Saturday 10 March 2012

A letter from Death Row

At last my new correspondent has repied to my letters (my last one decided he no longer wished to write). This is the man on Texas Death Row, and he is obviously creative and intelligent. He paints and writes, and would like to compose music, but isn't allowed an instrument to play on. His letter is bleak and hopeless Here is an extract:

"Everyone needs a friend. Being condemned to die. Being told by a jury that my life is so worthless that I must be wiped from existence has been at the front of my mind. To have it compounded by people who write* but don't let me be human to let me experience love, desire, indignation, sorrow, the full spectrum of emotions - well it doesn't make sense. I live and dream. I am here and I'll listen. All I ask for is a chance."

*I'm not sure whom he's referring to here.

He has been abandoned by family and friends, even his twin brother. He has no access to news or newpapers, and has no idea what's going on in the world. He is totally isolated, and it seems that the system offers not a shred of chance for any kind of redemption. His life is an ongoing punishment until he suffers the ultimate one (Texas executes inmates at a frightening rate; two already in the last month).


  1. I may have told you before, but my grandfather was an instructor at the British Columbia Penitentiary when I was a small child. He taught plastering and stucco. Other instructors taught woodworking, etc. Many of the Pen inmates took up these trades when they were released, thanks to the attitude of people like my grandparents, who would give them home cooked meals and help them find jobs. No one, not one, ever harmed my grandparents in any way.

  2. This is beyond words. It mades me so ashamed. Shamed, diminished, belittled. "No man is an island." No, indeed, we are all in the same leaky boat with no port within sight. None that will accept our wretched selves.

    To Kay: yes, but that was there, not here. Here we lock people away in a cell with no hope of redemption. That's what we do here.

  3. I can't help but be curious right now. What did he do that brings him to death row?

  4. Kay, if only they could be given the chance, like those prisoners taught by your grandfather.

    Yvonne, thank you. But your obvious humanity and caring surely absolve you from any shame!

    Diane, I'm afraid I can't say that here. But for us who write letters, it's irrelevant. We correspond as one human being to another. Fortunately, its not for us to judge, and as far as is possible (and it can be difficult), I try not to think of what my correspondent has or has not done. He has been tried, and is being punished. Most of the inmates of death row are poor, black and have been unable to afford good representation. In one well-documented case, the prisoner was given just FIVE MINUTES with her attorney before her trial!

  5. Well that post has sent me off on a journey of nearly two hours reading and learning. When I was a young man I argued fiercely and publicly for the abolition of the death penalty. I still hold that as a principle.

    I hadn't realised that the death penalty was still so frequently used in the US. Nor did I know that Texas codified capital murder as it does.

    Your correspondent, who seems to be a thoughtful and possibly reasonably educated person, said "Being told by a jury that my life is so worthless that I must be wiped from existence has been at the front of my mind." I can't help wondering how the person or persons whom he murdered (for that is the most likely offence for which he has received a capital sentence) and their loved ones (if they had any) felt about their death sentence. Perhaps he felt they deserved to die.

    Incarceration for murder for the rest of one's days may be no better than a death sentence.

    I seem to recall that the average period served for a life sentence in England (or possibly the UK) is about 13 years. For some it's more and for some it's considerably less.

    Distinguishing between murders by potential recidivists (eg in the course of serious crime) and crimes of passion (which do not seem to be subject to the US death penalty) is not an easy concept yet society feels it necessary to protect its members from the former perhaps more than it considers the punishment for the crime. I have never believed that the death penalty is a deterrent to murder. In fact once you have committed one capital murder there is no penalty for subsequent murders.

    The subject you have raised is enormous. I'll stop now.

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  7. Thanks, GB. Of course the crimes committed by many prisoners on death row are heinous, but there is a great deal of doubt about the guilt of some, and others have very low mental ages. But as you say, the death penalty solves nothing. It is revenge, pure and simple, and the length of time some spend awaiting execution is quite incredible. Quite recently, two men had their sentences commuted after 30 years on death row. As you point out, that is far longer than most so called life sentences in this country. I believe everyone should be given the chance for redemption. Years spent in solitary confinement ( all the death row prisoners in Texas are kept like this) serve no useful purpose whatever. It is, quite literally, torture.

  8. I'm not ashamed to say I have tears in my eyes for that hopeless sounding man. And I'm speechless about that ongoing Barbaric situation over there. I so admire you for reaching out to him through letters, Frances.

  9. Thanks, Rosemary. It doesn't take much time, and it means a lot to the prisoners. The hardest bit is finding things today that are interesting but not too cheerful!

  10. Always amazes me that they are supposed to be civilised people in Texas, when I read things about Death Row. It always does seem to be Texas. Is that the state which executes most people?

  11. Hi, Jenny. Yes - I think Texas is way out in the lead. But there is trouble ahead (for the authorities) because other countries are beginning to refuse to supply the drugs used in executions, and stocks are running low.

  12. The difficulty I have with all of this is knowing how I should feel.

    If anyone I loved was murdered or died the victim of manslaughter, I have no idea how I'd react.

    One voice in me says I'd have every right to be angry and would want to seek revenge, and eye for an eye.

    The other voice says I would be desperately sad but would find it in me to forgive.

    I think you writing to those on Death Row and making no judgement is a very human quality.

    However, knowing that, as some of your correspondents have suggested, the receiver of my letters is on Death Row for taking the life of another, would only confuse me more.

    I think what's really at fault here is the system. In law there are just too many things that can go wrong and we hear of people being acquitted years after they were sent to prison - too late for those who died innocently by lethal injection or electric chair in some god-forsaken jail.

    The most important thing right now is you've made me think... and question.

    And who was it said civilisation can be judged by the way it punishes its people?