Monthly Archives: June 2014

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 – Joanna Receives Advice from a Gentle Nun

Sister AnnShortly after meeting John Lee, a letter came for me addressed in the shaky handwriting of the very old:

“Dear Joanna Catherine Scott,

“I am a Dominican Sister who is retired and living at our Mother House in Adrian, Michigan. I am able to write to John Lee but I am not able to travel to visit him. John Lee has been wishing to have a friend who lives close enough to visit him. He wrote to me saying that now he does, and he is very happy about it. It is an answer to much prayer by both of us. Over the years he has told me about his life and he may be doing that with you also. He is now waiting to hear from the judge about his case. We have been praying for a good judgment. I have been having the Sisters here and my family praying too.”

Sister Ann gave me her email address and phone number so I emailed her telling her I’d call her in the morning.

To which she replied: “Before you call me I want you to know that all during the time I have known John Lee, I have been sending him a little money and books. I told him recently that I will not be able to continue doing that because of my situation here. When I met him, John Lee  had no one to give him any help and he was very sad and lonely. I do not want him to be in that same state if there is someone who can give him a little help. If you are able to do that I would be happy for him and grateful to you.”

I emailed back and told her I would be happy to take care of him any way I could.

To which Sister Ann replied: “Dear Joanna, I just read your email. It made me cry. I am so happy you have found him. I have been loving him for all these years that I have known him. I will keep in touch with him all I can even when I can no longer support him. I am looking forward to talking with you tomorrow. John Lee and I have been praying for so long for this that I am sure it is a real gift from God. Please tell him that when you see him. I love you also, Ann.”

Next morning we talked. Sister Ann was a gracious and wise woman who had worked with children in the Los Angeles ghetto and understood the problems of the poor.

“I believe,” she said, “God puts people in my way who need my help and for six years now that’s been John Lee. I’ve been a teacher all my life and I know there’s always one or two who need special help. John Lee only has a little formal education, sixth grade I believe, but he’s been working to improve himself and trying to help the younger men, so I take care of his needs by sending him books to help him do that. And we write back and forth all the time. Sometimes I write him every day, but at least two or three times a week. I’m eighty-one and too old to teach anymore, so I spend my time talking back and forth.

“He really loves you and I am happy you have so many children (I have seven now, including John Lee) because it shows you have learned how to nurture. The way I see it, he needs nurturing more than anything, and I think God has sent you to him so he can have that.”

I hung up the phone and sat a long time contemplating that word “nurture.” A gentle word from a gentle lady.


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.”

Justice for John Lee: How It All Began – Chapter 4

John and JoannaWhen Joanna first started to communicate with John Lee, well before she became involved with his case and well before she adopted him and took his freedom as her cherished cause, she was barraged with warnings. Little could she imagine that he was beset with almost identical warnings. Here is part of the story…

When I first met John Lee, it seemed the whole world set out to warn me I was being played, I was a bleeding heart, a dupe for some evil person who wanted to manipulate me into something, it was not clear what. What I didn’t know at the time was that John was being warned about me as ferociously as I was about him. This is how he told it to me:

The guys on the block all laughed at me when I showed them the newspaper with the piece out of the book you’d written and said I was going to write to this woman. I was going to try to get her for a pen pal. They didn’t pay attention to the piece out of the book. They just looked at your photo.

“You think a woman like that going write you? A white woman like that? You crazy, man.”

I said, “If I don’t try I’ll never know, will I?”

They said, “Man, you a fool. That sort of woman, she don’t care nothing about you.”

I said, “How come she wrote this book about this slave then?”

They said, “She white, man, white. You jest a black man settin on your ass in prison.”

I said, “At least I keep on trying to reach out to society. At least I keep on trying to find myself a friend. Not like you damn cowards, too afraid to try because you’re frightened of rejection.”

They said, “How you going write her anyways? You ain’t got her address.”

I got pissed then. I said, “Well then, I will get it.”

See, I’ve got this friend in here, first white person I’ve ever been friends with. I got mad love for that guy. He’s one of the few whose family keep in touch with him, so I got him to write a letter to his mother and his mother looked you up in the phone book and sent back the address and then I wrote that letter to you.

Then I sat back and waited. I didn’t tell nobody, but I did not expect an answer, not deep down in my heart.

So I was real surprised how fast you answered. Dear Mr. Conaway. No one ever called me Mr. Conaway.

When I told the other guys, you should have heard them. They told me all kinds of stuff.

“That woman might be using you for her own gain, man.”

“Man, you done lost your mind.”

