can’t say that I did—or at least that I would have been able to articulate it—when I put in my application.
Just remember one thing: the person you are writing to is a human being. I will probably say that a hundred times in this post. It probably needs to be said a hundred times. We are talking about a person here, just like you or me, and they are every bit as complex and unique and worthy of dignity and respect as you or I are.
They are not an evangelism opportunity or a service project. They are not something cool to put on your college application, or an interesting cocktail party tidbit about your life.
What you are doing is beginning a relationship with another human being.
Pity, morbid fascination, wanting to make yourself sound more interesting, or a desire to reform or change a person are all very poor foundations for a relationship.
II. Denial: It Ain’t Just a River in Egypt
The person you will be meeting soon is on death row. (Yes, I know you know that already, but hear me out.) This carries three major implications that you must consider.
- First, they committed (or at least were convicted of committing) at least one first-degree homicide.
- Second, the situation in which they presently find themselves, and the world they inhabit, is extremely different from anything you have ever experienced.
- And third, they will—in all likelihood—eventually be put to death.
I’m not saying you have to totally process and be at peace with all of that today, or tomorrow, or this year. Lord knows I’m certainly not there yet, and I don’t expect you to be, either.
You will likely be processing and re-processing those things for a very long time, even years into your friendship. Sometimes I think I’ve gotten my head around the whole execution thing, at least as well as can be expected, and other times just the thought of losing him is enough to make me want to curl up in bed, eat a bucket of ice cream, drink wine, and cry my eyes out to four straight hours of “See You Again” by Wiz Khalifa on repeat.
I’m not saying it’s not okay to feel like you’re out of your depth as you ponder all of this—in fact, that’s probably healthy—or that it’s not okay if it makes you a bit nervous or uncomfortable. Again, it probably should.
I’m just saying that it will not do you (or your pen pal) any good for you to be in denial about any of those three facts.
Yes, there’s a chance your pen pal may be innocent, or at least not guilty of every single charge they were convicted of. However, if you have to believe they are innocent in order to feel comfortable interacting with them, that’s a problem.
And there is a chance your pen pal may someday have their sentence commuted to life without parole, thus evading execution. (That might happen either as a result of their own appeals process or because the death penalty was abolished in the state in which they are imprisoned.) However, if you find yourself needing to bank on that possibility in order to have a relationship with this person, that’s a problem, too.
III. Thou Shalt Not Google
You may disagree with me on this next point. That is certainly your prerogative. But hear me out.
Once you receive the name of your new pen pal, I would urge you very strongly to resist the urge to Google them. There are several reasons for this:
Spoiler alert: the answer to your burning question is not going to be jaywalking; it’s murder.
In fact, it’s almost definitely either more than one murder and/or an especially horrible murder.
There may have been kidnapping, arson, a sex crime, or torture involved.
The victim may have been a minor or an elderly or disabled person.
In any case, we’re definitely talking about first-degree murder here, not unpaid parking tickets. You presumably knew that when you signed up to write to someone on death row.
Knowing exactly what your pen pal did (or was convicted of doing) is not going to make you feel any better. I promise.
If anything, you will freak yourself out even more. That is the last thing you need as you are trying to get to know someone.
There is a small chance that this person is innocent and was wrongfully convicted.
There is a very large chance that at least part of the state’s version of the facts is incorrect or incomplete.
What they did (or were convicted of doing) is really none of your business.
If they want to tell you about it, let them tell you how and when they are comfortable doing so.
Your pen pal has very little agency (ability to make choices) in their life. Giving them agency over how and when to tell you that piece of their story is a sign of respect and a gesture of empowerment in a world in which they have very little power.
Saying something like, “It’s your story and I want you to have control over how you tell it,” seems simple to you but will likely be very meaningful to your pen pal.
People often stay on death row for very long periods of time. The crime in question may have been committed five, ten, or even twenty or more years ago.
To put this in perspective:
I am, as of this writing, just a few months shy of twenty-six years old.
Tod’s crime occurred when I was four years old.
Are you the same person you were five years ago?
Are you proud of everything you did ten years ago?
