Angela Saldanha writes a letter to one of the death row inmates she has befriended in 2017 photo. Photo by Jim O’Leary

Letters are an escape for man serving life in prison

By  Angela Saldanha
  • April 12, 2018

A year ago, The Catholic Register printed an article of mine about writing to condemned prisoners. 

There are three with whom I regularly correspond. One of them is Peter, a convicted murderer serving a life sentence in Illinois. Peter spent years on death row before having his sentence commuted to life without parole. 

We have been exchanging letters for 18 years.  After some hesitation I decided to send him a copy of The Register with the article. He wrote back that he loved it. And he had a suggestion to make: He would like to write something too, to let people know what it is like for him to receive letters. 

What follows is his letter, entirely in his own words.  With his permission to share it, of course.

Your article closed by quoting Christ: “I was in prison and you visited me.” Christ is always a good quote and I understand your meaning but I have a different perspective. I’ve never felt that your letters were a visit to me, but rather, I was visiting you. 

I never felt like a murderer or a convict when we corresponded; I just felt like Pete. You cannot imagine what a rare and precious gift that is. People in my position are no longer human beings in the eyes of the world.  We are only and entirely that act for which we are incarcerated. 

You should know me well enough to know that I accept and even expect that perception and am not seeking sympathy in discussing it. I just really appreciate the rare instances when it’s not the case. Even a good and moral person who has lived a good and moral life wouldn’t want to be defined by the single worst thing they’d ever done, whatever that may be. 

Everyone is more than just one thing, good or bad, but not us, not people like me. I’m not “Peter Burton.” I’m “convicted murderer Peter Burton.” To my great regret, it’s not an inaccurate label, it’s just horribly incomplete. 

Your letters have always been an escape. An escape from this place, and not from myself but to myself.  In you I’ve found a friend, a family member who only knows me as I am and accepts me as such. Our friendship, or your view of me, isn’t seen through a prism of who I used to be, or could’ve or should’ve been. In this context I am simply just me.

I’m happy that your friend Donnie (on death row in Oklahoma) is such a frequent writer. You deserve that type of response but you and I both know I’m not a prolific writer. You might be surprised at how little I do write at all. Why? I don’t know. I guess it’s due, in part, to being private, ashamed and cynical.  To quote Groucho Marx: “I’d never join any club that would have me as a member.”

I’ve made friends over the years and even had one girl propose to me. Most would just come and go. When they’d disappear I’d feel I deserved it and if they hung around, I’d feel unworthy. 

You’ve always been different. From your first letter you’ve proven yourself to be compassionate and sincere. A good human being who reached out to get to know me. Because of your genuine good nature I’ve been able to flip Groucho upside down. If this kind and decent person is willing to accept me, maybe I can accept myself as well. 

Of all the perceptions of me, none are as harsh as the one I have of myself. Knowing you forces me to re-evaluate my own self-worth. So, your letters not only give me a break from the prison Illinois has put me in, but more importantly, they help me escape the prison I keep myself in. 

I don’t know how to properly articulate just how important your letters have been. You saw a person when everyone else — including myself — only saw a crime. Thanks to you, I’ve been able to do a bit of that as well. 

Prison is still prison but I have no complaints. Well … you know what I mean.

Love and Metta