Letters From Death Row Offer Pen Pals a Leap of Faith Into the Unknown

Letters From Death Row Offer Pen Pals a Leap of Faith Into the Unknown
A condemned inmate is led out of his east block cell on death row at San Quentin State Prison, in San Quentin, Calif., on Mar. 13, 2019. (Eric Risberg/AP)
Allan Stein

The story is without a happy ending for most prisoners sitting on death row in the United States. But the fact remains that most of the 2,450 men and women awaiting execution committed brutal crimes.

Some feel remorse, while others do not. The victims’ families demand closure, but the gears of justice grind slowly. The months drag on into years and even decades before all appeals are exhausted.

Until then, life continues on death row, though the condemned men and women facing capital punishment yearn for human contact.

Ines Aubert founded the Connectdeathrow pen pal project seven years ago so that people could write to death row inmates. (Courtesy of Ines Aubert)
Ines Aubert founded the Connectdeathrow pen pal project seven years ago so that people could write to death row inmates. (Courtesy of Ines Aubert)
“There is a human need to have friendships and feel close to the outside,” said a prisoner nicknamed Dog. He’s been on Arizona’s death row for the past 19 years.

While he’s spent almost a decade in Supermax, a high-security area, he has an intense desire to talk to people—regular people outside of the cold prison walls.

“I only had nine others to talk to for years and never face to face,” Dog told The Epoch Times in a letter.

“So there was a need to have friends. Plus, my desire to minister and even help youth avoid the deceptions I fell for—all play into decisions.”

Crime and Punishment

By the substance and tone of Dog’s letter, he is an intelligent and thoughtful man. He’s also conservative and Republican and believes in the death penalty in many cases, but not so much the criminal justice system that sent him here.

Many will agree that it takes a hard heart—even a broken heart—to commit murder.

Some might argue that death row inmates don’t deserve contact with the outside world. They are there to suffer consequences.

But can any of us deny the dark potential in us all as we pass judgment on their humanity?

Between darkness and light, there are moral questions many letter writers in Ines Aubert’s death-row correspondence program must answer for themselves.

Aubert started Connectdeathrow (ConnectDeathRow.com) seven years ago as a largely solo project to connect everyday people with death row inmates through letter writing.

They become friends and pen pals in every sense of the word.

Ines Aubert (L) visits with death row inmate and pen pal Robert on the day of his execution. (Courtesy of Ines Aubert)
Ines Aubert (L) visits with death row inmate and pen pal Robert on the day of his execution. (Courtesy of Ines Aubert)

Her project has provided opportunities for about 300 people to correspond, though death-row inmates know it’s short term. Both parties remain anonymous as letters go back and forth through the program.

“This makes the project safe and among other [things] has led to whole classes of juveniles each writing an inmate through Connectdeathrow,” Aubert said. “The students all express how much it means to them and that they will never forget the experience.”

One young letter writer asked a death row inmate: “Do you think a book needs a happy end?”

“I’m not sure whether he was aware of the philosophical meaning of the question,” Aubert said.

Through her involvement in Connectdeathrow and a Swiss organization, Lifespark.org, Aubert has corresponded with 14 inmates for the past 21 years.

The state executed one inmate, while several died of other reasons, and one or two stopped writing.

Windows to the World

“All of them express over and over what it means to them to have a constant and reliable outside contact and often describe it as ’the window to the world,'” Aubert said.

“Loneliness and the feeling of being forgotten by the world is a common topic. Not all my penfriends want to talk about forgiveness or remorse, but some do. I think the topic is too difficult for some, and they are too ashamed to face their crime.”

Aubert said one of her death row penfriends, Casper, voiced his desire to reach out to his many surviving rape victims. He died of cancer many years ago.

“All of my penfriends often talk about their everyday life and the bad living conditions, which remind me of torture sometimes, especially when they suffer from the heat in summer or cold in winter,” Aubert said.

“The medical care is very bad, and many die of health issues” that could have been avoided.

How do the inmates feel about their execution?

Some ignore the topic; others are “ready to live life until then the best they can,” Aubert said.

“Some talk about their inner world [being] much richer now that they are on death row. Some even look forward to their execution because it will ’set them free,' as they call it.”

