I’ve asked those on death row terribly difficult questions and received candid answers.
I know men who were once on death row. Men whose sentences were commuted to life in prison by a past governor that time has since forgotten. I sit and eat with them in the chow hall and I see them daily in my unit.
I correspond with men and women on death row across the country. Sometimes I am asked, Why Christopher? Why correspond with the condemned, the worst of the worst? I bristle at comments like these. Who are we to judge others? The court has already done that.
There’s a man on death row who tells me of his aguish over how his children miss him; there’s a woman on death row who shares her hopes and dreams with me. When a nation views it’s prisoners from afar, through a lens degrees removed, it is easy to miss our common humanity.
I’ve asked those on death row terribly difficult questions and received candid answers. I’ve inquired as to the ‘why’s’ behind their past actions. And I’ve received sobering replies. The death penalty is a discussion long overdue in this country.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, executions in the United States have been on the decline for 23 years. Entire regions of the country have seen the death penalty disappear either by legal statute or by self imposed moratoriums.
Nelson Mandela once said, “It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails.” I’ve often thought about his words. They express a realization borne from his 28 years of incarceration. 2023 is also my 28th year.
There is an understanding amongst us prisoners that only we could ever know. It’s an understanding birthed from a common experience, and it shapes and molds the human spirit for better or for worse. Nelson Mandela understood this truth, and it is reflected in his statement.
The death penalty is the most severe punishment a society can mete out. For a nation to walk this path there must be caution and checks and balances. In the United States this isn’t the case. The death penalty is arbitrarily applied across the spectrum of crime where the loss of a life has occurred, and herein is a strong argument to abolish it.
Yet, the strongest argument against the existence of the death penalty is that it is irreversible, and there have been numerous cases where innocent people have been executed.
For example, Todd Willingham, who was executed in Texas in 2004, was later found to have been innocent. The risk of wrongful conviction is great and is reflected in the fact that 160 people in this country have been exonerated from death row since 1973.
My family is no stranger to losing a loved one to the irresponsible actions of another. But, does this mean that the perpetrator should also lose his life? Is this the only solution to punishment when loss of life is involved? I should hope not.
*This post is the second in a running series on the death penalty. The death penalty is a dialogue long overdue.
Lettersfromchristopher.com is an advocacy effort to draw attention to incarceration in the United States. Read more posts from this blog in the book titled “Behind the Wall: A Prisoner’s Journal” available on Amazon in paperback and eBook.