Death Row Correspondence

Death Row Correspondence
Published: Feb 05, 2013

Writer and zoo-worker Megan Orpwood-Russell on writing letters to a Death Row penpal.

I write letters. Lots of them. To friends in the UK, New Zealand, New York, Fiji, to my centenarian great uncle, even to myself sometimes. There is something more poetic about holding someone else’s words in your hands, and having a physical object that you can return to. A year or so ago, I began writing to a stranger, someone who has come to be a good friend. He also happens to be on Death Row.

I suppose I first considered starting a friendship with an inmate following the terrible and unjust execution of Troy Davis in 2011. Despite overwhelming evidence that proved his innocence, and a significant campaign to release him, Troy Davis was executed by lethal injection on September 21 2011. One of my greatest fears is being accused of something I know I haven’t done, and Troy’s execution really struck a chord – he must have been absolutely terrified, and totally alone. Naturally, I questioned whether I would feel the same if he had been guilty, and, whilst I do believe in systems of punishment for criminals, I don’t believe that the death sentence is justifiable. It is all too easy to dehumanise criminals, to dismiss them as unsavoury statistics. But they are people. They are often people who have made a terrible decision which they regret for the rest of their lives.

So I approached Human Writes, a charity who befriend prisoners and establish correspondence.  To apply, you write a little about yourself, your background, your interests, and the administrators over at Human Writes then match you up with a prisoner who expresses similar interests. It didn’t take long before I was introduced to Ali, and our correspondence began.

The first letter felt like a job application – I knew nothing about him, other than his interest in literature, and in nature. I didn’t want to ask too many questions about his surroundings. Indeed, it took a few months for him to explain the system of solitary confinement there.

In the time that we have written to one another, Ali has moved prisons, which was very traumatic for him, and has also had his appeal rejected. He has been very depressed, and so I try to send regular letters even if I don’t receive a response. Whilst it has never been said, I think that it’s important for him to know I’m only a letter away.

However, the prison censors seem to be obstructing my letters at present – I discovered recently that the last three hadn’t made it through, and Ali had become despondent, and didn’t feel inclined to get in touch.

I am not his only correspondent – there are many other charities around the world that offer a similar introduction to prisoners on Death Row. Obviously I can’t vouch for the rest of his penpals, but certainly I don’t do this through a desire to be worthy, or to fall in love, or to do anything other than communicate with another person. I love people, I value friendship and stories very highly, and to be able to offer both to a stranger appeals to me.

I personally don’t think that the state has the right to decide when the incarcerated die. The idea that anyone should have to face death alone, or that their death should be decided upon by someone else terrifies me.

Sometimes, I don’t know what to write. I worry that writing about all of my freedoms could be construed as glib, but Ali always reassures me that he wants to hear everything – to experience life vicariously. I haven’t asked him about his crime. Of course I’m curious, but it really isn’t my place to ask. Should he feel like telling me about it one day, I would hope that my opinion of him wouldn’t change.

Death row inmates are often placed in isolation for 23 hours a day. They often have no windows, Ali told me he hasn’t seen the seasons change for over twelve years now. So I send him pictures, of the places I have been and of nature. I think in another life, he may have had a job outdoors. He has never seen the sea, and is naturally inquisitive about it.

Our greatest point of crossover is literature. Ali is allowed access to the penitentiary library, and can access books. So we read books together, in very different worlds, and then feed back what we think of them. We’re both quite into magical realism and fantasy. We both read Game of Thrones together (admittedly, my only connection to it prior to our friendship was through the HBO show, which he obviously hasn’t seen) and then I suggested American Gods by Neil Gaiman. Recently, we’ve been sharing the poetry of Robert Frost.

His family have, as far as I can tell, renounced him. It must be horrendous to know that your family won’t be with you when you die. We don’t really discuss death. I would like to think that, should Ali’s death date be set, I will support him as best I can. If that requires travelling to Ohio so that he is not alone, so be it.

Ali replies erratically – some months see three letters, sometimes a season can pass with no word. I send him a letter at the same time every month so that there is some consistency in our communication – I would hate for him to think that I had forgotten him, or had better things to do.

From his perspective, Ali told me recently that ‘mail time is one of the few times I can let my mind leave this place for a moment – so no mail means I’m stuck here full time’. For me, that’s reason enough for me to keep putting pen to paper.

Megan Orpwood-Russell is a ukulele playing, fairytale telling, zoo working, synaesthetic writer based in Hackney.

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