Writing to Death Row Inmates
Many persons who are unable to become involved in direct prison ministry are interested in corresponding with someone incarcerated. In the USA over 3100 people are on death row, waiting got the next stage in their appeals or for the signing of their death warrant. These people are convicted of murder under aggravated circumstances. Many of them are poor, relatively many have a colored skin.
The conditions in the prisons are often bad. Most death row inmates spend more than 23 hours a day in their cell, which has only place for a bed and chair. The average time these people spent on death row before the actual execution is 8 years. Those are depressing circumstances. A pen-pal can make a significant difference. If you want to be a pen-pal to a death row inmate you should ask yourself if you want to take that responsibility. Often the inmates have little enough confidence as it is: if their pen-pal would quit writing it would be a big blow. Writing a death row inmate is not something to start lightly.
Keep any friendship which developes honest and realistic. Since friendships are always a gradual process. Anxiety and loneliness hang heavy for the incarcerated and they may try to rush the friendship.
The pen pal system is synonymous with friendship, not evangelization, preaching, or counsel. Most inmates do not solicit religious advice until they are ready, and some never do ask. Ask inmates about things they like to do and respond to other things they choose to share. Take it slow bringing the message of Christ to the inmate. Many have had bad experiences with people "preaching" too intensely or being judgemental.
This does not mean you should not attempt to bring the Gospel messsage to the inmate. Indeed you should, but be sensitive to the needs of the inmate and take it slowly if necessary. Your good example of love will do the most to bring him to God.
Sometimes on the outside we run into a person who is snoopy about our private lives or pumps for information, and occasionally we may meet an inmate with the same fault; if so, just refuse to answer. Your directness will be accepted by the inmate. It goes without saying that wethat we do not need to ask the inmate why he or she has been incarcerated. The inmate is trying to put the best foot forward, to be liked, just like you. The present moment is important; the past is finished and the time for change and growth is in the present instant.
Sometimes exchanged letters begin to take on a romantic twist (like the mail order bride/groom concept). If the dependency or "falling in love" starts to develope, it is essential to be clear in the expectations, even if it means terminating an exchangewith this particular inmate.
if you are interested in sending something to the inmate, you might consider colorful photos of a beautiful place, a few stamps, greeting cards, bookmarks, articles on different subjects but keep it simple. Ask the inmate if this is allowed. Some prisons such as the prisons of Texas will not allow stamps be mailed to the inmate. Sometimes a few dollars send to the inmate account will help them purchase stamps since these are not provided by the prison. Do not be offended if the inmate asks for a few dollars from time to time, but do not feel obligated to send something you cannot afford.
Do not make promises you cannot keep. An inmate might write frequently (they have more time) and expect the same in return. Clarifying expectations and setting limits in all of these areas will help the nmate to understand appropriate mutuality in relationships.
What will you be writing about? Some people tell all about themseleve in their first letter, some keep it short. perhaps it's a nice idea to send a postcard of the town you live in, so the inmate has some idea of what it looks like over at your place. If you do, make sure something is written on the back (like your name and a quick personal note) because your new penpal is a new friend and in most ways no different than a new friend you might meet on the outside. If for some reason you and your pen friend decide to stop writing please feel free to ask for another. These are many more inmates than people willing to write.
April 24, 1997 by Br.Patrick Byrd