Human Writes

While in London I’ve been reading the local Big Issue. Lots of ads.
I decided to respond to one, headed Human Writes.

The ad invites the reader to write to someone on Death Row in USA. To become penfriend to a condemned person.
I don’t know any murderers, not knowingly anyway.
I wouldn’t begin to know whether my future penfriend is guilty.
The little I know of criminal justice suggests the possibility that my penfriend would have been represented differently- ie better – in Australia. And the strong likelihood that he would be male and black.
I make the guess he is in fact guilty.
I don’t imagine I’ll ever know or want to know.

Should I enter upon this relationship?
I who have nothing to lose, much to gain?
I – a writer, who trawls his life for his materials – who might well become my penfriend’s exploiter?

I seek the reader’s reaction.

I will write to

So can you.


6 thoughts on “Human Writes

  1. Unless you understand your own motives, and are willing to commit to a relationship that, for the prisoner, might be the only one he has, I’d urge you not to. Whether the prisoner is guilty or not, he is still a human being, and to start a relationship and not carry through with it, is a disappointing cruelty that no one deserves. I have an ongoing correspondence with two death row prisoners here in the US. Although one is guilty of his crime, and the other clearly isn’t, they are both victims of a badly flawed justice system. And they are both people I care about. I can’t do anything to change their sentences, but I can do my utmost to be a friend and support their efforts to retain their humanity in the face of conditions which, accidently or deliberately, are designed to drive men insane.


    • dear catana

      thank you for your uniquely valuable perspective

      your advice is compelling; i would go further: do not lightly enter any relationship as intimate as a penfriendship

      every friendship, every love, is a doomed hope: ultimately death (dementia, disease, poverty, distraction) ends all
      the key, as you imply, is to stay the distance as well and as truly as you can

      i worked in Christmas Island, part of the gulag in which my country detains asylum seekers
      on my final day on the island i witnessed the farewell of a detained person from his case worker

      see below:

      These fourteen inmates have been granted visas. They will fly as free men on the same Virgin flight as mine. A cheering sight, all these mouths of smiling teeth.
      Attending the men are their various case managers, young women. One says to her charge as he files towards the gate: “I am happy to see you go.” The man advances, puts his arms around her and holds her briefly. The woman’s eyes are red, her face collapses as the man pats her back deliberately, once, twice, three times, then turns and goes to his new life. The case manager buries her face in her hands. Her shoulders heave.

      (That passage will appear in Burned Man, a non-fiction collection of human mirth and misery, to be published by Hybrid Publishers in 2015)


  2. What do we really know of humanity? I, as a fraction of the humanist you are Howard, would probably want to TRY? BUT as the former Police person I was, I’d say don’t! yes you could have soul pain, not knowing the human to whom you write, and deep concern with the system that convicted him, and that which secures him!


  3. Howard, from my experience you are able to bring light into dark places with your words. That often-quoted Jew, Jesus, said “I was in prison and you visited me…”. There is always the risk you will feel pain in your heart from such exchanges, but your writing indicates that such a prospect has never halted your endeavours.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Howard.

    What an interesting prospect! I have come across many people who write to people away in the Armed Forces, to provide companionship and the occasional vicarious glimpse of “normal life”, but writing to a prisoner on Death Row is a whole different kettle of worms.

    Personally speaking, I would try not to spend too long debating what he or she did or didn’t do because, as you say, you will probably never really feel you know for sure anyway. It will also help you resist the temptation of becoming their pro-bono lawyer…

    From what I know of the US “justice” system, these people languish in virtual solitude for a very long time. If we believe the movies, their lives lurch between one appeal to the next, when probably the only ones holding out any hope for an eleventh-hour pardon are those who stand to make money and publicity out of it… Therefore, any distraction from their own thoughts – whether hopeful or hopeless – can only be therapeutic.

    I’d imagine at some stage they all turn to their own mortality, so Human Writers will need to be prepared to have their personal beliefs challenged along the way! Far from ending up as the prisoner’s exploiter (assuming you’re not going to publish these letters on social media 🙂 ), when the time comes, you may feel you’ve lost a friend.

    Best of luck, Howard!


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