This story was originally published in Melbourne Catholic.
Ask a prisoner awaiting execution in the United States what upsets them most about their situation and many will tell you it’s the loneliness; most don’t get letters or visitors. So when a friend asked me if I wanted to write to a prisoner on death row, I agreed.
It was 2008 when I started writing to a convicted felon on death row in Tennessee. A friend in the United States wrote to prisoners through his church’s prison ministry and asked me if I’d be interested in writing to an inmate on death row. The man’s name was Ian, and as he had little in the way of friends or family, he’d expressed interest in a pen pal.
Driven by curiosity as much as any desire to ease his sufferings, I wrote to him. I can’t remember what I said but I kept it short. I asked about life inside, shared a little of my story, my travels through the States, and signed off.
I posted the letter and forgot about it.
The next month, I received a bulky white envelope, my name and address typed on the front. Inside were four meticulously typed A4 pages. The return address was Riverbend Maximum Security Institution, Nashville, Tennessee. I remember staring for a moment, feeling the weight of it. This artefact had emerged from a reality so different to my own. ‘Hello there,’ Ian wrote. ‘How are things going with you? I hope everything is well. Things here are about the same. Not much here changes.’
He was polite, which I hadn’t expected. After introducing himself, he explained he was a painter. And he really appreciated receiving the letter, especially from the ‘land down under’. ‘One of my favourite singers, Keith Urban, is from Australia.’
Riverbend Maximum Security Institution is a real life Shawshank, with imposing beige walls and few windows. It houses 700 inmates, about 500 of whom are considered high-risk. At any given time, around 60 are on death row. Breakfast was at 7am. Lights out by 9pm. Ian even had a job. ‘I make 18 cents an hour for my prison job and that comes to about $18 dollars a month.’ This was necessary to buy food from the commissary to supplement prison food, ‘which gets worse every day,’ he said. But it wasn’t all bad news. All maximum security inmates are classified as A, B or C-level. Everyone starts on C-level and inmates work their way up. ‘If you never cause problems, you can make it to A-level in three years. If you get a write-up for anything, you go back to C-level and start all over. I am an A-level and it comes with certain privileges, like extra visiting hours and recreation time.’
I’d asked him about the people in his life. ‘A lot of guards that come here for the first time think that there are a lot of troublemakers here because it’s death row. But after working around us for a while they realise that most of the guys here just want to be left alone.’
Death row is largely full of regular people who have made bad mistakes, he explained. ‘Most guys here are very quiet and laid-back. The only time there is a problem is when someone pushes too far. There are a few “nuts” around here. But they are usually kept locked down in their cells so they can’t be around other people.’
I sent some books I thought he’d appreciate including Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts (which he loved), Motorworld by Jeremy Clarkson and Blue like jazz by Donald Miller. ‘I’m not the only one who appreciates the books,’ he said. ‘I read them and pass them along to the guys that I like. They crave any kind of reading they can get their hands on. So thank you for the books from me and about seven other guys who appreciate them very much.’
Throughout, I tried to build up a picture of Ian’s life. He was a former high school football player. Most of his fondest memories came from his time on the field. He loved sports, cars, nature documentaries and country music. He had even written a novel in prison. ‘My father was a mechanic in the air force. He and my mother were divorced when I was three years old so I never saw him much growing up. I ran away a lot as a teenager and hitchhiked around to different states. It was safer to do back then.’
Ian seemed so normal. How could his life have become so derailed? Was it that he was married and separated? That he’d been raised by an older sister? Or was there something else no one would ever know about?
We continued writing on and off for a couple of years until I sent a letter that wasn’t answered. I learned later that Ian had been transferred from Tennessee to the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, the same hulking prison that features in the opening chapters of John Steinbeck’s The grapes of wrath. It was there, one spring morning, he was taken from his cell at dawn and told his time had come.
Typically, on the day of their execution, death row inmates are allowed a budget of ten dollars for their last meal, and choices are limited to places close to the prison. Most people opt for fast food: pizza, fried chicken, burgers. At noon that day, Ian was given a last meal: a large meat lover’s pizza, a packet of peanut M&Ms and an A&W root beer.
