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Death Row Letters
MU students are pen pals with death-row inmates

Hand-writing a letter is uncommon these days. Hand-writing letters to death-row inmates is even less common. However, more than 40 Manchester University students are writing letters to 56 such inmates.

Based out of Liberty Mills, Ind., the Death Row Support Project of the Church of the Brethren is an organization “that facilitates pen pal relationships between those on death row and those on the outside,” according to its website.

Rachel Gross, director of the project in Liberty Mills and a 1974 Manchester graduate, contacted MU sophomore Annika Harley to begin the program at Manchester.

Prisoners on death row may spend as many as 23 hours alone each day. Often, even their families stop corresponding with them. The program allows inmates to have an outlet to the outside, to know about what is occurring beyond the prison walls.

“It’s mostly a communication avenue,” said Carole Miller-Patrick, director of the MU Center for Service Opportunities. “A lot of these people are in solitary confinement; a lot of them have restricted mail, even. It’s an opening to the outside world.”

Andrea Brewster Stacy Erickson-Pesetski, associate dean for academic resources and associate professor of English, is teaching a first-year seminar course this semester at Manchester called “Orange is Not the New Black,” inspired by her sabbatical work last year at Pendleton Correctional Facility.

Erickson-Pesetski suggested her students participate in the Death Row Support Project to help them connect course material to the real world. “This isn’t from a book; these are real prisoners,” she said. “They still need human contact. They deserve some humanity.”

Although participating is optional, 17 of Erickson-Pesetski’s 19 students in the seminar chose to do so.

Any student who signs up for the program must commit to writing for one year.

“You’ve got someone in prison looking forward to your letters,” Miller-Patrick said. 

What do students write about? Sports, TV shows and books, or just the daily life of a college student.

Students do not seal the letters they write until someone in the CSO office has looked them over. “It’s not that we don’t trust our students; we read them over to make sure that the correspondence is safe,” Miller-Patrick said. No one edits the letters or tells students not to ask certain questions, she said. They merely supervise. “We’re just safeguarding.” 

No one reads the letters from the prisoners, except for the student pen pal.
“The students share what they get back openly,” Miler-Patrick added. “We bring them together a couple of times a year to discuss what it’s like and what kind of letters they are getting.”

Students interested in being pen pals may go to the CSO office in Calvin Ulrey Hall, where Miller-Patrick will show them a folder of letters written by eligible inmates. They may read through the letters and choose someone. 

Members of the public may sign up at http://www.brethren.org/drsp/.

Manchester University is one of six colleges across the United States grounded in the values and traditions of the Church of the Brethren. Manchester maintains an important relationship with the church, a Christian denomination recognized as a historic peace church.

Prepared by Emily Barrand, MU communications assistant.

October 7, 2015