Do you want to be judged based on things that happened twenty years ago?
Most importantly, knowing about their crime will not tell you much about who they are as a person, and that is (hopefully) your goal in all of this: to get to know them as a person. Not as “the defendant” or “the perpetrator”, not as a case study, but as a multi-dimensional human being.
Not knowing exactly what they did will make it much easier for you not to define them in terms of what they did.
For the sake of full disclosure: I made (and stuck to) the conscious decision not to Google (or otherwise look up) anything about Tod’s crime until I had his permission to do so. I cannot begin to express to you how much easier that made things as he and I were first getting to know each other.
Was I curious? Sure. Did I think about it sometimes? Of course. But ultimately my choice was based on the points I made above, plus the fact that I wanted to give him agency—something he has very little of in his life—about how and when (and if) he wanted to tell me about it. With his permission, I read up on his case, but even now I don’t know much more than what’s publicly available online because he hasn’t (thus far) seemed to want to talk about it. Which is completely fine.
Whether or not you Google your pen pal—and if you do, at what point in your relationship, and whether you want to ask for permission first—is ultimately your call to make. I have a pretty strong opinion on the matter, and I’ve made my case. It’s up to you what you decide you want to do. Every person and every relationship is different, so I can’t make the decision for you or tell you what’s best in your situation. In general, though, I heavily advise against it.
IV. We All Know What Assuming Makes Out of You and Me
As you are starting your first letter to your new pen pal, my biggest piece of advice about that can be summed up in three words: don’t assume anything. You’ve probably heard people say “assuming makes a you-know-what out of you and me,” and in this case, that’s definitely true. Preconceived notions are not your friend as you begin this journey, so I would advise you to have as few of them as possible. (Easier said than done; I know.)
Here are some examples of assumptions you will want to dispense with—and this list is by no means exhaustive—prior to writing your first letter:
Don’t assume your pen pal is a sociopath. Sociopathy, otherwise known as antisocial personality disorder, is a very complex psychiatric disorder which requires a trained professional—often multiple trained professionals—to diagnose. Psychopathy is not an official medical diagnosis. The term is sometimes used interchangeably with sociopathy, sometimes used to describe a particular subset of sociopaths, and sometimes used to mean something similar to but not quite the same as sociopathy.
Semantics aside, neither “psychopath” nor “sociopath” is a synonym for “murderer,” “bad person,” or “person who makes morally questionable choices seemingly without regard for others.”
Additionally, only a small percentage of murderers (albeit a little bit larger than the percentage of the general population) are sociopaths, and only a small percentage of sociopaths are murderers.
The chances are quite good that you already know at least one sociopath—statistically about half of the probability that you know at least one left-handed person. However, the chances that your pen pal on death row will be a sociopath are only slightly higher than they would be for any given person you’d meet in the free world.
In fact, don’t assume that your pen pal suffers from mental illness at all.
Don’t assume your pen pal is going to be difficult to get along with. Like the free world population, the death row population has a wide spectrum of personalities. Some people are kinder, gentler, or more easygoing than others. Some are more affectionate and willing to express emotion than others, while some are more reserved or shy.
Like anyone else you meet in your life, you have no idea what this person will be like until you get to know him or her.
Don’t assume your pen pal will be uneducated or unintelligent. Not only is Tod a lot smarter than I am, he is also more educated—he has a college degree, and I have a twelfth-grade education.
Even if your pen pal happens to have trouble with reading or writing, a neurological or learning disorder, a significantly lower level of education than you, or you do not happen to speak their native language very well, don’t talk down to your pen pal or treat them like a child. No one appreciates that.
Don’t assume you won’t have anything in common. The fact that you don’t happen to be a murderer (or someone who has been convicted of murder) does not mean that you don’t have anything in common with your pen pal—it means you two don’t have that one particular thing in common.
There is a lot more to this person than what he or she did (or was convicted of doing) to end up on death row. As with any relationship, you have to get to know each other in order to find common ground—but I can almost promise that you will find something to bond over.
Note how I keep saying “like any relationship” or “like anyone else you meet” regarding your future pen pal.
