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Justice

Letters from Death Row

September 1, 2020 by

His palms were spread against the thick glass as widely as the handcuffs would allow. His broad smile beamed through; his greeting echoed on the concrete walls. It was a non-contact visit, but nothing could block his joy and gratitude – nor his honest fears, hurts, and regrets – in our two hours together.

It was September 14, 1995: my first visit with “Tyrone” on death row. My first grade daughter had sent me on the fifty-minute drive from our Pennsylvania home to learn why her letter went unanswered. Every student in Rose’s class had written to someone on the state’s register of capital cases. Everyone else got a reply. Why didn’t “her prisoner” write back?

Tyrone told me: Too many friends on the outside had deserted him after he let them into his life. He couldn’t risk another heartbreak, he said, least of all with a child befriending him. His own daughter was growing up fatherless on the opposite side of the state. But he promised to stay in touch with our family.

Then, before I took my leave, Tyrone asked that we pray together. His prayer amazed me. How could a man living in a cage, shackled even for a non-contact visit, pour out so much gratitude from a concrete box?

LetterA letter from Rose to Tyrone

It was a rich experience, and I came away feeling privileged.

To be clear, Tyrone is not his real name, and I’m omitting some details to protect his identity. But that visit to death row twenty-five years ago truly did forge a friendship and launch my family on a surprising journey. I often wonder how it will end.

After that initial meeting “Inmate Mail – Department of Corrections” became regular in our mailbox.

Dear Rose,

Thank you for writing to me again. It is always so nice to get messages in your handwriting. Did your school go on the fall hike yet? I really liked the drawing you sent. Do you know that you can draw better than I can? I cannot draw at all. When you get back from your fall hike I want you to tell me about it. Enjoy yourself and learn all you can.

You are in my prayers.

Love, your big brother T

After two years of friendship, I took our oldest son and daughter to visit Tyrone. There were other families and kids in the waiting room. I think the guards must have had kids too; it was hard to keep their sense of absolute control with the youngsters around. Concrete and steel are no match for children.

Dear Toby,

It was wonderful to get the children’s pictures – I put one of Bennie’s on my wall. It felt great to hear from you. Please bring Curtis when you come. I have not seen him in a long time. The kids are just growing and growing. I love to see that.

I should be so very glad that God gives us a chance to redeem ourselves. I guess with experience, maturity happens one way or another, and I feel I am growing, although slowly. Sometimes I feel stagnated, that I’m at the same place I was last year, but I am not. I want so much to be a better person. Your efforts to forgive me, to stick by me, to help me, to love me were not in vain.

Today is one day where I do not feel like trash, an error, a mistake. That is because I care about you and I know you care about me. Let’s look forward to all the good things we can share together. I love you, brother, and please know I am sorry for not being an honest man in the past. Change happens but only through God.

Tell all Hello and I love them. T

When Tyrone’s mother accompanied his young daughter across the state by bus to visit her dad in prison, we hosted them overnight. Our three-month-old son, Sidney, gained a new grandmother, and Rose gained a bouncy new friend her own age from the big city. That weekend was the highlight of the summer for our whole family.

Tyrone sent us a poem.

Footprints in my heart
Many people will walk in and out of your life
Leaving memories no one can replace.
I’m glad I have a family I can laugh with
Till tears roll down my face.
A family I can go to when I need a helping hand
And count on to advise and understand.
Their sympathy so sure, so deep,
And a love so beautiful to keep.
It’s a joy to tell them they’re special and wonderfully kind.
My family and friends
Whose footprints are in my heart.

Tyrone was known on his cell block as jovial, warm-hearted, positive. Still, missteps got him months in “the hole.” All he was allowed in the stripped-down solitary confinement cell – where even the bed was concrete – was paper and a plastic pen filler.

Dear Toby,

I hope my troubles in life have not been overbearing to you. You’ve been there with me and that has meant a lot. You’ve trusted and accepted me and I hope I’ve not failed you for doing so. I worry about being a positive force on your children’s lives and being a wonderful friend to you. You’ve given me a chance to be a part of a family that I always dreamed of having but never had.

