By Sister Dolores Schuh, CHM
For The Catholic Messenger
“I hope you are doing okay at this time.” This is how almost every letter I get from Danny, my death row pen pal begins. In fact, it is how the letters I get from several other men on death row begin. I guess it means the same as “How are you? I am fine,” which is how I used to start letters to my aunts, uncles and grandparents when I was a youngster.
Danny and I have been corresponding weekly for almost four years. I look forward to getting his letters and enjoy pecking out a letter to him each weekend. I believe that every one of the 146 offenders (I don’t like the word inmate) on death row at Central Prison in Raleigh, North Carolina, likes getting a letter from a pen pal in the outside world.
In the January 2012 Oblate Newsletter from Saint John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, there was a list of about a dozen names with a short article suggesting that readers might be interested in being a pen pal of one of the listed offenders, indicating that these incarcerated men are some of the most forgotten people in the world. I looked at the list and randomly picked Danny, simply because I could both spell and remember his name. I sent him a short letter introducing myself, and the rest is history.
As Danny and I continued to exchange letters I became interested in learning more about death row and I chanced upon an excellent book that had just been published by Liturgical Press. The co-editors, Vicki Schieber, Trudy Conway and David McCarthy, of “Where Justice and Mercy Meet: Catholic Opposition to the Death Penalty,” give a brief history of the church’s stand on capital punishment. They include statistics about numbers of offenders on death row in the U.S. and in other countries; they list states that have abolished the death penalty; and they give strong arguments against the use of the death penalty anywhere at any time. I was appalled when I learned that there is only one predominantly Christian democracy in the world that still retains the death penalty — the United States!
After corresponding with Danny for a few months, I wanted to do more for those offenders on death row in Raleigh. I recruited Benedictine monks and fellow Oblates of Saint John’s, CHMs, friends and casual acquaintances to be pen pals with the offenders. To date, about 40 persons correspond with offenders in Raleigh. Some do it on a regular basis and others write three or four times a year.
After Danny and I exchanged letters (by snail mail) for about two years he became my “partner” in this ministry. When I find someone who wants to write to an offender, I get Danny to find someone with whom he lives who wants a pen pal. He tells me “There are some really bad guys here, but lots of really good guys. I won’t give you names of bad guys.” Of course, every offender on death row in Raleigh has been convicted of murder. Many have long rap records; other have only one offense recorded. Most have been on death row for ten years or more. This information is always available to the public.
Besides writing to Danny, I also send each of the 146 guys a birthday card with a personal message on it; and I send each a Christmas card. I have had long letters from some of these men. A few claim their innocence; some claim they have found God while on death row; many are very talented as artists, poets, writers, etc. I’m always amazed when George or Billy or Stephen sends me his poetry or pencil drawings or essays on various topics.
As a member of the NCADP (National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty) I learn what other states are doing to abolish capital punishment and do my small part to keep up the spirits of the offenders in one death row prison. It is common knowledge that the criminal justice system in our country is broken. We’ve seen movies, read news reports and watched TV shows about death row. We know that race and money play important roles when individuals are arrested, accused and tried for serious crimes. This year at Central Prison in North Carolina, 75 of the 146 offenders on death row are black; 59 are white; 5 are Latinos; and 7 are Native Americans.
Although creating birthday cards with personal messages is time-consuming and is sometimes challenging, I find this ministry the most rewarding and fulfilling of anything I have done during my 61 years as a CHM.
(Reprinted with permission, courtesy of The Flame, a publication of the Congregation of Humility of Mary.)