This brings me to my next point: In most respects, this relationship likely isn’t going to be fundamentally all that different from the other relationships in your life.
There will be a period of getting to know each other and building trust. You’re not going to be best buddies from day one, so don’t go in with that expectation any more than you would when meeting anyone else for the first time.
Even in the ideal scenario—one in which you “click” almost instantly, like Tod and I did—your friendship will grow over time, have ups and downs, and require time and effort from both of you in order to work.
V. Manners Matter
Just like in any other relationship, mind your manners. The fact that the person with whom you are speaking happens to be incarcerated does not suspend your obligation to exercise basic respect, courtesy, and social skills. Don’t behave differently than you would in your first interaction, or first couple of interactions, with any other person you’re meeting for the first time. This means not cussing up a storm in your first letter, not telling every sordid detail of your own life story, not discussing things generally deemed unfit to bring up at the dinner table, and in general not acting like you were raised in a barn and don’t know how to interact with human beings. That is what you are doing here—interacting with a human being. Don’t lose sight of that. Treat them like you would like to be treated.
This applies not only to what you say, but also to what you ask. Would you ask someone you just met—on a first date, on the bus, or at work or school—about the worst thing they ever did? I should hope not. Extend that same courtesy to the person with whom you are corresponding. Just because you happen to know, or at least have some idea of, what that thing is in the case of your pen pal does not give you the right to be nosy. Don’t ask questions that are none of your business, especially when those questions have to do with why they did (or were convicted of doing) to find themselves in the situation they are currently in. You may find that your pen pal is perfectly okay with talking about what they did, whether they are guilty or innocent, why they did it, and how they feel about it. That’s fine, but let them volunteer that information if that’s the case. For others, it is a deeply sensitive and personal topic, and understandably so. (And, for many, the fact that they have appeals pending is at least part of the reason they are reticent to talk about it.)
Think about the kinds of questions you would ask on a first date, or when meeting a new friend for the first time. Do you have children? What kinds of books, movies, and music do you like? Where did you grow up? Do you like animals? Did you go to college? Have you traveled a lot? Start with stuff like that. Let them take the lead when it comes to discussing the more private aspects of their life, including their crime and their impending fate.
In the meantime, focus on establishing common ground and getting to know each other. It’s not that different from getting to know a new acquaintance that you would meet in any other setting.
Now, eventually, as you get comfortable with each other, things will be more relaxed, and it will be up to the two of you to define where the boundaries are in your relationship. I curse quite a bit in my letters to Tod, and have told him some jokes that wouldn’t be fit to repeat at a truck stop. We have both shared painful, intimate parts of our respective life stories, and confided secrets to each other that few others know. But these things came with time, and trust, just like they would in any relationship. We didn’t start out that way– our first few letters were very polite, and over time, we each started to let our hair down more and more. Tod is one of my best friends, and vice versa, which means that pretty much anything goes at this point.
VI. Mail Call
That being said, navigating the practical issues that come to writing to someone who is in prison is definitely a learning process.
If you were born after 1990, like I was, then it’s entirely possible that you have never written a letter before, or that you have written very few. That’s okay!
Take some time to get online and familiarize yourself with the layout of a snail-mail letter—you’ll want to look for an example of personal letter, not a business letter, since they’re formatted a bit differently. (If you’ve written a cover letter for a job or a college application, this will be a little different—that’s not a personal letter.) Microsoft Word also has some free templates you can use to help you get started. I wrote a personal letter for the first time in my life a little over a year ago, and now it’s almost as natural to me as writing an email. It’s okay if you’ve never written a letter before—it’s not too hard, I promise.
Even if you are already a pro at writing letters, writing to someone in prison requires a few extra considerations. First, and most importantly, it is vital that you write the address on the envelope properly. When you receive the name of the person you’re going to be writing to, their address will also be provided. Write it on the envelope exactly the way it is written there. Make sure everything is spelled properly, double-check the inmate number and zip code, and be sure you didn’t leave anything out.
