By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
Sister Dolores Schuh, CHM, read a small item in a newsletter inviting readers to write to some of the most forgotten people in the world, prisoners on death row. The item on the back page of the Oblates of Saint John’s Abbey newsletter provided a list of about 12 names. She chose one that she could pronounce and remember, Danny Frogg, a death row inmate since 1998 at Central Prison in Raleigh, North Carolina. The two pen pals have been corresponding since 2012.
A member of the Congregation of the Humility of Mary in Davenport, Sister Dolores also sends birthday and Christmas cards to the 137 prisoners on death row at Central Prison. Each person receives a card with a personalized message that she creates on her desktop computer. The greeting to Nathaniel begins, “Happy 57th birthday. I think you are close to becoming a middle-aged man. I’ll have to check with Google and find out when middle age starts. It might be just how you feel…”
“I have found that most of the guys at this prison on death row have developed a sense of spirituality that just amazes me,” the 89-year-old sister said. Some of them have reciprocated, sending what she describes as holy greeting cards. One prisoner wrote to thank her for the birthday cards she has sent him over the years. “I visualize these guys when it is mail call time and what it must be like for any of them to be given an envelope.”
Sister Dolores types a letter every Tuesday morning to Danny. They also talk by phone weekly. “He used to write every week,” but not so often now. “He probably runs out of things to say.” She sends money through a secure system to credit his account for the phone calls. “We chat about football and what I’m doing,” she said.
She acknowledges that many prisoners on death row have made huge mistakes and some of them have made numerous mistakes. That does not justify putting them to death. “We shouldn’t take a life any time. That’s for God to do.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that the death penalty is “inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person (2267),” Catholic Mobilizing Network states on its website.
“The death penalty violates both the Church’s pro-life teaching and the teaching on the inherent dignity of the human person as created in the image and likeness of God. Not only does the death penalty target innocent life, but also those with mental illness, intellectual disability and people of color. It also redirects funds that could be used to help victims’ families harmed by violence heal” (catholicsmobilizing.org/death-penalty).
“Given the fallibility of human judgment, there has always been the danger that an execution could result in the killing of an innocent person,” the Death Penalty Information Center states. “Since 1973, 186 former death-row prisoners have been exonerated of all charges related to the wrongful convictions that had put them on death row” (deathpenaltyinfo.org/policy-issues/innocence).
An archbishop’s appeal
In a poignant video released last year, Archbishop Joseph Naumann, who leads the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, expressed his opposition to the death penalty. His father, Fred, was murdered when Archbishop Naumann’s mother was pregnant with the future archbishop.
“The suffering and the circumstances of each family who has lost a loved one by a violent crime are unique. I do not presume to be able to speak for all victims of murder,” Archbishop Naumann, who leads the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kansas, said in a video that Catholic Mobilizing Network published online in September 2020.
“The criminal justice system has a responsibility to protect the innocent from victimization and to deter the commission of violent crimes. However, in the United States in 2020, we have the ability to protect society from violent criminals without resorting to the death penalty.” The death penalty, he said, continues “a cycle of violence with state-sanctioned killing.”
Sister Dolores’ opposition to the death penalty has compelled her to write to successive governors of North Carolina to urge the State Legislature there to abolish the death penalty, but she has received no response.
On the desk in her apartment at the Humility of Mary Center, a neat stack of addressed envelopes containing greeting cards are ready for the post office. A framed photo of Danny sits on a shelf with photos of family and friends. She vows to continue writing to him and his fellow prisoners on death row for as long as her fingers and health hold out. Earlier this year, while convalescing in a nursing home for a broken hip, she fretted about how she would get the cards mailed in time. An “angel” at the center made the delivery.
Write to a prisoner
Editor’s note: Prisoners everywhere, including Iowa, would appreciate receiving letters.
In Iowa, visit the Iowa Department of Corrections website (doc.iowa.gov/faq/how-can-i-write-offender) for details. Nancy Stone of St. Anthony Parish in Davenport has become a pen pal through the Order of Malta Prison Ministry Pen Pal Program (https://tinyurl.com/4fd2ynn4), and recommends it to others.