In the hours before his execution, Ian met with visiting clergy and family. Later that afternoon, just before the sun went down, he was led to a small, unremarkable room and strapped to a gurney, arms outstretched. Blinds were raised between the execution chamber and the witness room, where family members of his victims watched on.
Early on, I consciously made the decision to stay ignorant of Ian’s crimes, so it didn’t colour our interaction. It was only after his execution that I decided to read his backstory.
In the late 1990s, Ian had been a plumber’s apprentice who’d been laid off. Two days before Christmas in 1999, Ian was broke. He had lost his job and his partner. He was an alcoholic, bi-polar and off his meds. Add to that the stresses of Christmas and the feelings of insignificance that come with being unable to provide. It was this perfect conflation of negative life events that lead to tragedy.
He tried to steal money and gifts for the wife who had just left him. A failed home robbery became a kidnapping that turned into a rape and assault, and then murder. He fled the scene and ended up killing a total of three people in a spree that lasted 10 days and crossed three state borders.
I didn’t know what to make of this. It made me want to wash my hands. Ian was a cold-blooded killer who’d seemed kind. Decent, even. In his letters, he’d given advice and support where he thought appropriate and written the sort of banal niceties you get from any friend. But he had destroyed three families. I can’t imagine the anger and devastation they would have felt.
Ian must have known this too. Throughout his trial, he refused to testify in his own defence and told his lawyer repeatedly that he wanted to be sentenced to death.
It was a death that shouldn’t have been an option. Naturally, the letters forced me to consider the ethics of capital punishment. Most Americans don’t support the death penalty and thankfully it has been eradicated in most western countries. Yet I was fascinated to find that Tennessee is populated by Christians who are pro-death penalty. During Holy Week in 2014, when Christians around the world meditated on the death of Christ, Tennessee approved a new lethal injecting drug and reinstated the electric chair. I struggled to understand this Christian enthusiasm for life-taking, when Jesus was a hard-line pacifist who was unambiguously opposed to violent retributive justice.
Our exchanges gave a new reality to the Gospels and Epistles, whose key figures eventually die excruciating deaths at the hands of executioners. St Paul composed his best work from the grimy confines of various ancient prisons, with their own guards, inmates and factions; their own foul smells, their own economic systems. St Paul’s life ended on death row, as did that of St John the Baptist, St Peter, St James, St Philip and supposedly many other apostles. I imagined the dread they must have felt throughout the routine monotony of incarceration.
Before Jesus died, one of the last people he spoke to was a criminal who was, like him, on death row and undergoing a prolonged execution. On the cross, at the last possible moment, the death row criminal found redemption. I like to think my friend did the same.
When Ian was strapped to the gurney, a microphone was lowered from the ceiling and he was offered the opportunity to speak last words. ‘I’d like to apologise sincerely to the families of (my victims). I don’t deserve it but as God has forgiven me, I hope you will forgive me for the pain I’ve caused. I would like to thank my family and friends for your love and support. When my body is gone, my spirit will be with them. Jesus Christ died for my sins. God has forgiven me and eternity in heaven is mine.’ The ‘three-drug cocktail’ was administered at 6.03pm. Sodium thiopental induced unconsciousness, pancuronium bromide caused muscle paralysis and respiratory arrest, and potassium chloride stopped his heart. At 6.10pm, he was pronounced dead.
Since the letters stopped, I’ve reflected on the years writing to Ian and wondered how much of the richness of our correspondence owed to the charms of the medium. Given that letters were the only mode of communication available, I like to think it was elevated somehow. There’s a strange intimacy in letter-writing that wasn’t immediately comfortable but it enabled us to build a fast friendship with insights that may not have arisen otherwise.
What I learned from corresponding with a rampage killer is that those waiting for the bell to toll from behind maximum-security bars, have lives and loves and worries that aren’t so different from our own. And that above all, the most any of them—and indeed, any of us—can hope for is someone to value them, to understand them and to forgive them.
David Halliday is the assistant editor of Melbourne Catholic.