Dog writes, “While I have stress and sometimes bad days, for the most part, the situation is better than what others have, and I have a hope that nobody can take away from me.”

Bucky, another death row inmate in Aubert’s program, told The Epoch Times in a letter his greatest fear of death row is losing his parents, “simply because tomorrow is never promised.”

Heavy Loads to Bear

For most death row inmates, letter writing is a form of catharsis and not having to face their day of execution alone. However, many death sentences eventually get overturned or commuted to life sentences. There were 11 executions in the United States in 2021, all by lethal injection.

“I want to humanize the men here and show that we are more than a number or the crime that brought us here,” Dog said.

“As a death row inmate, I have very few ways to impact society in a positive way.”

Oak is another prisoner on death row and a participant in Aubert’s program. He said letter writing comforts him, knowing some people on the outside care despite his crime.

“Their well-being becomes very important to me,” Oak told The Epoch Times, though he’s not concerned about a legacy in his writing.

Instead, he views letters as a way to “touch the lives of the people I write.”

At first, it was more about feeling lonely and isolated. Writing letters only made him realize that life is more than himself.

“One of the greatest lessons anyone can learn no matter what station or walk in life they travel is life is not about me,” Oak said.

In 2014, French nationals Sigrid and Elodie began corresponding with death row inmates in the United States. Later, they co-founded an inmate pen pal program called Wire of Hope (WireOfHope.com).

“Our personal lives led us to move to the United States about the same time [Elodie in Nevada and Sigrid in Florida], and while we were still writing people in prison and becoming more and more involved with prison-related matters, we came to the idea of creating our own prison pen pal program,” Elodie said.

A Burden Shared

Elodie has written to many death row inmates over the years, one that lasted four years.

Another death row pen pal had his sentence commuted to life without parole.

“If I was hesitant to write someone with a death sentence initially,” Elodie said, “it’s because no matter how close you become in the end, the minute you start exchanging letters with someone on death row, you see the human in them.”

Elodie said she feared how she would handle one pen pal’s execution.

“At the time, my friend was still on death row; he would share quite often about his past with me. He never once ran away from accountability and always expressed remorse, but what he also shared with me was his will to live,” Elodie told The Epoch Times.

Sigrid said she has witnessed first-hand the power of pen pal friendships since both sides gain something valuable from the experience.

“I have written to four death row inmates. Because they are on death row and have appeals until the very last minute, they are not eager to talk about their case,” she said.

“However, those who admit their guilt have expressed deep regrets. They have a deep [need] for people to see them as the person they are and not who they used to be. Most of them separate very clearly from their past.”

One death row inmate wrote: “I used to wish I had someone to vent to, and now that I do, I no longer want to complain about anything.”

While most people who write death row inmates oppose capital punishment, Sigrid said, others see it as a looking glass into humanity.

“They want to bring support to people in a very dark situation, and that most of the world denies any shadow of humanity,” Sigrid said.

Becky, now 26, joined Wire of Hope about three years ago as she was interested in exploring the world of death row from the outside.

She said while it’s fascinating to write to a death row inmate, it’s comforting to know she can offer some form of distraction from the daily prison environment.

“I have found that corresponding with an inmate on death row has brought us a lot of happiness, laughter, and unconditional support,” Becky said.

Becky said a common theme among death row inmates involves feelings of remorse and the desire for personal redemption. That’s on their minds “24/7,” whether it’s spoken about openly or ”quietly lingering.”

She said that her pen pal feels “overwhelming remorse” for his crime. They have spoken about it, starting their correspondence as strangers, never judging as they became friends.

“Fear turns to acceptance over time, and of course, it is always their wish for things to have been different, to turn back the hands of time or take a different path in life,” Becky told The Epoch Times.

Aubert said it’s also important to remember the families of murder victims, which pen pals sometimes overlook.

She said, “Many pen pals of death row inmates focus solely on the welfare of the inmate and don’t even think of the victim’s family.”

“When there is an article in the media about pen pal [friendships] with death row inmates, there’s often an outcry of people who condemn us for being on the wrong side [and] not caring about the victims.”

“In my case, this is not true at all; neither is it [true] for many others who write inmates,” Aubert said.

If nothing else, she said writing a death row inmate requires compassion and a leap of faith into the unknown.