Also, be sure to write out the return address correctly, including your full legal first and last name. If you are not used to writing letters, don’t worry. Just write your name and address the way you would put it into Amazon if you were ordering something online for delivery.
Number each page of the letter. That way, if pages get rearranged or out of order while the letter is being inspected, your pen pal can easily put them back in the right order without any guesswork. I number my pages in the top left-hand corner.
You may also want to write, at the bottom of each page, the last name and inmate number of the person to whom you are writing. (For example: SMITH – 130941) This will make it harder for pages to get separated.
Don’t use staples or paper clips. No glitter, no glue or tape, and until you find out otherwise, no crayon or marker on either the letter or the envelope. Do not spray perfume, cologne, air freshener, or any other scented product onto or into the letter or envelope.
This should go without saying, but if you are a marijuana user, do not light anything or blow smoke anywhere near the letter or envelope. A letter that reeks of weed not only will probably not be delivered, but also might earn you a knock on your door from your friendly local police officer. Also, be careful with pipe tobacco, incense, or anything that would give the letter a strong scent, particularly anything that smells like tobacco or marijuana. Seriously—you do not want your letter to be the reason an entire day’s worth of mail gets flagged for increased scrutiny because you hot-boxed an envelope.
For your first letter, I would recommend hand-writing it on plain white printer paper or notebook paper. Write with a regular #2 pencil or blue or black ink, at least at first—and avoid pens that have glitter in the ink. If you choose to write longhand, you can print or write in cursive, whichever is more comfortable for you.
Or you can type your letter—using a legible, boring black font and plain white printer paper. Typing might help your letter go through a bit faster, especially if your penmanship borders on illegible.
Whether you choose to type or handwrite, you don’t want your letter to call attention to itself, and you also want it to be easy to read. This will help get it through the mailroom without incident and also ensure that your pen pal will be able to read it without any problem.
Your letter will not likely be read in its entirety, unless your pen pal is on a short-list of “security threats” (which is almost always a euphemism for affiliation with a prison gang) or there has recently been some sort of incident either involving your pen pal specifically (they got written up for something) or threatening the security of the whole prison (there was a violent incident or escape attempt). More likely, someone will shake out the envelope, sniff it, and then eyeball it quickly for certain key words that might merit closer inspection.
Familiarize yourself with the rules of the specific prison and unit where your pen pal is housed. Can you send greeting cards? Can you send stamps? How many photographs are allowed per letter? This really depends on where your pen pal is located.
Over thirty states, plus the federal government, currently have the death penalty. Many things vary from state to state and from prison to prison, and even from unit to unit. This includes rules that may affect you as a pen pal—like regulations about visitation and phone calls, what you can and can’t send through the mail, and so forth—so it might be worth doing some poking around online to try and find that information.
What you are looking for is either a list of mailroom rules for that state’s Department of Corrections website, or a PDF document of the inmate handbook. (In either case, make sure the information you are reading applies to that particular prison and unit.)
There is also the option of calling or emailing the director of your pen pal service to see if he or she knows, or asking around in the correct sub-forum on prisontalk.com, where someone will almost definitely know. If you can’t find the answer online, ask your pen pal.
Calling the prison to ask a question should be your last resort, because that is generally not a pleasant experience.
If you absolutely have to call the prison to find something out, have a script prepared ahead of time. It should be something simple like, “I am calling to ask whether condemned inmates on the Browning Unit are allowed to receive stamps via the mail.” Be prepared to repeat that multiple times to multiple prison personnel. Chances are, the first person who answers the phone will not be able to answer your very simple yes-or-no question, but would be happy to put you on hold while they transfer you to eleven other people who are also incapable of answering your very simple yes-or-no question. By the time you get the information you need, you and your pen pal will be able to bond over your newfound understanding of why people commit murder.
Oh… one more thing… If you are having a hard time memorizing your pen pal’s DOC ID number, here’s a trick I learned for that: make it your cell phone’s unlock code, and you will learn it within a week or two.
If letters begin taking over your house, I suggest setting aside a shoebox or similar box (which you can decorate, if that’s your style) as a designated space for incoming letters from your pen pal.
