Letter from Death Row

Posted: June 19, 2013 in jail
Tags: , ,

“Hey you! Long time since we’ve talked,” I said when my phone rang and I saw it was Tammy. I had not talked to her in a few years.

“Hi Susan. How are you?” she asked.

We spent a few minutes getting caught-up. I had met Tammy 20 years earlier when we were both working our program in jail. She had moved to Texas and continued her work as a volunteer. Somehow years had passed, but hearing her voice again, it felt as if I had just talked to her the week before.

“I needed someone to talk to. I hope it’s OK that I called…”

“Of course it is!” I said. “Funny you should call right now while I’m grading lessons. I just took on a bunch of inmates and getting them going. Kind of cosmic, you know? Besides, what else am I going to do on a Friday night except correspond with inmates?”

That thought made me laugh and cringe at the same time.

“Well, I just got a letter from one of my guys and I didn’t expect it. Not now. Not after everything that happened. It shook me up and I didn’t know what to do or who to call, so I called you,” she said.

Her voice was starting to waver. She was holding back tears.

“What did the letter say? Who is it from?” I asked. I sat back and waited.

She sniffled, cleared her throat and took a deep breath. “It’s from Kamal and…” she said and started to cry.

I didn’t know why she was crying. I vaguely remembered hearing about him from a long time ago. He was some young man in prison that Tammy was working with. Just one of many. His name meant nothing to me.

“Anyway, I got his letter today and I didn’t expect it since he’s dead,” she said.

“He’s dead? Oh I’m so sorry. What happened?”

“He was executed. I was a witness,” she said and the sobbing began.

I didn’t understand but I kept quiet while she cried. She was a witness? She watched this?

My head began to spin. I took the phone outside and lit a cigarette. My hands were shaking and I was nauseous.

“You OK?” I asked. It was a stupid question but I had to say something. I couldn’t listen to it any more without saying something. Anything to stop the deep and overwhelming grief she was feeling.

“Take your time. I’m not going anywhere,” I said.

She took a couple of deep breaths. “I started working with him years ago. He was on death row and wanted to do anything and everything to make things right, be a better person and he had no one to talk to.”

“Yes, I understand,” I said.

“So one letter turned into hundreds over the years. He worked hard on his lessons and every time he was done with one program, he requested another. Over time…”

“Over time, you got to know him…”

“Yeah. That,” she said.

“He wrote about his crimes and what he had done. He talked about his appeal, his attorney and anything that was on his mind. He always had hope that it would all work out, that someone would listen to him and see that he hadn’t done all the terrible things they said he did. But he was poor. He had no money and no family or friends…”

“Except you, right? You were his friend,” I said. Tears were starting to burn my eyes.

“Yeah, just me. Me, who won’t ever see him or meet him. Me, who has a good life and who lacks for nothing. Just me,” she said.

“And suddenly one day, you realize how important you are to another human being and you never meant for that to happen,” I said.

“Yeah, that,” she said.

“When I got his letter that the execution was on, I didn’t believe it. How could this happen? I mean, I know I don’t know much about it except what he told me, but I felt like I was losing my dear friend.”

“That’s because you were. They were putting him down, just like we do with our pets,” I said. Flashes of too many death walks to the vet flashed through my mind. I had no concept of what that was like to watch a human being be put down. Did they comfort him? Did they soothe him and hold his hand? Did they speak in hushed voices? Did they show him any compassion and forgiveness or was he treated roughly? How do you look into someone’s eyes and then flip the switch or inject them?

My tears started to flow as I grieved for my friend and Kamal.

“He asked me to be a witness. I was the only friend he had and he didn’t want to die alone with only strangers staring at him. He didn’t want hate to be the last thing he saw before he died…” she said and the sobbing began again.

She didn’t want to go and yet couldn’t say no. She knew she couldn’t live with herself if she didn’t go. She held her chin up and worked to get the necessary clearance and approval. She drove for a day and arrived at the prison. She drove through the gate after an intense security check. She drove by the protesters who were divided between wishing Kamal an eternity in hell and those wanting to stop it. There were only a few. It struck her as a hobby for all of them.

She was ushered into a room and waited. Only a few people were in attendance. They did not speak or look at each other. Curtains opened and he was brought in. The two had never met and didn’t know what each other looked like. He scanned the room, saw her and smiled. She smiled back.

