Join the pen pal program!

By: Valerie Wallace

"I am writing in the hope that you can help get me a pen pal friend. If so, will you please? I'm 41 years old, love playing ball, jogging, reading and looking at tv and listening to the radio and work out a lot to keep fit. I have been on death row for 10 years..."

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"My name is Gerard, and I've been incarcerated on Pennsylvania's death row for nine and a half years. I don't have any family or friends and hardly any contact at all with people from the outside world... I would sincerely appreciate it if you could please put me on your pen pal list... I am very lonely, and I don't want to die in prison old and alone..."

I'm the national coordinator for the Death Row Pen Pal Program for the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. When people hear what I do, they ask me how I can do something so difficult. I often hear people say, "I don't think I can handle it. I don't think I can get that close to someone."

At the National Conference on Wrongful Convictions held in Chicago last fall, I heard a lot of men talk about being on death row, and the story that stayed with me was of a man who was wrongfully convicted and on death row for eight years. He lived in a tiny cell with one window the size of a shoebox, and every evening, he got as close as he could to the window so he could be by the sun as long as possible.

So when I hear someone on the outside say, "I don't think I can handle it," I say, "How can you not handle getting involved just this little bit?" Every time you send a letter, you make that person's window just a little bigger.

It doesn't take a huge commitment. You don't have to get involved with the person's case. You don't even have to reveal anything personal. You could send a postcard twice a month. You could send newspaper clippings. Every time you write to your pen pal, you're reminding him something the state is trying its best to get him and the rest of us to forget -- that he's a human being.

We know that many people on death row were wrongfully convicted, and for some, that's an added incentive to end the death penalty. But for many of us, state-sanctioned death is the same thing as murder. So we write to those condemned to give them a connection to the world our government says they're not fit to be a part of.

It's easy to wear a pin, and it's easy to go to a march. I think we need to encourage people to do these things. And the commitment to write to someone on death row will connect you at a level your friends or family may be uncomfortable with. But the only danger you're putting yourself in is to be reminded in a personal way that there is still life on death row.

If you would like to get hooked up with a pen pal, contact the Campaign's National Office at:

Campaign to End the Death Penalty
PO Box 25730
Chicago, IL 60625
or call 312-409-7145

Please indicate that you wish to become a Pen Pal along with your name and address