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    a fence outside a prison

    Letters from Death Row

    How Our Family Gained an Incarcerated “Older Brother”

    Toby Mommsen

    November 17, 2020
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    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 noncontact visit, but nothing could block his joy – nor his fears, hurts, and regrets – in our two hours together.

    It was September 14, 1995: my first visit with Tyrone (not his real name) on death row. My first-grade daughter had sent me on the fifty-minute drive from our home to learn why her letter had gone 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. He couldn’t risk another heartbreak, he said, least of all with a child befriending him. His own daughter was growing up fatherless. But he promised to stay in touch with our family.

    That initial visit to death row twenty-five years ago forged a friendship and launched my family on a surprising journey. “Inmate Mail – Department of Corrections” became a 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? When you get back from the 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. 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 want so much to be a better person. Your efforts to forgive me, to stick by me, to love me are not in vain.

    Today is one day where I do not feel like a mistake. That is because I love you, brother, and I know you care about me. Please know I am sorry for not being an honest man in the past. Change happens but only through God.

    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 new friend her own age. For our family, that weekend became one of the highlights of the summer.

    One day I got a letter from another inmate on Tyrone’s block telling me that Tyrone was bottoming out in depression. 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 those I’ve abused. Please forgive me.

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

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    Tyrone’s mother holding one of the author’s children Photograph courtesy of the author

    Tyrone is still alive, still behind bars. I have often wished I could share him with other people, help them see and know him. Even those of use who 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.

    Today, my kids are grown and flown. We still exchange letters with Tyrone and manage an occasional visit. His case moved slowly, but finally, after thirty-two years on death row, a judge threw out his death sentence. At last, visits can include a hug, sitting across a table, sharing a vending-machine snack.

    Because of Tyrone, my children have learned to know – just a little – how the world looks and feels from death row. Whatever their ventures in life, they’ll bring with them a connection to “big brother T,” who has struggled so hard just to stay alive and to stay sane. Who is still struggling.

    What has our connection to Tyrone brought to him? A few moments of encouragement, I hope, during the long years of imprisonment, though this is little enough in the face of the cruelties of the system in which he remains trapped. Our lives, in any case, are the richer for knowing this man.

    Contributed By

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

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