I was tooling around the Web one day and I came across an entry called "Prison Pen Pals" I was intrigued and went through a list, complete with photos, of these prospective pen pals.
On Death Row in Raiford, Florida I spotted a man called Tod, an artist who read science fiction.
I was interested enough to send him a letter. This was the beginning of a long and continuing series of letters.
Right at the beginning, I had to make it very, very clear that I was not interested in a long distance literary romance. This was never, ever part of any plan of mine. What had captured my interest was an intelligent and creative mind behind bars.
Over time I learned that Tod had been a Seal in the Navy. Some further exploring on the Internet took me to the very well organized Florida Correctional Services site where I got details on what Tod had been imprisoned for. This explained to me clearly that he was in prison for a good reason. Tod was not a political prisoner. He was a violent criminal.
I went full circle from 'a mind in chains' to "Well, here I am writing to Hannibal Lector". I decided, finally, that I was writing to the man as he was now, safely locked up and that his crimes were something neither he nor I could change. Not an easy lesson to learn.
I also learned that, particularly in the Southern States but especially in Florida, they believed that people who were sent to prison should suffer and went out of their way to accomplish this. Tod was an artist. The prison authorities took away all his art material and he could only write and draw with a cheap black ballpoint pen. They don't allow hardcover books unless the covers have been ripped off and only 3 books may be kept in the cell. The prisoners do have black and white TVs and these work sometimes. Tod's favourite show was Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
The execution machine was, in Florida, a 76-year-old apparatus known as "Old Sparky." It was retired amid controversy after flames leapt from the death mask of a prisoner during a March 1997 electrocution.
As I write, Florida had executed 44 death-row inmates since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. Most of the 38 U.S. states where capital punishment is legal have switched to lethal injection. Florida is the largest of four states that then used electrocution as its sole means of execution.
On the lighter side, Tod had many pen friends. They would come and go, some of them helped him to publish his art on the outside. I refused to do this since it would be breaking the law to publish smuggled art and get the proceeds back to the criminal.
Tod was fascinated by computers and tried to learn as much as he could from printouts sent to him by pen friends. Over time, as I had my little window on the miserable world of a prisoner, I learned some good lessons.
One is that the prisoners are in there for a reason. No matter how persuasively they turn on the charm and blame circumstance, they are criminals. Another is that often, and certainly in Tod's case, they feel no remorse for their crimes. They are, however, sorry they got caught. Putting that aside, no human is all bad. I talked to that portion of Tod that was lucid, funny and brave and, occasionally, wise.
I continued to write to him until he died after all appeals had been exhausted. I told him that if he was sent to the Big House, awaiting execution, he had my permission to phone me for our first and last live chat.
Tod died suddenly but was not executed. I believe he did so to cheat 'Old Sparky' or its more modern equivalent.