Category Archives: character of the man

How a Penpal is Like Gold, A Visitor Like Diamonds . . .

John and JoannaPeople were horrified John Lee had my address. They said he’d send someone to rob my house, or kidnap me and make me empty out my bank account, maybe even shoot me. Or he’d hand my address around for other men to put a hit on me.

When I told John Lee this, he clasped his hands and turned his head down. A few moments passed, and then he took hold of the bars and brought himself up close behind the glass.

“You know how precious a penpal is? A penpal is like gold in here. And someone who comes visit is like diamonds. I’m a rich man on account of you, so you can always trust me to protect you. Soon’s I open one of your letters I tear the address off into little bits and flush it down the toilet. It makes me nervous, though, when they bring the mail, because they put it all out on a table. I try to get there fast, but some guy could see your address on the envelope before I get to it, so if anyone does write you, don’t answer, because you don’t know who they are. There’s some real bad guys in here. I don’t mean put a hit on you. They’d try to steal you. That’s about the worst thing you can do to a prisoner, steal his people.”

“Don’t worry, no one’s going to steal me.”

“Well, I know you’re a kind person so I have to warn you. Don’t let your kind heart run away with you. You write to any other prisoner, I will cut you off.”

That shocked me. John was supposed to be the needy one, the one reaching out, but now it seemed to be the other way around.

“Don’t think that’s on account of jealousy,” he said. “It’s not jealousy, it’s self-protection. I’ve seen it happen to other guys. There was one guy in here had a penpal, and another guy had a different penpal, both college students, but it turned out the two girls were roommates and they talked about their guys to each other, and then one of them wrote her penpal and told him something about the other one, something private, and it turned into a real bad situation between the two guys.

“You’ve got to understand these guys lived on the same block, they couldn’t get away from each other, and this guy is telling stuff on the other guy. So the other guy writes to his penpal and tells her the problem he’s having, and what does she do? She drops him. Never writes to him again.

That was a real loss for him because he didn’t have anybody else out in the world. He’s only young and he got depressed, sat on his bed staring at the wall for weeks. And actually, he was lucky, he could have had it worse. A guy gets something on you and who knows what he’ll use it for. Could end up someone getting hurt. That’s why there’s not much trust in this place. You have to watch yourself because everyone is watching you, looking for a weak spot.

Justice for John Lee: How It All Began – Chapter 6

John Lee in the Red Jump Suit of Death Row

John Lee in the Red Jump Suit of Death Row

I have always been aware of the responsibility I have as a writer toward my readers, that what I write can effect their lives. But not until John Lee came into my life did I realize that what I write can change the course of my own life.

One day John said to me, “I’ve been thinking about your book, The Road from Chapel Hill.

“What did you think?” I asked him.

“Tom’s life was like mine in many ways.”

“Tom was a slave. How could his life be like yours?”

“Because I’m a slave too, a slave of the state. It says so in the thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. And because Tom did not know his father, and he was taken away from his mother when he was very young. But mainly because . . . you know that part in the story where Tom learns to read and realizes he’s not stupid?”

“You mean when he ran singing and shouting through the streets?”

“Yeah. I know how he felt. See, my true education did not start until I came to Death Row in nineteen ninety-two at twenty-five years old. I was very upset and confused when I was sent here. I could not understand why this had happened. Then one day an older prisoner came to me and gave me a book called Holy Qu’ran. He told me that if I studied that book it would lead me into knowledge, wisdom and understanding. “

“That night while locked in the cell, I realized that I couldn’t read this book very well because I wasn’t a good reader. The next day I talked with the older cat about this problem. He told me to have no shame and to start asking everyone for help. So I started asking everyone to explain word meanings to me, and every day I would sit in front of the TV and look at different commercials and repeat what the person was saying and the name of the product, and when I didn’t understand I would ask someone to say the name of the product for me. “

“Now reading is my biggest educational strength today. My attachment to books has restrained me from getting involved in gambling, drinking, fighting, and doing unpleasant things in here. And it’s taught me how to express myself. At first when I wrote to penpals, I didn’t know how to put my thoughts into words, so I would copy out of books because the writer could say it better than me. Gradually I learned from writing it all out how to say it for myself. It taught me how to think as well, because while I was writing it out, I was thinking through what the writer was saying. Now I am thinking and analyzing everything all the time.”

