An Essay By Shannon
What A Penfriend Means
Not long ago, I received a letter from a friend of mine. We have been writing for a few years now. Our correspondence has been something I greatly enjoy, and I like to think she has found it enjoyable as well.
In this last letter, she said something that struck me. 'I wish I could be doing more.' That is a sentiment I have often heard expressed by people like her. And for anyone who has both the ability and desire, I would of course encourage them. But most have jobs, families, and problems of their own. Simply maintaining an active correspondence with someone on death row spreads their free time pretty thin. So those with a strong social conscience often feel writing is 'not enough,' as if their letters are somehow of little merit or impact.
That is just not so! For that reason, I would like to address the subject, as I believe I have a better perspective from which to judge the worth of a letter than does someone on the outside. One of the facts of life that everyone in prison must face is that they will be forgotten. It does not matter if they were a good person, or a bad, when they were outside. It does not matter how close they were to family, friends, spouse, or anyone else. Sooner than any new prisoner ever expects, and more quickly than those left behind would be willing to admit, contact between them will first slow, then cease. It happens to virtually everyone. Out of sight truly is out of mind, and despite all good intentions, life goes on. The prisoner who believes his loved ones 'would never do that' soon learns that they are no exception to the rule. Within the first year of incarceration, contact with the outside drops by an average of 90%. Prison is about being alone, even in crowded conditions; mentally isolated. Yet as it is said, no man is an island. All people, regardless of situation, long for contact with others. Studies have shown, time after time, that the most determinative factor in an inmate's future is ties to the community. Connection to the outside world, or lack thereof, is a major factor in whether a prisoner will become involved in gang activity, violence, the selling or use of drugs, or other rule infractions while incarcerated, and if they are later released, it plays a major role in recidivism. Even vicarious contact with the world, in the form of letters, reminds a prisoner that there is more to life than walls and bars. It calls to mind better days, reminds of things to be striven for, reasons to improve oneself, give motivation to continue on in the face of adversity. Lack of contact forces one to become fully assimilated into the prison environment, where only the negative exists, and can lead to a downward spiral of resentment, rage, depression, and despair.
Believe me, I know of what I speak. I have gone through periods of being so absorbed into prison culture that nothing else was real for me. I became in truth the thing that many would like to represent all prisoners to be; a dangerous animal in a cage. What brought me back from that was contact with decent people, who shared a bit of their lives with me, and helped me regain my perspective, by helping me to realise there is still good in the world. It may sound a bit overly melodramatic, but I speak truly when I say they save both my sanity, and my humanity. A lot of other prisoners I know have shared the same experiences.
So I feel safe in speaking for us when I say thank you, to those who take the time to write to someone on death row. To those of you in places like the UK, the Netherlands, and Germany, where groups have been formed to find us penfriends, you are greatly appreciated! And for any of you who ever feel that your letters are 'not enough,' you have my word on this. You are doing far more than you realise. Perhaps you are not (yet) changing the laws, as you would prefer, but you are changing lives.
Human Writes Patrons
"The very essence of the death penalty is to tell people that they are somehow sub-human, not fit to live. Yet even those people I have represented who did what they were accused of - a surprisingly limited number - have always been much better people than their worst fifteen minutes, as are we all. Those who recognise this by reaching out to the men and women on death row are true heroes, though I suspect they gain as much as they give to the relationship."
Clive Stafford Smith OBE, Founder of Reprieve and Patron, Human Writes
"As a journalist who has lived and worked in the United States, the horror of death row is one of the issues that never leaves you. The thread of humanity that Human Writes manages to sustain with men and women on death row is a profound contribution to keep alive the hope of life. Capital punishment is now on the retreat in America, but the numbers awaiting their fate are still very considerable. I am very honoured to have become a Patron of Human Writes and will hope to do my best to put my shoulder to the wheel".
Jon Snow Broadcaster and journalist, Patron, Human Writes
"In such an inhuman system small moments of human contact make a big difference. That's why I support Human Writes and why I would encourage you to do the same."
Gary Younge, Author and US-based feature writer for the Guardian, Patron, Human Writes
"I know what it is like to live in a cell for decades and feel that the whole world hates you. I never expected to be able to live again as a contributing member of a community. Prison life was precarious and unpredictable but I met people who worked there who wanted to help me and people like me - and I'm lucky that I live in a society graceful enough to offer me a second chance. At least I had hope. Hope for many of the people supported by Human Writes has all but been extinguished. Letters to people on Death Row let them know that however low they may have fallen, they are still human beings. They still have value and are worth caring about and letters might just help to keep hope alive. That is why I am honoured to have been invited to be a patron."
Erwin James, author and Guardian columnist, Patron, Human Writes