Pals for the Cats

John Lee in the Red Jump Suit of Death Row

John Lee in the Red Jump Suit of Death Row

When John Lee first made know his intention to try to make a friend of me, the reaction of the other men on Death Row was pretty much unanimous:

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

“Man, all right man, you know she’s a writer, man. That woman might be using you.”

“Man, you crazy, man. You done lost your mind.”

Even one of the correctional officers got into it. “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.”

However, as time went along and it became apparent that I was not going to hike up my skirts and run, that I was a faithful weekly visitor, a faithful correspondent, and a provider of books and funds for needful things, a gradual change took place.

On my way past visitation booths to number nine or twenty-one or -two, I found myself greeted by waves and smiling faces of other men waiting for a visit. A little longer and I would stop a moment in the doorway of this one or that for a few words of greeting, occasionally even going right up to the glass to whisper something or be whispered to. One Christmas I almost got thrown out for bearing Christmas spirit right into someone else’s booth and being merry.

With me suitably checked out, next came requests for pen pals. Ask Miss Joanna if. Does Miss Joanna know? I had a penal once, but then . . .

John Lee took things in hand. If I would find pen pals on the outside, he would give me names of men he knew were good respectful people and worthy of a friend. I would find the friend.

My good friend Beth Browne came up with a name for our little enterprise: PALS FOR THE CATS. And it went well. Some of those palships faded over time. Some are still strong today. The strongest ones ongoing are with local people who can go see their cat in person.

The ladies who work visitation see visitors come and go. They see men disappointed. So at first they were about as dubious of me as the men on the Row. Then they got used to me. They became friendly. They became kind.

One declared herself my fan. “You stick with Miss Joanna,” she would tell John Lee when she saw him about the prison. “You do what she tells you. She’s good for you.”

That lady is rooting for John Lee to get his freedom and not afraid to tell him so. It pained her when things went wrong for him through no fault of his own. She will be one of the first on our invitation list when we finally bring our beloved John Lee home.

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