Love to all, T

Lady holding child Tyrone’s mother became a new grandmother for our three-month-old Sidney

One day I got a letter from another inmate on his block telling me that Tyrone was cracking up, bottomed out in depression. “You need to visit him soon – he needs help.” I made the drive, registered, lined up, passed the metal detector and the drug screening. Then an officer pronounced: “Visit refused.”

But the letters kept coming.

Dear Toby, Johanna and family,

I was never taught how to love, and failed to recognize love when it was given to me. The guilt and shame I feel today is the result of not liking who I am.

Please give me the chance to repair the damage I’ve done to all of those I’ve abused. Please forgive me.

I was forced to file my post-conviction appeal eight months ago, and have been appointed an attorney who has not connected with me as of yet. I see right now that this man does not care about my circumstances or my life.

I’ve never reached out to people outside my family before, nor do I have the friendships or contacts some others have. With the help of Jesus I will prevail.

Our visits to Tyrone became highlights of each month.

Dear Toby,

How are you doing? I got your card and I enjoyed your visit too. It feels great to be able to talk to you in person.

I pray that Jesus would soften my heart and take the bitterness out of my heart. And uncaring attitude. I’ve been this way for some time and it is not me. I realize that death row has a way of taking its toll on you over a period of time.

Thank you and the children for all the unconditional love you give. You have hung in there with me.

In 2003 Rose invited Tyrone to contribute to a class project, a poetry collection from friends worldwide. He responded:

The song I sing through bars, wires and steel is of freedom. I seek freedom, think freedom, dream freedom. What is it like to be free?

Fourteen years, caged, bound and gagged. My voice unheard, my body unseen. In a cell, just with my thoughts.

Through a small pane of glass I see the trees miles away. They sway with the wind as if dancing to a tune. Their leaves are gone, getting ready for new ones to take their place. It’s nature’s way of forcing change; breaking down old structures, shaking loose the old so that something new and better can take their place.

The freedom I’ve been searching for has been within me all along: Through Christ, the confession of my sins, believing that Christ died for my sins.

Freedom is not being out in the world. Freedom lives inside me.

I have often wished I could share Tyrone with other people, help them see and know him, a human being like the rest of us.

This July I will have twenty-one years in prison. My daughter will turn twenty-one in December. I wish to be able to hug her and spend some hours with her.

I seek freedom, think freedom, dream freedom. What is it like to be free?Even our family, who all care about Tyrone, can fill our minds with wide-ranging ideas and pursue all sorts of interests. We get on with our lives. For him, there’s no escape.

Dear Toby,

How are you buddy? I got your letter with photo of Bennie with birds, and Sidney’s drawing of bird and sun. It made me so happy. I love getting your mail as always. All of you make me feel so loved. I just want to give love and be loved. All my life that’s what I’ve always wanted. Thank you, your whole family. It means more to me than you’ll ever know. Sorry to say I’m in the hole again, but I am working towards getting back to one of the death row wings.

It was five years later that this brief letter shocked us:

Hello brother. Just a quick note to let you know the Governor signed my execution warrant and set my execution date for October 3. I only can have immediate family visits but I will have someone call you. You can call my lawyer.

Please know that I love you, Johanna, and each of your children. Keep me in prayer. My lawyers are working very hard. I will write soon.

Love with all my heart, T

So our brother finally had a date with death. A final square on the calendar. We felt sick; we wrote letters on his behalf. Thankfully – unlike some death row inmates – Tyrone received a stay of execution. Then another date was set, and again overturned.

Tyrone is still alive; still behind bars.

It is 2020 and my kids are grown and flown. We still exchange letters with Tyrone and manage an occasional visit, although we have moved states. His case moved slowly: After thirty-two years on death row, a federal judge threw out his death sentence. He was moved to general population. At last, visits can include a hug, sitting across a table, sharing a vending-machine snack. These are golden moments. We go way back.

For people who assume anyone in prison is a vicious animal, Tyrone is best locked away, or even dead. Yet he has been refined by suffering that we can only imagine, and still he holds on to faith in God and in humanity. Because of him my children know – just a little, but up close and personal – how the world looks and feels from death row. Through their ventures, they never forget “big brother T” who has struggled so hard just to stay alive, just to stay sane. Who is still struggling.

They are richer for knowing this man.


Toby Mommsen and his wife, Johanna, live at Platte Clove, a Bruderhof in Elka Park, New York.

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