Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Why I write to prisoners: An author’s correspondence with notable inmates

Carlton Gary. Police photo.

Originally published 06/18/2012.


For many years, I have written to various prison inmates, about half of whom have written back.

I have been asked why I write to prisoners. The answer is not mysterious. I write to them for essentially the same reasons I communicate with anyone else. One is that I want to tell a person something. Another is that I want to ask him or her something.

When I write to inmates, I often attempt to find common ground on the basis of their (non-criminal) interests. The general public, including myself, may think of someone simply as a murderer or rapist or whatever the term is for the crime for which he or she is imprisoned but it is unlikely that person thinks of himself or herself in those terms. Thus, I try to forge a connection based on something else.

Carlton Michael Gary, on Georgia’s Death Row for the Columbus Stocking Stranglings, enjoys writing poetry and drawing. In a letter to him in November, I included a poem I wrote about Thanksgiving. In a letter to him in December, I included a poem I wrote about Christmas. I wrote him that I am trying to learn to draw. He sent me a letter around Thanksgiving on which he had sketched a turkey.

Both the infamous Charles Manson, convicted for ordering the Tate-LaBianca mass murders, and his somewhat less infamous associate Lynnette “Squeaky” Fromme, recently paroled on her conviction for attempting to assassinate then-President Gerald Ford, are extremely interested in environmental issues. Thus, in my correspondence with Manson I sent him an essay I had written about Arbor Day and other pieces I had written relevant to ecology. I sent Fromme back issues of the Gorilla journal. A publication of the Gorilla Foundation, this journal focuses primarily on the famous Koko who is the first gorilla to learn American Sign Language.

What do I want to tell an inmate? In a couple of instances, I wrote prisoners to tell them I believed injustices had been done in their cases.

For example, William Hetherington was the first man convicted in Michigan of spousal rape, a crime then new to that state’s statutes. I learned of his case through someone relentlessly nagged me to research the case.

When I did so, I was disturbed by what I learned. The evidence on which William was convicted appeared questionable. The sentence he received of 15 to 30 years appeared outrageous since he had no criminal record. I began urging people to write to the parole board asking that he be paroled.

I also began corresponding with William to let him know I thought he was the victim of an injustice. Our correspondence became increasingly friendly.
William sent me a cute Christmas card I still cherish. On the front of it is a cartoon figure of a prisoner marking off years on his wall and wearing a classic red and white Santa Claus-style cap. Written above the figure is the message: “With this card I wanted to send you a very special gift . . .” Inside the card it reads, “But the guard made me get out of the envelope!”

William was never paroled but “maxed out” and was released. We phone each other regularly and are good friends.

I have also written to Jonathan Pollard, an American who spied for Israel, to tell him I believe his life sentence is unjust. He has never written back but I do not hold that against him. It is his right to choose with whom he corresponds. He is in poor health and is probably busy writing to his family, close friends, and many supporters.

Several years ago, I became convinced that Charles Manson was not the singular Svengali depicted at his trial and that his role in the murders may have been that of accessory rather than mastermind. I sent him a brief letter stating this in 2000. He sent me a postcard saying, “Regards, respect and thanks. Easy, Charles Manson.”

What I wish to ask an inmate also varies.

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