VII. A Thousand Words
If you’re sending photos—which I totally recommend, because it will make your pen pal’s day—please use common sense about the content of those photos. No nudity or partial nudity (ladies, I would steer clear of bathing suits, booty shorts, or really low-cut tops, and guys, no shirtless pics). No visible tattoos that are gang-related, drug-related, graphically violent, or contain profanity.
Be aware of the messages and images on any clothing you might be wearing; I can pretty much promise you that prison employees are not going to find your “F#@% the Police” t-shirt or your baseball cap with a pot leaf on it endearing.
No alcohol should be visible in the photo, even if you’re of age. Move the bong out of the way before you take the picture, even if you live in a state where marijuana is legal. Go easy on the PDA if you’re sending a picture of yourself with a significant other. Don’t send photos in which you are clearly drunk or stoned. Don’t be actively doing anything illegal in the picture. Don’t make gang signs/gestures—even jokingly—or flip the bird, or anything else that you wouldn’t be allowed to do in your high school yearbook photo.
Never, ever send a polaroid or any other photo where anything can be peeled apart or removed. That is pretty much universally contraband. I would suggest printing all photos on plain white (non-glossy, non-cardstock) printer paper unless your pen pal tells you otherwise.
Like letters, there are specific rules about photos (especially how many you can send and what can and can’t be in them) that vary by institution. When in doubt, ask.
VIII. Mind the (Cultural) Gap
People tend to be on death row for extremely long periods of time. It is very possible that your pen pal has been in prison for many years—fifteen, twenty, or even more.
If you are relatively young, your pen pal may have been incarcerated for most or all of your lifetime—maybe even longer than you’ve been alive. (Tod was arrested in August of 1995, about two months before my fourth birthday.) If this is the case, then you are in the unique position of never having lived in any world other than one in which they have never lived. You have never lived without (or at least don’t remember a time before) technology they may have never even seen. They may not be familiar with cultural phenomena or trends that have occurred in your lifetime. Unless they have a child, grandchild, niece, nephew, or other loved one who is around your age with whom they regularly communicate, they may not understand certain slang, speech patterns, and references that are second nature to you.
The amount of exposure your pen pal has to what’s going on in the world can vary somewhat. If they have a TV, a radio, or both in their cell, they may be keeping up with current events and culture that way. However, these items are very costly for inmates to purchase from the prison commissary, and inmates may not be able to afford to buy them, or to replace them if they have broken or worn out, so many inmates do not have either of those items—or if they do, they may be in poor condition and not work very well. Also, most prisons (particularly high security prisons) are located in the middle of nowhere, so the selection of channels and stations available will likely be very limited.
Similarly, if your pen pal has a lot of contact with family, friends, other pen pals, etc., on the outside, it is also more likely that they know something about current events, since this information may be relayed to them by loved ones on the outside. Of course, in this case, your pen pal is limited to the amount of news their loved ones choose to share and with what degree of political/cultural bias.
Regardless, though, it is safe to say—and in fact a massive understatement to say—your pen pal does not have access to the amount of information and knowledge that you do, nor do they have the same level of exposure to the culture in which you live.
Because of this, you will sometimes—likely often—find yourself needing to explain things you have probably never had to explain to anyone before. This takes a little creativity, but it’s something you get the hang of, I promise.
In my case, this sometimes means being mindful of what I make references to. If taking three paragraphs to explain what Pinterest or Instagram is wouldn’t help him understand the story I’m telling any better, there’s nothing wrong with saying, “So I saw this picture online…” for the sake of simplicity if the specific website isn’t an important detail.
Sometimes it means finding creative ways to explain something that is second nature to me. For example, I have explained Google, email, what a scanner is and what it does, text messages, and instant messaging to Tod, who had only a very vague understanding of what the internet is and, to my knowledge, has never seen a flip phone, let alone a smartphone.
Another example would be when I told him about a weighted, spinning toy that is very popular right now, both with children and people my age, and that one of those toys was the reason I had a black eye– I was lying down and stupidly tried to balance the thing on the tip of my nose and spin it, and it hit me in the eye. I’m sure all of you knew immediately that the object I’m describing is a fidget spinner, but of course, Tod would have had no idea if I had simply called it by its name with no explanation.
