SAN DIEGO — You might not think that a religious sister and a death-row inmate would have much to talk about.
But Sister Maria Eugenia Espinoza, a member of the Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady of Peace, and her pen pal, a condemned prisoner at San Quentin State Prison, are proving otherwise.
“He’s a child of God, and so he’s my brother, and whatever I can do for him, I will do it,” she said, reflecting on the bond that these two very different people have formed since they began corresponding regularly in early 2019.
Sister Espinoza is not alone in making such connections. In fact, she is just one of more than 70 San Diegans currently participating in prison pen pal programs sponsored by the diocesan Office for Life, Peace and Justice.
One of the programs pairs local Catholics with inmates who have ties to the San Diego area and have not been sentenced to death. The other program, operated jointly with the advocacy group San Diegans Against the Death Penalty, currently has 37 death-row inmates matched with pen pals like Sister Espinoza.
Dr. Robert Ehnow, director of the Office for Life, Peace and Justice, said the pen pals “evangelize through correspondence,” not seeking to proselytize the inmates, but simply conveying the message of God’s unconditional love and sharing the role that faith plays in their own lives.
The guidelines and requirements for both programs, which are provided to each pen pal by the Life, Peace and Justice Office, are similar. Pen pals commit to writing a one- to two-page letter every month to the inmate assigned to them. For privacy reasons, most do not sign their full names and they use the Life, Peace and Justice Office as their mailing address.
For the most part, Ehnow encourages pen pals to write to only one inmate, “because I think it’s a pretty special relationship.”
Ehnow said inmates are hungry for human connection and for contact with the outside world. He estimates that his office receives at least 10 to 12 letters each week from inmates and, sometimes, as many as five or six might arrive in a single day.
Most of the inmates are “just looking to hear back from somebody,” he said.
When Ehnow joined the diocesan staff in July 2018 as the office’s associate director in charge of diocesan prison ministry, the death-row pen pal program didn’t exist (it started in January 2019) and the other pen pal program only had about four or five participants.
Since then, he has worked to develop a more robust program. Currently, he does not have any unmatched death-row inmates, but he could still use another 10 to 15 pen pals for the other program.
Potential pen pals should have an open heart and be neither judgmental nor inquisitive about the crimes that the inmate committed, Ehnow said.
“If you have a heart that’s open to make a real difference in somebody’s life, especially in their spiritual life,” he recommends committing to at least a year and giving it a try.
“Most of the people that have been doing it for over a year, they don’t quit,” he said.
The death-row pen pal program is formally known as Sister Helen’s Journey, named in honor of death-penalty abolitionist Sister Helen Prejean, whose own friendship with a condemned prisoner was recounted in her non-fiction book Dead Man Walking and its 1995 film adaptation.
“After Sister Helen spoke here in 2018, we wanted to replicate her experience for someone who might, through a personal connection to someone on death row, awaken to the injustice of capital punishment and join our fight to abolish the death penalty,” said Jennifer Bonakdar, coordinator of San Diegans Against the Death Penalty.
Bonakdar acknowledges that the ministry is a challenging one.
“I myself never got a reply from any of the letters I sent,” she said. “While this was disappointing to me, I know I cannot begin to understand what daily life on death row is like for my pen pal, so I kept writing for the year I had committed to, regardless.”
But while many pen pals’ letters have not developed into anything significant, she said, for a few it has been “life-changing.”
Sister Espinoza began her correspondence knowing nothing more than that the inmate she had been paired with was “having a hard time at this moment.”
In her first letter, she introduced herself, explaining that she was part of a diocesan pen pal program, and shared her certainty “that God forgives anyone, no matter what they have done.”
She said it was “a joy” when a response came within about 10 days because that meant that he wanted to continue with the correspondence.
Sister Espinoza said that it has not been a one-sided friendship consisting entirely of her ministering to him, but rather one in which both sides have something to learn.
“It’s just a matter of listening to what he has to say,” she said.
Her inmate, who is in his 60s and has been on death row since 2015, has opened up about his difficult childhood. Of mixed European and Native American ancestry, he felt rejected by his Native American mother. He had been in and out of correctional facilities since his youth.
It doesn’t matter to Sister Espinoza what his crime was. He has told her that she could easily find out if she were to search through criminal records. But she said, “I’m not looking for whatever he did.”
Describing her relationship with the inmate, who has asked her to claim his cremated remains after he is executed, Sister Espinoza said, “At least he knows that he has a friend.”
Last February, accompanied by another member of her religious community, Sister Espinoza traveled from San Diego to the San Francisco Bay Area for an in-person meeting with her pen pal at San Quentin State Prison. The Life, Peace and Justice Office sponsored her trip, picking up the cost of airline tickets to San Francisco and two nights’ hotel lodging.
All in all, she was only able to spend an hour or less of face-to-face time with her pen pal, but Sister Espinoza said the trip was well worth it.
“Oh, definitely,” she said, “because it meant a lot to him, and it meant a lot to us.”
To others discerning whether they should take part in this ministry, she advises approaching it with prayer and patience, noting that it can take time for an inmate to open up and for a relationship of openness and trust to develop.
“If someone wants to do this type of ministry, just be patient.”
For more information or to sign up, contact Dr. Robert Ehnow at (858) 490-8375 or firstname.lastname@example.org.