July 28, 1987
Over seven years ago, I read an article appealing to people to correspond with death row inmates. The closest I had ever come to death row was watching old Cagney and Bogart movies, but, despite the fact that I was the niece of a murder victim, I had never accepted that capital punishment was moral or necessary. I felt it probably did not deter killing, was discriminatorily applied and was certainly irreversible with the possibility of error always present. I have since learned that there is evidence it further incites violence and is far more costly than life imprisonment. The chance to learn about the reality of death row from someone who knew first-hand appealed to me, and I also saw an opportunity to offer friendship and support to someone who probably needed it very badly. I tucked the article away in a drawer where it remained over the holidays, but I didn’t forget it. Finally, in early 1980, I sent a letter to the Death Row Support Project asking for a correspondent. Several weeks later, I received a form letter informing me that the person whose name was enclosed had not requested that anyone write to him, suggesting I initiate the correspondence and telling me that, if the person did not respond, I would be supplied with another name.
How would I begin? What would I say to a stranger waiting in a cell halfway across the country to be put to death by society? The man whose name I now knew might bitterly reject my overture, friends suggested it could be dangerous, I questioned my own motivations, but I finally did write that letter. After about three weeks a reply came. My correspondent was a black man in his early twenties, an only child, married with a five-year old son and was in prison for the first time in his life. He had been on the row a year and was happy that someone he had never met was interested in writing to him and seemed very enthused at the prospect of corresponding. I had not anticipated his cheerfulness and never cease being amazed at the hope with which he faces each bleak day. During the course of our correspondence, his wife has divorced him, his mother has undergone open heart surgery, he has had a second trial for which he waited two-and-a-half years and he received a second death sentence a few years ago, it came just days before Christmas. He phoned me right after the sentencing and, in spite of the disappointment, I know it helped him to have someone to talk with. We discuss many things in our letters, but it was over two years before he ever mentioned the crime that put him on the row.
Shortly after beginning that correspondence, I decided to write to a second death row prisoner. After only a few months, he came within a day of execution which prompted the first of two trips I have made to visit him. Last November, his death sentence was overturned after ten years on death row and it was the best Christmas present I have ever received. The state is now in the process of retrying him and in a few weeks I will have the opportunity to be a character witness at his trial.
From these two men I learned much about daily life on death row. Confinement to a 6’x 9’ cell with only an hour of recreation a day six days a week consisting of walking around a small, penned yard, weather permitting; constant noise from TVs always on competing with blaring radios and shouting convicts; the stench of human bodies able to shower only twice a week even during the stifling heat of summer and of toilets often backing up in the cells; the poor quality of the food and the absolute lack of privacy and dignity all combine to make life on the row a living hell. The two men I correspond with are very different but they have two things in common, both are members of minorities and both are penniless.
Over the years I have encountered many problems in my own life, my father now suffers from Alzheimer’s disease and a close friend with whom I share my home is terminally ill with cancer. I wrote my two friends intending to offer support to them, but very often they have been the ones who have given support to me.
When I wrote those first two letters, I naively believed that I did so knowing that either or both of them might eventually be executed. I soon learned that I was not prepared for the impact that seeing an execution order would have on me, or the anger and disbelief I would feel every time an execution took place in this country. Three men had been executed in the U.S. when I began writing to my two friends, since then 81 men and a woman have been gassed, burned, or poisoned and each time I have experienced a sense of personal loss. My contact with the Death Row Support Project was the beginning of my work with the abolition movement in this country. I now spend much of my time working to keep the death penalty out of New York where I live and to end it in the U.S. It is no longer just a political or moral issue, it is a personal one. The studies and statistics back my position, but they are not the real reason for my commitment. I have come to know that we as a society are killing real human beings and, in doing so, we reverse the roles; they become the victims and we become the killers.