In fact, I even explained blogging to him! He had never heard of a blog before I told him about it, and that’s where we got the idea to start this one.
IX. Expect the Inquisition
If you choose to share the fact that you are writing to someone on death row, you are going to be asked a whole lot of questions. Some will be intelligent and thoughtful questions, and some will be… less intelligent. They will range from very sensitive and genuine to outrageously disrespectful.
The first question will almost always be, “What did he do?” followed by, “How much time does he have left?” They will also likely want to know whether you think he’s innocent (unless the answer is a resounding “yes,” I would advise declining to comment on his innocence or guilt for the sake of pending appeals) and why on earth you would choose to write to a murderer.
They might want to know hairy details of his crime, your opinion on why he did what he did, and how the execution will be carried out. You will likely also be asked your own views on the death penalty, both in general and as it applies to your pen pal’s specific situation.
How you answer these and any other questions you might encounter is entirely up to you. If you can do so and feel comfortable with it, I encourage you to take questions from others in the free world as an opportunity to educate them. Humans are naturally wired to like stories, and it is often hearing people’s stories that forces us to re-examine the thoughts and ideas we may have previously held.
Honest questions and honest answers are also the natural antidote to assumptions, and will help disabuse people of any assumptions they may be holding onto about your pen pal based on the only thing they know about this person—that they have done something so awful that they are under sentence of death. Being willing to answer questions and to talk about your pen pal the way you see them—as a human being—will help others to understand them that way as well.
How many times have you heard someone say that same-sex marriage was just an abstract issue to them until their family member came out, or that they didn’t really have strong feelings about healthcare policy until a loved one got cancer? The death penalty is the same way—it’s easy to have an opinion when it’s just a hypothetical concept. It’s a lot more complicated when someone you love is on death row. Hearing you talk about your pen pal as a friend will force others in your life to see the human side of the death penalty.
On the other hand, when answering questions, it is also important to be sensitive to both your pen pal’s privacy and their pending appeals.
What questions you choose to answer and the degree of detail with which you choose to answer them is also up to you, and you have the right to not answer any question that makes you uncomfortable or is too private.
You should also brace yourself for everyone’s comments and opinions on the matter, which, like the questions, will be offered with varying degrees of respect and sensitivity (or lack thereof).
Often, these comments (the less-than-kind ones) are said in ignorance. Most everyone you meet in the free world knows very little, if anything at all, about death row and the men and women who live there. What they do think they know might be totally incorrect, based on commonly-believed myths, the lies of politicians and other influential people, inaccurate (or at least grossly generalized) portrayal of death row inmates in media, and a number of other sources of misinformation. Think about some of the assumptions you may have had before you began writing to your pen pal, or before you read Muninn’s Roost—the things you may have believed were true until your misperceptions were corrected.
I am not going to beat around the bush here—when someone says that a person you consider a friend deserves to be killed, or have some other unspeakable thing done to them, that hurts. Every time.
People have said things to me about Tod that I will not even repeat here, and every time, it has been all I can do not to break down in tears in front of them. Even people I respect and care about have said some pretty terrible things.
I am not talking about asking questions or engaging in honest discussions—I welcome that, always—I am talking about cruel, ignorant remarks that attack the character of someone I care very much about, and ultimately bring into question the value of his life.
It is very, very likely that, eventually, someone will say similar things to you about your pen pal, and it will hurt. Prepare yourself for that. Know in advance what you might say in response.
Getting comfortable talking about your pen pal and their situation—including being able to answer questions that others might have—takes practice.
What I do—and what I would advise you to do—is to talk about them like you would any other friend, and not bring up the fact that they are incarcerated unless it becomes relevant to the conversation. As you and your pen pal get to know each other, you will discover all sorts of fascinating things about them, their life, their likes and dislikes, and their personality, all of which you will find more interesting than their crime, sentence, or eventual fate—and when you describe this person to others, you will naturally gravitate toward talking about who they are as a person rather than this one aspect of their situation.
