A year or so ago, when I saw an article about pen-palling with people on death row, I thought, “Why not? It’s the kind of thing Jesus instructs us to do, it won’t take much time, and maybe I can be of some comfort to someone. Besides, I can’t change the death penalty laws, but at least I can do this.”
In making that rather breezy decision, I had no idea what a profound and transforming experience I was about to have. I’ve been writing to W.J., who is on death row in Florida, for nearly a year now, and I have been amazed at his honesty, his intelligence, his seeking, and his spirituality. I’m not sure, looking back, what I expected, but I didn’t expect to be engaged in a life-changing correspondence with a man both I and my husband have come to care deeply about.
From the first letter, my friend has been searingly honest about his life, his learning, his spiritual search, and his hopes. He has asked me for nothing but my words. He has given me, unwittingly, an understanding of what it means to be sentenced to death by the circumstances of one’s life long before the first crime is even committed. I have learned what it means to be stripped of every dignity that makes human life – and humanity – possible, and then to have that stripped life crushed by the burden of imminent, inevitable death. I have come to know what it means to struggle to improve oneself through learning, behavior modification, and silence – while all the time knowing that no one cares about those efforts; that no matter how deep and real the progress made, that progress will not be recognized or rewarded. Indeed, that progress will not even mitigate the sentence of death shadowing every breath, every word, every move. And yet my friend still struggles to make progress. How many of us would do the same?
I have learned that men on death row have families who care about them and for whom they can do nothing, even as their family members face the same horrific circumstances that they faced. I have learned that a parent on death row spends as many sleepless nights worrying about his children as a parent in suburbia, except, of course, that a parent on death row can do nothing to protect his children from the world’s dangers.
In short, I have been blessed by this relationship in ways that I’d never envisioned, and my faith-born objection to the death penalty has become an experience-driven horror that in this country we still sentence people to death after sentencing them to a life so severely limited that it can lead to few paths other than the one they’ve taken.
Marci Alborghetti, W.J.’s friend and correspondent, and author of 12 books including “How to Pray When You Think You Can’t.”