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he term “pen pal”—sweetly alliterative and quaint—may evoke images of doomed summer camp relationships, international exchange student assignments, and 1950s schoolgirls writing letters to soldiers with fountain pens.
But in this country, which locks up more than 2.4 million people and enjoys the title of most incarcerated nation in the world, the practice of pen-palling takes on a pragmatic purpose: It links those behind bars to the outside world.
” What act would bar her from receiving visits from her kids—or leave her with a twenty-two-year post-release “stigma”? One cruel irony prisoners face is that while they’re behind bars, unable to speak for themselves, the internet offers up a host of third-party information about them: mugshots, court documents, personal data (age, height, weight, tattoo verbiage), past records, and often-sensational press coverage of their convictions.
A couple of newspaper snippets disclose that at twenty-three she was convicted of “statutory assault”—having a “sexual relationship” with a “known minor male” over the course of a couple of months, as evidenced by text messages exchanged between the two.
But in the summer of 2012, I combed through my letters from pen pal interviews past. And so I took a deep breath and googled “Steven Woods” and “Texas death row.” The Internet delivered the news: My friend had been executed in 2011.Addressing the envelope (“Polunsky Unit,” death row) scared me. His politics were passionate—and, incredibly, more hopeful than mine: He wrote of his belief in the power of nonviolent resistance to “help our fellows rise above their chains,” even in the direst of circumstances.