X. Get Attached
Something I hear all the time is, “Aren’t you worried you’ll get too attached?”
This question is almost always well-meant and comes from a place of concern, and I appreciate that concern. But, so help me God, I hate this question so much…
Yes, of course I’m going to “get attached”. I’m already attached. I love Tod like a second dad. He is one of my closest friends.
I completely, utterly disagree with the premise that I shouldn’t get attached or get close to Tod because our lives will probably overlap for a relatively short amount of time. I don’t agree with that. I am very attached to him—and I think I frankly owe it to him to be attached. I think that he deserves to have someone who is that invested in him—someone who cares profoundly about him, and is going to be devastated when he’s gone.
Yes, one day I will lose Tod, and in all likelihood, it will be at the hands of the State of Arizona. And there will be a space in my heart that will be empty until the day I am able to see him again on the other side. I will grieve. I will be heartbroken. That’s what happens when you love someone and lose them, no matter how or why they die.
Nobody is guaranteed a certain number of days on this earth, or a set amount of time to spend in any given relationship we have. I think any intersection of two lives, be it romantic or platonic, that’s caring and life-giving and meaningful to the people involved is a miracle, and it should be celebrated and enjoyed to the fullest, regardless of how long or short it might end up being. We’re supposed to love each other—human beings were created to love each other—and I think we miss out on a lot of love and joy and life when we are so afraid to lose the ones we love that we don’t invest ourselves fully in the business of loving them.
As my priest often says, “Life is short, and we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel with us. So be swift to love, make haste to be kind, and go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” Whether or not you are religious, the fragility and finitude of our mortal existence is a fact of life.
I urge you: Get attached to your pen pal. Don’t shy away from allowing your friendship to grow just because they happen to be on death row. Don’t be afraid to express the fondness and affection you feel toward your friend. Don’t let the fear of a broken heart stop you from being the best friend you can possibly be to them, or from letting them be the best friend they can be to you.
Yes, your heart will break when your pen pal dies, whether they are executed or die of natural causes. And it is important that you have support in place (clergy, therapist or counselor, friends, family, partner—whatever support looks like for you) to help you get through that when the time comes. The death of a friend is a traumatic event, and it will affect you profoundly.
But, in the meantime, be thankful that you get to have a friendship that is so meaningful and special to you that it would break your heart to lose that person. To paraphrase Dr. Seuss, don’t cry because it will be over someday; smile because it’s happening.
XI: Parting Thoughts
Some of what I’ve said today may have been hard to hear. My intention was not to deter you but to make available to you the experience and knowledge I have gained through being Tod’s pen pal. I hope it has been helpful to you.
I want you to know that my friendship with Tod is one of the things I cherish most in this world. I could have never anticipated how much my life would change when I signed up to be matched with someone on death row. I had no idea what to expect, honestly. But what I got was a friend, a confidante, a listening ear, a father-figure, a mentor, and a teacher. Yes, I have learned an awful lot about the prison system—much of which Tod and I have been able to share with you through the blog—but I have also learned a lot about life, and about myself, and what it means to be a friend. I have found myself shaped as a person in ways I never would have been otherwise. I am at once both tougher and softer, both stronger and more compassionate, than I was before we met. Tod has helped me learn to be more secure in myself, regardless of what anyone else says or thinks of me, and has encouraged me to find my own voice and use it, even when others try to speak over me. He has loved me fiercely and supported me unconditionally as I have begun trying to find my place in the world and figuring out who I am. And who I am has been forever altered, for the better, by the gift of knowing him.
Obviously, I do not know what your experience will be like. The best I can do is tell you about mine, and give you some general advice that applies in most situations. That is what I have done in this post.
So, you still want to be a pen pal? That’s great! I hope you take the next step, whether it’s through DRSP or another organization.
And please, by all means, feel free to contact me if you have any further questions.
Tod usually ends his posts by reminding you all to thank me for the work that I do to help bring his words to you. Today, I will end by thanking him, not only for being the best blog collaborator I could ever hope to work with, but for being one of the best friends I could ever hope to have.