“Damn man, that woman’s white, man. Man, that woman could be trouble.”

Some of these guys are real bad when it comes to whites. I even had one of the guys real close to me said, “You better be careful, man. That woman might be using you, man.”

I think he’s changed his mind now. I think you did that on your own. You changed him without even knowing it. He was lying in bed one day trying to sleep with the blanket on his head and I ran into his cell and said, “I got a letter. I got a letter from that writer, man.”

He said, “Man, you better be careful, man, with those people, man.”

I said, “What you mean, man?”

He said, “Man, all right man, you know she’s a writer, man.”

I said, “Man, what you talking about, man?”

He said, “All right, boy. She could be using you.”

And guess what I told him? I said, “Well hell, I don’t got nothing to lose.”

He looked at me, just laughed. He said, “Man, you crazy, man.” And he put the blanket back over his head.

So I went ahead and walked off and got my paper and pencil and went down to the table and started writing you back. But don’t think I heard no negative stuff, because I did.

Even one of the correctional officers too, he told me, “Boy, you keep away from those white people. Those white people, they going lynch you, ain’t going do nothing for you, just leave you standing on the corner like a fool.”

So don’t think you were the only one. You caught it in your world. I caught it in my world too. About the only guy who didn’t do that was the white guy got me your address.

Justice for John Lee: How It All Began Chapter 3

John and JoannaJohn Lee is now housed in a medium security facility in Burgaw, NC – Pender Correctional Institution.[1] However, 8 years ago when Joanna first knew of John Lee, he was on death row in Central Prison in Raleigh, awaiting an appeal. That is where Joanna first visited him.

“As I turned into the doorway of the visitation booth at Central Prison, I could see John Lee waiting on the other side of a glass partition. Intensity came off him like an arm reaching out to drag me in.

“Shut the door,” he said, so I shut it and sat down, my first experience with a prison stool.

Up close I could only see my own reflection. Then I saw my own reflection with what appeared to be a head inside it. After a little experimenting with position, I was looking at a young man in a blood red jumpsuit.

The visitation booth was small and double, like a pair of telephone booths set one behind the other and separated by a thick, wire-crises-crossed window. Cream-painted metal rods ran vertically behind the glass. A narrow ledge ran below the window, and between the window and the ledge was a fine-holed rectangular grille for speaking through. A matching grille, I came to understand, was on the other side, the two separated by several inches of dead air. This arrangement made for a curious intimacy, since it was necessary to lean in close to be clearly heard.

At first we just sat there looking at each other. Then I said, “Hello, I’m Joanna,” and he said, “I’m John Lee. Thank you for coming.”

He turned his head aside, looking down. “I’m nervous,” he said in a small voice.

“I’m nervous too,” I said, and we began to talk.

Despite the photo, I had expected John Lee to be a thuggish sort of person, someone ignorant and inarticulate, a murderer no less. But this young man had kind eyes and a gentle manner. He was honey-skinned, carefully spoken, remarkably well read. It was a strange conversation. In his letter he’d seemed intent on telling me about his life, but here we were talking about the effect of ancient Egypt on modern culture. There were other topics too, all as esoteric, and it was not until years later that he told me he had crib notes on the ledge below the window and was desperately trying to make me think he was intelligent enough to be worthwhile.

Eventually silence fell, at which point I said, “Well, I guess I’ll be going now.”

He looked at his watch. “We’ve got four minutes left.”

That’s when I learned visitation at Central Prison is an hour and a half and nobody leaves early. They want every second of their loved ones they can get.

“Oh,” I said, and tossing around for something else to say, asked if there was anything I could do for him.

He hesitated. “Will you come again?”

Up till then I’d thought this visit was a one-off, not consciously, but now I knew I had. Oh dear, I thought, I’m into something here. At which point a guard thumped back the door behind me and John began to say goodbye.”


[1] We will tell the story of this situation as soon as the lawyers working on John Lee’s behalf approve the text. It is somewhat sensitive due to the on-going nature of the case.

Justice for John Lee: How It All Began – Chapter 2

John Lee, 12 years old

John Lee, 12 years old

Who is John Lee, this innocent we are trying to free and have exonerated? If you make a donation, who will you be helping in addition to helping justice?

Joanna responded to John Lee’s first letter by asking him for “an accounting for his presence in the world”. His response to that rather pointed request gives you a measure of the man we are asking you to help.

