My Death Row Pen-pal

By: Shellie Jungkunz

Recently, I decided to become a penpal through the Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center, or IJPC , with an inmate on death row. I had thought about it randomly over the last few 1 years after a colleague mentioned the program to me. When she initially told me about it, I was so dumbfounded and wondered, “Why would anyone want to write to someone like that?” I immediately had to read about this organization to try to understand their perspective, and the IJPC addresses my exact question:

“We know from the exonerees and current inmates, that lingering for years on death row is an excruciating experience in and of itself. It is often called a death before dying, because it is an isolating, anxiety-ridden, and incredibly lonely existence. They are denied any human contact, often for decades, and because of the well-documented mental, physical and emotional deterioration this condition causes, it is widely considered a form of torture. Regardless of a person’s guilt or innocence, torture is something that the vast majority of people object to and find intolerable. The common element among correspondence is compassion and mercy.”

Let that resonate. Those words. “Anxiety-ridden and incredibly lonely existence.” I thought about those words often. (I, as an anxiety struggler for the past 15 years, often experience the struggle of fight-or-FLIGHT during general anxiety or panic attacks. In most cases, I need to exert my use of “flight” and get away from a situation almost instantly. Move away. Leave from the current place, breathe, and bring my brain back into focus.) I thought, “What if my flight instinct was taken from me and I was left trapped, like those in prison?” This alone triggered a wave of compassion for inmates on death row. Regardless of any crime, the thought of someone having excessive anxiety, and not being able to ever remove themselves physically, made me experience some feelings of claustrophobia and loss of control myself. It was at this moment that this opportunity became a personal challenge. I took the first step and reached out to the representative at IJPC and requested an assignment.

I was nervous. I kept considering backing out. But then, I received my assignment on a Thursday at 2:32pm while in the pickup line at my son’s school. To my surprise, my penpal was removed from death row in 2014. After correspondence, he has written about how he will revisit the parole board in the summer of 2021. He continues to claim his innocence. I've researched his case extensively, and have read every affidavit available on the internet. His case seems complicated, as someone else has admitted to his crime 11 separate times, over the course of many years. And yet he has been imprisoned since 1983. I was 10 months old at the time of his arrest. I cannot express the sadness I feel when I realize that during every life experience I can possibly remember, he has been imprisoned. Every single birthday that I have had. He has been imprisoned. When I graduated from preschool, grade school, junior high, high school, college, got my first job, left my first job, met my husband, got married, had babies, when my babies started preschool. That whole time, he has been imprisoned.

I feel lucky to have received him with which to correspond. His handwriting is legible, his writing clear and easy to read. He seems genuinely positive. He stays busy and participates in any and all educational opportunities available to him with the help of his lawyer. He believes in God. The most sincere part of one of his recent letters referenced his only living sibling, his sister, whom he stated has been in a wheelchair for 45 years, but hasn't missed any opportunity to 1 2 see him. “She is my light. The reason I've made it these last 37 years (31 of them being on death row).” I have true compassion for his being, and true empathy for his existence. When I received my assignment a month ago from the IJPC representative, she finished her email with the following… “I hope this will be an impactful experience for you!” I’m already changed.

If you’re interested in becoming a penpal please contact Shellie at

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