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Antonia Alfeo

Antonia Alfeo is a graduate student in clinical psychology. After completion of her PsyD, she plans to work with individuals in forensic populations who suffer from mental illness.

November 22nd, 2011 2:07 AM

Letters to and from Death Row

I am twenty-two years old. Since I began college with a major in clinical psychology and have now continued my studies into graduate school, I have devoted much of my time interacting with persons others regard as worthless. I have listened to individuals with substance abuse issues talk about victimizing elderly neighbors for drug money; I have read autobiographical accounts of murders that took place “for honor”; and I have listened to pedophiles discuss their desire for children in diapers. Yet I do not feel that any of these individuals should be put to death for their crimes, as abominable as they might be.

We use the death penalty as a means to punish those in our society who have transgressed the legal and moral law. It’s an intervention that seems desperate and futile, enacted once lives have already been harmed and often completely destroyed. Whether or not you support the death penalty, there is a growing consensus among experts that its practice does not deter crime to the degree society would like. The message that we want this punishment to send to potential criminals has been lost in translation.  

As I have learned from hours of direct contact, those who victimize others have often been victims themselves. The stories I’ve heard are often impossible to believe, things I expect most people cannot imagine let alone put into action. If you consider yourself basically a “good” person, an upstanding citizen, chances are you mainly associate with like-minded beings that have been similarly privileged in the fortunes of life. OK, perhaps you have interacted with individuals less fortunate than yourself through volunteering or your work, but have you really heard their stories?

Take a moment to think of your family. Picture your siblings, your parents, and your grandparents. Now imagine being raised in an environment where it is acceptable and expected to engage in intercourse with all of them from the age of six. Or imagine that you had been born with cerebral palsy. Your family has decided that you are unworthy of affection – you are a defective freak and they are too busy to teach you how to walk because a bottle of alcohol is more deserving of their time. So you pull yourself everywhere you go by your hands, crawling on your stomach around the house or outside until you somehow finally learn to walk at the age of nine, which is also the time you begin drinking alcohol yourself. Do you really believe that in those conditions, you would have grown into the “good person” you are today?

Our laws that threaten the ultimate loss – life – are waved in the faces of people who often have nothing really to lose in the first place. When we execute, we do not get to the root of any problem. If we want to truly do something about this situation, we must intervene before the violence occurs. If we want to prevent future victims, we must prevent the victimizers first. Instead of trying to prevent crime with murder, we should consider preventing crime by supporting loving families and stable neighborhoods, and providing adequate resources to the increasing numbers of bereft people and communities. Many of the individuals I have worked with would not be in the position they are today had they been raised in an environment that was warm, loving, and fostered positive ideals. They should not necessarily be defined by their crimes. While they are people who have done terrible things, they are not always terrible people.

My freshman year of college, I began to correspond with a man on death row. Our relationship spanned a few years, eventually slowing down and dying out. It was not until this past year that I considered contacting him again, but life got in the way and I then discovered the opportunity was forever lost. He was executed this fall; I would never have the chance to write to him one last time. At the time of his execution, his guilt was contested and proof beyond a reasonable doubt was not there. The state executed him regardless of this uncertainty.

Through our letters, my friend and I learned about each other’s lives—I learned about what it was like to live in prison and from me, he learned about college. We wrote about our families, our interests, and our dreams for the future. I found him to be interesting and brilliant, and often times I expressed how upset I was that he would never get to use his knowledge for any good in this world. But I was wrong. He was an activist within the prison and tried to bring light to the cruelty faced by the individuals inside. He stated that the conditions people have to endure within the prison on a daily basis are far worse than being put to death. The hyper-vigilance, unpredictable raids, and violence from other inmates made the atmosphere tense and chaotic and everyone seemed to live in a state of constant fear. My friend thought it interesting that I wanted to help people in prison, by writing those on death row, and he encouraged me to make my career with individuals who had been released so that they could live in society successfully. I did not seriously consider this an option at the time, but now, some years later, that is exactly what I am doing, and I have him to thank.

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