That was all she could tell me. It was more than enough.

“That was a few weeks ago. Then I got his letter today. His letter to me that he asked to be mailed after he died,” she said.

“Go ahead and read it,” I said.

Dear Tammy,

If you are reading this, then it means I’m dead. I don’t know if you were there to say good-bye, but if you were, I know it was hard for you. If you weren’t then it’s still OK.

Thank you for your friendship. Thank you for always being there when I wrote you. I’m not good at putting all these crazy thoughts into words. My time is coming soon. I’m scared but I’m tired too. I am not wanted as a human being anymore. I hope it doesn’t hurt.

You made my existence worth something. You are a faceless angel that floats around out there until I call you. Then you arrive and listen and float away when I’m done. Thank you for forgiving me and never going away and leaving me alone. Whether you come or not, I won’t be alone because of you.

I can’t write anymore but I have one thing I have to say. I love you.

See you later and don’t cry. Keep helping people like me. It matters.


We spent the rest of the day talking. I could only imagine how she felt. I felt dead inside and though I never met Kamal or knew much about him, his death affected my life in ways I could never have imagined in the coming years.

Us people of good will only ask to be left alone to do our work. Either help us or get out of our way. Do not harm us. Do not impede us on what we need to do. Let us get on with it and ask nothing of us. We give willingly and easily. We only ask that you not hurt us.

  1. Equus spirit says:

    You have the heart of God.

    Sent from my iPad

  2. kentgah says:

    A touching heartbreaking story, Susan. You can see Kamal’s intelligence in the letter he wrote. You can also see that he cared to ease Tammy’s pain that she may feel. I would think that it would take a special courage that he could rise above his concerns for self to reach out in this way.
    Rich Miller

    • Susan Lewis says:

      Thanks Rich. Yes, there was a reason she cared for him and continued to correspond. You never know when that will happen or how. But when it does, it’s best to embrace it for as long as you can.

  3. meticulouslyclean says:

    Just a quick note: The protesters OF the death penalty and the protestors FOR the death penalty are quite passionate about which ever side they come down on. If they weren’t contentious and/or attacking each other as your friend drove by, I congratulate them on their graciousness and humanity. They are far from ‘hobbyists’, although your friend’s frame of mind is to be excused considering the circumstances.

  4. Susan, I have read your blog posts, all of them, and valued them so much over the past months since I found you on G+. You help others so much and I have been wishing there was something I could do to help you…surely a little more money in your pocket would only help you to help more broken people, don’t just say ‘no’, please, listen. There is a new site, my favorite Youtube singer uses it; its a way for anyone who creates internet content, including blogs, to put out a ‘tip jar’ for patrons (aka your fans) to tip you, as much as they want, as little as a dollar, safely and securely, on an automatic basis, like, a patron would agree to tip you $2 for every blog post, as you post them, and the patron can set a maximum, too, so their budget doesn’t get dented if you are more prolific one month than others. Anyway, just please go see the little explanation video at Patreon dot com, they explain better than I can. I hope that by bringing this site to your attention, that I have brought a little goodness to you, as you have brought goodness and warmth and hope to me, via your blog posts. Thank you for all your work and your willingness to share pieces of it with all of us. Sincerely, Robin Pierce

    • Susan Lewis says:


      I really don’t know what to say except thank you so much! I will check it out.

      What a wonderful thing for someone to do. I tell you, sometimes it does get hard to keep things going and to have someone come along and say thank you and lend a helping hand means everything to me.


  5. I am so so so glad to help! Please, if you do use Patreon, make sure you mention Patreon or link to it here on your blog (preferably on every post, that’s possible right?) so we can find it to tip you! And, in fairness, for karma’s sake, I pass along the name here of the man I heard of Patreon from, Peter Hollens, that singer on Youtube with such a golden voice, doing his a capella thing on his own channel. (His cover of ‘Brave’ helps me through many hard days.) I was worried that my proffered help to you would be rebuffed, thank you for letting me know I was helpful to you in mentioning Patreon. I like to help people when I can.

    • Susan Lewis says:

      I would be happy to do that. I’ll start working on setting up an account and learning about it.

      Thank you a million times for everything.