“I was born April 5, 1967, in Rockingham, North Carolina, to a fourteen year old black female. My father I do not know much about, only that he is a white man who lives in Rockingham. I first learned he was my father from my grandmother. I tried to get more out of her but she just told me he was white and owned a business. My lawyers say he is a well off man.

“I started having a great desire at a very young age to see my father. Seeing all the other children with their fathers made me feel bad. I used to pray to God to take me to my father or that my father would come get me. I cried all the time and then I would hate the world and run away a lot. I was a lost child growing up. No one to love or be loved by.

“When I was two years old, my mother moved from Rockingham to Washington, DC, to live with her older sister. I was a very light-skinned child growing up in Washington, DC, around lots of dark-skinned children. I would get picked on about my light-skinned color and my hair, which was soft and curly, not nappy like real black children’s hair. My mother is dark-skinned, and when people saw me they knew she’d been with a white man. I was a curse to her.

“The problems of abuse started when my mother went to live with my stepfather. His real name was Clarence, but everybody called him Boogerman. He would beat her, and she would beat me. I think when she looked at me she saw the white man who had abused her as a child. She would scream, ‘I wish you was dead.’ It got worse after she ran off from Boogerman and took us to live in Cambridge, Maryland.

“When I was nine years old the Social Service people got me. I was very afraid that day. I was placed in a group home, but I ran away. After that I was placed in group homes and state training schools for young boys more times than I can remember. All my life I’ve been afraid.

“My brother Clarence grew up to be a drug dealer in DC. He controlled a big section of north-east. They called him Big Daddy on the streets. I never did become a crack head or seller of crack. I do not like people who deal in this kind of life. Once a person comes into deep knowledge and wisdom, they wake up from the darkness they were living in and come into a pure light that’s so beautiful. I’ve come from where I’ve been to become a strong man today, mentally, physically, and spiritually. That makes me feel good about myself. I feel that I can overcome anything, and become who I desire to become. My young life is hard to think about. Respectfully, John Lee.”

Justice for John Lee – How It All Began

John Lee in the Red Jump Suit of Death Row

John Lee in the Red Jump Suit of Death Row

The Justice for John Lee Fund grew out the relationship between John Lee and author Joanna Catherine Scott. From their first meeting eight years ago, to her assuming the role of advocate, to legally adopting him and bringing him the family he had never known, to building a privately-funded legal team to represent him, Joanna has championed John’s cause and his efforts to gain his freedom. In her words, here is how it began:

“For many years I have written other people’s stories. The love, the pain, the losses and the triumphs, the good in them, the dreadful.That is what I do.

When someone reaches out to me because of something I have written, I feel a moral obligation to reach back. Sometimes this has come to nothing, sometimes I have gathered to myself a friend, a new experience, a growth in understanding. It has taken me to dark and painful places too.

And so it was I met John Lee.

I had just published a novel called The Road from Chapel Hill, the story of a slave who ran to freedom through the turmoil of the Civil War. It got good reviews. The local paper ran an excerpt.

And then one day a letter came stamped in big red letters MAILED AT CENTRAL PRISON. In the top left corner, a large round hand gave me the prisoner’s name and number and the fascinating words “Death Row.”

“This is interesting,” I said to red brick pillar of the mailbox. I went inside. It was Saturday afternoon. My husband Joe and our two Korean daughters, Ashley and Katy, were watching football.

“Has anybody heard of Central Prison?” I asked, but no one answered so I sat down in the old blue armchair and opened the letter.

A photo was inside: grey floor, bright blue backdrop. A young man crouched before it in the posture of a man about to run. That and the pure white sneakers made him look athletic. At the same time his pose was reminiscent of Rodin’s The Thinker. His hands were clasped before him, an elbow on one knee, muscular, Rodinish, and his gaze turned downward. He wore a neat beard and mustache, and the signature blood red jumpsuit of Death Row. Macabre, that.

I set the photo on my knee and unfolded the letter. It wasn’t dated, but it fell into my mailbox on October 18, 2006.

“Dear Miss Scott,” it said, “I hope you are the right person I am seeking to contact. If not, then forgive me, and just throw this picture and letter away, OK? On Sunday, October 1, 2006, I read about you in the News & Observer. Also, I notice that you are an author of many books. If you are interested in something different and new to write about, then I would be willing to work with you on writing about my life. Please contact me at this address. We can work out a visiting time for you and agree on whatever an author agrees on with someone they are writing about. This is new to me, but I am willing and believe my life story should be heard by the world. Hope to hear from you soon. God bless you. Respectfully, John Lee.”

As I said, I am a writer. I wrote John back and asked for an accounting for his presence in the world.”