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Class links students, inmates

Lauren Lavelle | Monday, October 31, 2005

One Saint Mary’s senior has a very special pen pal. His name is Lee, and he loves music, sports and movies. He played basketball in college and once co-hosted his own country music radio show. By all counts except one, Lee is a normal young man.

Lee is a death row inmate.

While many students might be frightened at the thought of conversing with a convicted murderer, writing to Lee has become an important part of the senior’s life.

The Observer will not publish the full name of the inmate or the name of the student due to the sensitive nature of the subject.

The senior started writing to Lee in January 2003 as a part of a project for her Catholic Social Thought class. Students in professor Joseph Incandela’s class choose from three semester-long projects – one of which is continued correspondence with a death row inmate. Incandela conceived the idea for the project based on the experiences of Sister Helen Prejean, the subject of the book and film “Dead Man Walking.”

“When I first read ‘Dead Man Walking’ and sort of saw how she started, it sort of got me thinking how to do this same kind of project in a classroom setting,” Incandela said. “My basic interest was to get students to experience some of the things we are talking about in class.”

Incandela created a project in which students can write to death row inmates for one semester. In order to soothe student fears and anxiety about the project, Incandela gives them the option of using pseudonyms and having the letters sent to his office rather than their own mailboxes. At the end of the semester, students write a paper summarizing their experiences and personal growth. Incandela said he hopes this project allows his students to better understand death row inmates and capital punishment.

“The purpose of the assignment is not to make students feel sorry for them. Rather, the point is to try to get students to understand the fundamental principle of Catholic Social Thought, and that is that every human being is made in the image and likeness of God,” Incandela said. “Every human has a basic dignity that they don’t earn by their actions or lose by their actions. On the very basic level, the point is for students to see those on death row as persons.”

The project has been highly popular in the eight years that it has been offered. This semester, 34 out of 45 students have chosen to contact death row inmates.

Sophomore Maggie Siefert, one of Incandela’s students, recently began corresponding with a death row inmate. After receiving two letters from the inmate, Siefert said her opinion on death row has already changed.

“I realized that a lot of these people have just made one wrong mistake in their lives, and it’s a huge factor,” she said. “But they are people too. This project helps to get rid of stereotypes.”

Sophomore Ashley Brown, who is also taking the class, said she opted to write to an inmate because of her lack of knowledge on the subject.

“I chose to do it because it would be interesting to hear from them and get their take on their lives and death row,” Brown said. “I realized that they are humans and should be treated as humans.”

Looking back on her experience, senior Nicole Gifford said she appreciates what she learned by corresponding to an inmate. Gifford took the class in fall 2004 and noted how she changed throughout the semester.

“Prior to the class I wasn’t decided [about the death penalty],” she said. “I was in the gray area. I thought that if you did a terrible crime then you should be punished. After taking the class, however, I am totally against the death penalty.”

Gifford also said she still has occasional contact with her inmate and writes to him every few months.

Of all Incandela’s students who have participated in the project, however, none has had an experience quite like the senior who requested anonymity. January will mark the three-year anniversary of her correspondence with Lee. Writing three- to nine-page letters every three weeks has allowed the student and Lee to establish a level of trust with one another. The senior said she feels free to write to him about her friends, family and life at Saint Mary’s.

“He basically lets me tell him what I want to tell him. He knows that if I want to tell him something specific about my life than I will,” she said. “There are enough things to write about that I don’t have to tell him all the ins and outs of my life.”

The senior also said she enjoys hearing about Lee’s day to day life, and that she was surprised to learn about the many things he has access to.

“In his cell, he has a television, a word processor and a radio,” she said. “They have access to movies and to books.”

Even though Lee has access to life outside his cell, the student said she often feels guilty sharing her experiences with him.

“I always feel selfish when I write about things that are going on and I try to stay somewhat neutral about what’s going on. I feel selfish about writing that because I don’t know if he wants to hear about the things he’s missing out on,” the senior said. “He tells me to not feel selfish because he definitely wants to hear that there is a world going on outside those walls.”

The senior said she and Lee often talk about serious issues, such as religion and finding God.

“I tell him that I pray for him every night and he is grateful for those prayers,” she said. “He says that he prays for me and my family too.”

One subject the pen pals do not focus on is Lee’s crime. While the senior knows the details of his crime and conviction, she said she does not like to dwell on it. By not focusing on his crime, she said she is able to see Lee as a person rather than a criminal.

“By looking past his situation, I was able to see that there was more to this person than just a crime,” she said.

One aspect of Lee’s personality the senior said she enjoys is his sense of humor. She is also impressed by his ability to stay positive, despite his situation.

“The one thing that stands out to me over anything is his positive attitude. He is always happy, always laughing. He has an unbelievable will to make people laugh and to be positive about his situation,” she said.

While the senior said she admires Lee’s attitude and enjoys his correspondence, she also said she knows her boundaries.

“I look at him like another human being and a friend but there is still that distance I try to keep because I realize the position he is in,” she said.

She also said although she is not emotionally attached to Lee, she cares for him and prays for him.

“More than anything else, I want Lee to be at peace with his situation and to find God,” she said.

The senior said while she was initially apprehensive about writing to an inmate, after corresponding with Lee her opinions about death row and capital punishment have changed.

“The class and my letters from Lee have completely opened my eyes to capital punishment. I am not for capital punishment like I was before,” she said. “I used to think that if you were on death row, you were there for a reason and you deserved to be punished for your actions. Now, I see that there are so many things wrong with the system and I can’t support it as is.”

While Lee’s future is unknown, the student said she remains positive about her correspondence with him and would eventually like to meet him.

“I wouldn’t be uncomfortable with that situation,” she said.