I was fascinated. “Tell me what it felt like, how it felt inside your head when you first began to think.”

He thought a while.

“It was like when you notice a butterfly not as a butterfly, but as a living, pulsating energy as it flaps its wings. I began to see things a lot differently and more clearly. Free! I felt free! Just like Tom did in your story.”

“I’m still learning about thinking and I’m getting better at it all the time. That’s why I like to talk to educated people, people like you. It makes me think in different ways and I get to understand more about the world and why people do the things they do. You don’t know this, but you’ve already helped me change some of my opinions just by being willing to come see me and talk with me like I am a human being.”

He smiled. “Thank you!”

“Don’t thank me,” I said, “Your Muslim brother’s the one who started you off thinking for yourself. You should thank him.”

John Lee looked at me with something painful in his eyes. “Oh, nah, I can’t do that.”

“Why not? What’s the matter? Have I upset you?”

“They executed him. He was a good man too. He taught me a lot to help me be a better person.”

John Lee Makes a Confession

John Lee in the Red Jump Suit of Death Row

John Lee in the Red Jump Suit of Death Row

Given the restrictions from John Lee’s legal team on posting elements of his ongoing case, we are continuing to post stories which we hope will give you a better understanding of the man we are asking you to support.

From Joanna:

John Lee and I were halfway through a visit when he took hold of the bars and looked directly in my eyes.

“I want to make a confession.”

I thought, Oh God, what’s this? I said, “Okay.”

“When I first came to Death Row,” John Lee went on, “I seriously injured a man. It happened when I was moved onto a block with a bunch of white guys. There were sixteen men on that block and thirteen of them were white supremacists. The other three guys were black, so the white guys ran the block.

“A black guy in a wheelchair got into an argument with some of these white dudes. I’d been out at rec and I came in on the middle of it. The white guys pulled out razor blades and the guy in the wheelchair jumped up on wobbly legs, so I got in front of him and told them to back down.

“This one guy, he was into the Aryan Nation white power movement, he said, ‘We can do something about you too, nigger.’

“I just walked past them and went up the stairs to go to my cell. But when I looked back down over the rail, that guy had the twelve other white supremacist guys with him at the bottom of the stairs, all looking up at me.

“So I knew I had to choose between being possibly killed and fighting back. I didn’t really have a choice because Death Row isn’t locked down during the day and I had to live in the dayroom with these guys.

“I put two batteries in a sock and went down the stairs. I hit that guy right in the head and split it open and they took him away to the prison hospital. It was the only time in my life I’d intentionally set out to hurt someone and I did not intend to hurt him that badly.

“I did enough checking with the guys here in the prison to find out that the guy was doing fine. He told them he forgave me, but if he ever saw me again he’d kill me. I don’t blame him for that.

“I was put in solitary for a year and a half. During that time I wrote to the guy and asked him for forgiveness. He sent a message through the other death row inmates that he forgave me but he was still going to kill me.

“After I got out of solitary I saw him in a hallway. He turned and went the other way, so I guess he wasn’t going to kill me after all.

“I put all that as far out of my mind as I could, but about fifteen years later, it started coming up every time I went to sleep. I tried to say, ‘Well, be here now. Let it go,’ and all that, but I couldn’t.

“It was like something knocking on my door that wouldn’t go away. When I finally opened up to it, I went straight through fifteen years of repressed guilt, shame, and fear in a few months’ time. I really needed that. I really needed to grow up in that way.

“It doesn’t hurt me anymore, but it will certainly be in my memory all my life. I have faith that these things happen as they need to. Even when we deny it, we feel pain for pain we cause, and it’s going to have to come out sometime. I learned that lesson the hard way, but now I see how much more compassion and tenderness I have as a result.”