Write a Prisoner

I first learned about Lorri Davis and Damien Echols on one of Piers Morgan’s CNN interview shows--why they were being interviewed, how they met, and the reason Echols had been a death-row inmate in Arkansas.

Echols had been sentenced to death as the leader of two other teenagers, both given life sentences, who were convicted of murdering three young second grade boys.

Before they met, Lorri was living in Brooklyn and working as a landscape architect. She first became aware of Echols in a documentary film about the three young boys and the three older teenagers convicted of murdering them.

After viewing the film, Lorri wrote her first letter to Echols: “I came home that night and couldn’t sleep…It breaks my heart that you are where you are and forced to endure it, so I am committed to doing whatever I can to make your life a little bit more bearable.”

So began their correspondence, writing letters to each other, sometimes several during the same day. There is no Internet in the Arkansas penitentiary. In one she wrote, “It’s great, isn’t it? Getting to know someone by writing. It’s quite wonderful and mysterious…”

Five months after they met, Lorri moved to Little Rock, and began managing the movement to arrange his release, obtaining financial support from several celebrities. They were married while he was still in prison and eventually, through a DNA analysis and unusual plea bargain, Echols, at the age of 36, was released from prison having spent half his life on death-row.

I write about Lorri and Damien because it illustrates the power and unexpected consequences of letter writing, that all but extinguished tradition of communicating with another person. Yes, Echols release is cause for celebration; so too is the love that developed between the couple. But it was the way in which their letter writing correspondence made both possible that first drew me to their story.

Writing letters to prison inmates may be one of the last contexts in which it survives. It is often the only channel for self-expression that prisoners have, especially those who are isolated from the Internet, telephone, or any other link to the world outside the prison. Writing to a prisoner may also appeal to anyone who may find themselves socially isolated, with few if any friends, and quite simply in need of someone to whom they can express themselves, particularly someone who might also benefit from the exchange.

Write a Prisoner is an organization devoted to facilitating letter-writing relationships among prisoners and their pen pals. The organization posts prisoner profiles, photos, and details about their crime. In turn, the inmates are charged a nominal fee that the organization claims is used to fund their other programs—educational materials, house and employment information for released inmates, and a scholarship fund for their children.

According the Write a Prisoner website: “Research shows that inmates who establish and maintain positive contacts outside of prison walls are less likely to return to prison. In fact, they are less likely to return to crime and substance abuse and more likely to find employment and remain productive members of society.”

If you wish to write to a prisoner, click on the link at the bottom of their home page.

Lorri and Damien now live in New York, no doubt still getting acquainted with one another and adjusting as to the hustle and bustle of life outside the walls. They are still writing to each other. But instead of writing letters, they are now sending text messages. I should have guessed.

I thank Geoffrey Gray for background information in his New York Times Magazine article (10/13/11), “My Dearest Damien.”