The Human Face of Death Row
"When we receive a picture of an inmate, visit or simply write our letters we put a personality, a soul and indeed a face to the condemned who are not known or seen by the majority of society." Newsletter Vol 1, Issue3, May 1997
The late Br. Patrick Byrd, a Carmelite brother in San Antonio, Texas, was a remarkable man. Working alone he created a website to encourage others to write to Death Row inmates. On his web pages he published the names and addresses of hundred's of the "most forgotten of society"
I came across his web site one day by accident and I was astonished and horrified. Like many people in Europe I had no idea what death row was like nor how many States in the US had the death penatly. In them he wrote simply and sincerely and he pulled no punches when he described just what a letter from the outside could mean to an inmate.
"being on death row is an experience none of us can truly understand no matter how hard we try... There is no way we can empathise totally with someone who spends everyday of his/her existence waiting to be killed by the government ... but our letters are sometimes the only thing that gives these people something for which to look forward to or their only hope and contact with life and reality."
He also took great pains to explain why no one should take on the commitment of writing to an inmate lightly and why they should try not to give up and leave their pen-pal feeling even more abandoned than before. He even touched on the subject of coming to terms with the loss of pen-pal with whom a lasting friendship might have been built. In every way he sought to encourage, comfort and advise and all without being 'preachy'. He wrote out of his deep sense of compassion for the whole of humanity.
This caring attitude was evident in the pains he took to get to know as many inmates as possiable to try to help them and reveal a little about themselves to potential friends. But he was always discrete. The most revealing evidence of his genuine concern appeared in the little comments he would put beside names and addresses where there were no other details. "Been on death row 10 years. Very lonely."
There were no histrionics, no graphic details just a gentle human comment about another human being. When Br Byrd died late last year the death rows of America lost one of their most commited friends and supporters.
But thanks to the devoted efforts of people like Deb and Wayne Watrous, the Oklahoma Coalition Against the Death Penalty and the support of sympathetic individuals and others, the work of Br Byrd will be continued. By the time this article is published the Oklahoma Coalition will have pen-pal pages on their web site and will be linked to the central web site run by the Watrous family where pen-pal web pages for other States will be hosted.
Our project still needs help. There are many death row States where local contacts are needed, people who are willing to contact inmates and let them know that this free service is available to them.
And of course we want pen-pals to come forward and write to the inmates who are in need of friendship. We know that for many such a commitment may be a great deal to ask but we ask it anyway. And if any one is any doubt as to the rewards of such a commitment let Br Byrd tell you himself;
"I sometimes wonder which letters are the most rewarding to me personally; the ones from the inmates or the ones from the loving people who write them. We all touch each others lives in so many ways. How true are those classic words "No man is an island entire of itself; every man is part of the main...Any man's death disminishes me because I am involved in mankind and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." John Donne. I truely believe the inmates give back to us far more than we give them."
And so do I.