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To My Pen Pal On Death Row...

Photo: Courtesy of BBC
A few weeks ago I sent a birthday card to my pen pal, Austin Myers, the youngest man on death row in Ohio. Austin was convicted in 2014 for the murder of 18-year-old Justin Back and sentenced to death. (Another man, Timothy Mosley, was sentenced to life in prison without parole for the murder. Prosecutors agreed to remove death penalty specifications in return for Mosley's guilty plea and his testimony against Myers.)

One of Myers' early letters told me, “On January 28th I will have been incarcerated for one full year.” The average time spent on death row is 15 years.

I sent him a colourful card with a simple geometric pattern “Happy Birthday” on the front, blank inside for my own message. Austin is 21, three months younger than my little brother. I wrote that I hoped he had a good day, and told him to take care. Sometimes it’s difficult to know what to say.

Whether Austin committed the crime he was convicted of isn’t my place to say. I don’t write because I think he’s innocent and I take no view on whether he’s guilty. I write because he’s a human being who endures a life I can’t imagine.

In our letters we’ve discussed the theory of infinite space and the multiverse hypothesis, the philosophical implications of fear. Sometimes we just write about our favourite bands.

I’ve been writing to Austin for almost 18 months. My first impressions were of an intelligent and rather introspective young man. His letters are very articulate and his handwriting is neater than mine. At first we wrote about the same things any pen pals would write about: our friends and families, our interests, the differences in our day to day lives. I send Austin postcards when I go away on holiday. A while ago, he sent me a commissary shopping list on a single A4 sheet detailing the items available to the prisoners on death row – the paraphernalia of his life in prison, which I saw were small, bland, and profoundly insular. In our letters we’ve discussed the theory of infinite space and the multiverse hypothesis, and the philosophical implications of fear. Sometimes we just write about our favourite bands. He signs off his letters with “Peace” or occasionally, “Live life.” Writing to Austin reminds me to do that.
I'm not the only one writing to people on death row. I’m a member of Human Writes, a UK based organisation that helps set up prisoners on death row in the US with pen pals. I first became aware of Human Writes when I was an angry and opinionated 16-year-old. I wanted to get involved back then because I saw the death penalty as cruel and ineffectual and dehumanising. I still think all that. But teenage anger (or any other kind) shouldn’t be a motivator in becoming a pen pal. The Human Writes website makes no bones about it. A blunt warning advises prospective pen pals: “[…] members must be at least 21 years old. However, it is not something you should go into lightly. We ask people to make a definite commitment to writing […] it can be devastating for prisoners if their pen pal stops writing for no apparent reason.”

Luke Templeman is public information officer for Human Writes. Over the phone he tells me that Human Writes is not a protest group. “We’re not political in any way,” he says. “It’s not our view to take a position on legality or morality. Our concern is for the psychological wellbeing of the inmates.”

Once a person decides to become a pen pal, Human Writes sends the address of a prisoner they have paired you with. You don’t get to pick your pen pal yourself, but if you want to, you’re probably entering into it for the wrong reasons.
Tomorrow night, I’ll be watching Austin on TV. He’s appearing in the BBC Three documentary Life and Death Row. I’m nervous. The documentary will detail Austin’s case, include comments from Justin Back’s mother and interviews with Austin himself. How will this portrayal affect my view of the man I’ve been writing to? A few months ago he asked me about the documentary. “I’m communicating with them now and I think I’m going to do it,” he said, before asking what I thought. I told him the BBC have a good reputation and will probably put together a balanced documentary, but to be careful nonetheless. Whatever I take away from the BBC’s documentary, I will continue to write to Austin.
I’ve thought a lot about my own motivations. When I discuss it with my friends, they are, for the most part, less than supportive. One friend – a fellow journalist – accused me of voyeurism. This upset me, but I realised it was important to be able to answer to that. Why did I want to do this? A writerly curiosity to get into the mind of somebody different to myself? I didn’t think so.
A conversation with my boyfriend eventually clarified my motivation. “What if you end up writing to somebody who’s a real monster? Somebody who’s killed kids, or a serial rapist?” I wouldn’t know anything about my pen friend until after I’d committed, long term, to writing to them. And even then, only if they chose to tell me. I considered my boyfriend’s question and struggled to think of a crime that justified, to my mind, the punishment of death row, or a person who deserved to be sentenced to that kind of life.

I asked Luke about the motivations of the other 1,500 Human Writes members in the UK. “Almost all the reasons come back to simply seeing people in a place of great suffering. For me personally, I see a system where people feel dehumanised. All people deserve to be treated as people.”

I realised, in the end, that I can argue endlessly with my friends, and my boyfriend, but this is all it comes down to: I believe everyone should be treated as a human being.
Life And Death Row is shown on BBC Three on Tuesday March 1st.