Death Row Pen Pal Program changes two lives for the better


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The political landscape surrounding capital punishment in California recently changed when Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered a moratorium on the death penalty and the dismantling of the execution chamber at San Quentin State Prison. California currently has 737 inmates on death row, and these condemned prisoners now have a temporary reprieve on their executions while Gov. Newsom is in office. (A more permanent end to executions will only occur if Californians vote to end the death penalty.) Pope Francis also recently revised the teaching on the death penalty in The Catechism of the Catholic Church, with the following update on state-sanctioned executions: “The Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,’ and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.” Earlier this year, the Diocese of San Diego’s Office for Life, Peace and Justice collaborated with a local advocacy group, San Diegans Against the Death Penalty, to launch a pen pal program with condemned prisoners at San Quentin. Thirty-three inmates on death row have been matched with pen pals to provide kinship, spiritual support and unconditional love to one of the most invisible and marginalized groups in our state. One of the pen pals, Anne Steinemann, has been regularly corresponding and talking with a death row prisoner for several years. Anne’s story regarding her pen pal experience is profound. Anne grew up in San Diego, on the same street where the diocesan Pastoral Center is located today, and is now living and working as an engineering professor in Australia. Jimmy Kelly grew up in Yucca Valley, and is now living on death row. Two worlds apart, but two souls united through the pen pal program. They’ve been writing and talking on the phone each week for the last six years. “It’s a wonderful, incredible, miraculous blessing,” says Anne. Jimmy agrees, “I believe with all my heart and soul that God brought us together.” Anne enthusiastically explains how she became a pen pal. “I heard about the difference that a letter can make in an inmate’s life. And I wanted to let inmates know that they are not alone — they are unconditionally loved, respected, and admired for how they get through each day.” It all started with a Christmas card from Anne, which received a written response from Jimmy. “I was immediately struck and impressed by how thoughtful Jimmy is — thoughtful, both in terms of being respectful, but also in terms of being reflective,” Anne said. “He is so honest, humble, and honourable. And so smart! “The highlight of every week is talking with Jimmy,” she said. “We share what happens in our lives, laugh, and support each other. It’s a Divine Appointment. I see and experience Christ so clearly through Jimmy.” She reinforces how inmates are just like us, and “there but for the grace of God go I.” “You’d be surprised at how completely different life is in San Quentin, but at the same time, how completely similar we all are as humans,” she said. “We are all brothers and sisters.” “Be a pen pal,” she urged. “While we may get into ministry for what we can give, what’s amazing is what you get — far more in return. What’s also amazing is how this child of God, from behind cell walls, can expand your life to the heavens, and how, in turn, you can reach through their cell walls and bring them the light of the Lord.” For Jimmy, the feeling is mutual. “When Anne wrote to me the first time, I did not know at the time how much I was going to need Anne,” he said.

“In prison, I had become paranoid. I believed that everyone was trying to kill me. It was getting worse with every passing day. God was opening my eyes to all the horrific things I had done throughout my life. I was seeing how sinful I was. The guilt and shame were so intense I thought of suicide. “Anne kept telling me that God loved me no matter what, and that I was forgiven,” he continued. “My paranoia went from being worried people were trying to kill me to being worried that God had cast me aside. The only thing that kept me seeking God was Anne. I figured if Anne cared, God made her care, so all hope might not be lost. “I had to tell her what I was really like, so I confided in Anne,” he said. “It was the hardest thing I have done. I was sure Anne was going to be running for the hills since she heard all the things I had done. Not Anne. Anne embraced me even more than she had. Anne showed me what the love of Christ is like. Anne knew all about me and still she wanted to be there for me, even more. If Anne could love me, surely God did.” Anne added, “What greater joy, gift and meaning [is there] in life than to feel you have brought to someone the love of God?” Jesuit Father Greg Boyle, the founder of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, writes in his book Tattoos on the Heart: “The wrong idea has taken root in the world. And the idea is this: there just might be lives out there that matter less than other lives.” As Catholics committed to living the Gospels, we should be mindful that all lives, including those of death-row inmates, have value and deserve our unconditional love. Jesus loves Anne and Jimmy equally, and the kinship they have created is a wonderful manifestation of Christ’s commandment for all of us to love one another.

The Southern Cross Contributing to this article were Anne Steinemann, PhD, a professor in civil engineering currently residing in Australia, and Jimmy Kelly, a death-row inmate at San Quentin State Prison. Robert Ehnow, PhD, serves as associate director of restorative justice for the Diocese of San Diego

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