A Prisoners’ Pen Pal Finds Making Connections is a ‘Beautiful Thing’

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Carole Horan has written to 10 incarcerated men through the Death Row Support Project. She says it doesn’t matter what they did; what matters is who they are trying to become. Photo by Zachary Krahmer/The Stand

Carole Horan of Syracuse, N.Y., has been handwriting letters for 40 years.

As for many people, the era of email and texting hasn’t altered that practice. It takes some extra time of course, but her correspondents have all the time in the world.

All of them are in prison, some on death row.

Horan originally got involved in writing to prisoners through a program based out of Chicago that connected letter-writers with inmates sentenced to death. She never asked them how they feel about getting her letters, but then she had a first-hand experience that provided an answer.

The first man she wrote to was Jeff Dicks of Tennessee. He was on death row for about 17 years before he died of a massive heart attack. In 1979, he had been convicted of murdering an elderly store owner.

Horan felt that Dicks, whom she described as a poor, white man from the South, had a hard time getting a fair trial. Horan added that his mother fought for his innocence, even writing six books about it.

“The first letter was so hard to write because you don’t know what to say or ask,” Horan said.

Horan said that Dicks, like many of the others, was surprised to hear from somebody—anybody.

In his written letters to her, Dicks described his time in solitary confinement, when he was allowed to come out of his cell for only one hour a day. During that hour he had a choice to exercise or take a shower, but as time passed he was allowed to do more — even teach a class.

Horan recalled that Dicks’ handwriting was small because he was depressed. He would talk to her about how long his appeals process was taking, a divorce from his wife, not seeing his daughter, and how he felt his public counsel was being ineffective.

Over a few years, a friendship developed, and Horan eventually got a chance to meet him. While she was visiting, she stayed with his mother, and got to experience what it is like to be in a maximum-security prison.

“To physically see (him) and being able to hug him,” Horan said. “It was pure joy.”

For the first 17 years she was only writing to Dicks, and after he died she stopped for a time, processing it all.

But she soon realized how important the connection could be. Currently, Horan writes to three prisoners, one of them on death row

Horan said she writes the letters by hand using a fountain pen. For most letters she writes, she is usually paired with someone by the Death Row Support Project. But then she reached out to someone whose name she saw in the news.

And that’s when it became even more personal.

His name was Habakkuk Nickens. Horan remembered him as a student when she worked as a secretary at Seymour Elementary School in Syracuse.

She had known all the Nickens children, and she was inspired to reach out to Habakkuk after reading an article in The Stand about efforts he is leading to prevent gang violence in Syracuse’s South Side community — efforts he oversees while behind bars.

Nickens is serving 20 years for gang activity at the Federal Correctional Institution in Ray Brook, New York.

Horan got in contact with him initially through his mother—via email. They have been writing back and forth for over a year now.

“It’s just a beautiful thing,” she said. “(It is a) very loving friendship, and he is doing beautiful work trying to turn his life around.”

Horan has a visit with Nickens scheduled later this month, but her trip could be canceled if the prison is on lockdown, which he tells her has been happening a lot recently.

So far, she has written to 10 incarcerated men. (She has never been paired with a woman.)

Her regular correspondents include “Jonathan,” an inmate at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, who is not on death row; and “Von,” a 72-year-old who has been on death row in Ohio for 35 years.

“You are sharing your life with them,” Horan said. “It’s a lovely thing.”

She does not ask her correspondents questions about what they did that put them behind bars. She sticks instead to how they spend their time and their prison jobs.

She shares stories about her grandchildren, travel and books, and what she or they like to read.

She said “Von” likes to crochet, sharing he was having a hard time completing the feet of a penguin. “Jonathan” makes her laugh, often describing how he doesn’t like working in the fields in Louisiana, where inmates farm crops such as cotton and corn.

“I am not fearful about writing,” Horan said. “I am cautious in the sense that there are things I don’t tell them about me.”

Word has spread about Horan’s efforts. One of her prison correspondents, named “Richard,” gave her name to two other inmates, who then wrote to her. One was “Jonathan,” and the other wanted money.

Horan made clear she never gives money. What she offers instead is friendship—and the rewards are mutual.

Horan shares an image of her pen pal Habakkuk Nickens with his family he sent her. |Photo by Bianca Moorman/The Stand

When she first wrote Nickens, he remembered her from school but didn’t recall what she looked like. So she sent him a picture with her daughters, who Nickens called “Miss Americas.”

He dubbed his pen pal “Miss Universe.”

He shared that he is not a monster; but a changed man. He’s created a program while in prison called Men Educating Neighborhoods (M.E.N.). That impressed Horan.

“What he is working on now is to help men realize that violence is not the answer,” Horan said.

A lot of people who are on death row, said Horan, are rejected by members of their family, so she fills a critical void— which the prisoners themselves admit.

In a recent letter that she received from “Jonathan,” he joked, “(You’ve) got this Pope Francis, Mother Theresa thing going on, haven’t you?”

When she first wrote to Dicks, her original prison pen pal, it took her anywhere from a day to weeks to complete a letter. Now she says it takes her about an hour, or up to three days.

She keeps pictures of all the prisoners she writes — her “friends,” as she calls them — on her refrigerator. She also keeps a box under her bed of letters she has received. Just recently, she went through the box and saw the last letter that she received from “Jeff.”

She reads them for inspiration.

She feels that somehow she is keeping alive a tradition that is fading far too fast.

“A long time ago people wrote letters,” Horan said during a chat at a coffee shop. “I mean real letters—not email letters— to people because long-distance phone calls were really expensive.”

In 1987, households reported receiving 1.6 pieces of personal correspondence each week, according to a U.S. Postal Service survey. By 2015, personal correspondence declined 69 percent, to just 0.5 pieces per household per week.

“One of the beautiful things about writing and receiving [a letter] is that you can read it again and again,” Horan said. “And sometimes in writing, you can say things on paper that are a little hard to say in person.”

And also, she believes that having something handwritten makes it a little more permanent than digital notes in cyberspace.

That’s one reason she intends to keep at it as long as she can.

“To me it is not important what they did,” she said. “(What’s important is) who they are trying to become.”

EDITORS NOTE: If you’re interested in becoming a prisoner’s penpal through the Death Row Support Project, you can find out more by clicking on this link.

This is a condensed and slightly edited version of a story published in The Stand, a community newspaper produced in Syracuse, N.Y., in partnership with S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. The full version is available here. Ashley Kang, director of The Stand, is a 2018 John Jay/H.F. Guggenheim Justice Reporting Fellow. Click here for an earlier story in The Stand’s “Prison-to-Family series. Readers’ comments are welcome.

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