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Life on Penalty of Death

Maya Schenwar details her exchange with a prisoner on death row, striking right to the heart of what it means to be human.

(Image: Prison fence via Shutterstock)

As summer heats up, debate over the death penalty is back and rising to a fever pitch. There’s the sentencing of Jodi Arias, the filibustering of an abolition vote in Nebraska, the signing of the death penalty repeal in Maryland, the temporary reprieve of a death row prisoner in Colorado and the controversy around a bill aimed at speeding up executions in Florida.

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Throughout recent public discussions, there’s been lots of talk about budgets, degrees of “justice” (is life without parole sufficiently horrible?) and the ever-present possibility of accidentally executing an innocent prisoner. Surprisingly little attention has been paid to the question of humanity: Are people convicted of murder exiled from our species – or are they still human? If they are, what does it mean for the state to not only legitimize the principle of taking a human life, but also, simply, to take a human life? What exactly does “taking” a life entail?

As phrases like “cold-blooded monsters” and “pure evil” and “worst of the worst” pulse through the airwaves, one such life enters my mind. I first reached out to Steven Woods, a death row inmate in Texas, in 2006. He was leading a hunger strike to protest against solitary confinement; I was writing about it. Addressing the envelope (“Polunsky Unit,” death row) scared me. My image of Steven was murky and amorphous, a silent symbol of “worst”ness. However, the day I received my first letter from Steven, I came to the thudding realization that he was a person.

Steven was 26, two years older than I was at the time. (He’d been 21 when the crime was committed.) He worshipped 90s underground rock and had played bass and guitar for “beer party punk bands” in past days. His politics were passionate – and, incredibly, more hopeful than mine: he wrote of his belief in the power of nonviolent resistance to “help our fellows rise above their chains,” even in the direst of circumstances. We discussed the Chicago music scene and the merits of Mountain Dew (he liked it, I hated it).

Steven maintained that he was innocent. (I neither questioned nor affirmed this throughout our correspondence, though I did go online and read the gory details of the murder he’d allegedly committed, over and over, flooded with grief and confusion.) Several prominent judges, activists and advocacy organizations, including Noam Chomsky and Amnesty International, challenged the grounds of Steven’s conviction and spoke out against his sentence. Yet he woke each morning to the stench of his cell, sweating uncontrollably, hit with the stark inevitability of his impending death at the hands of the state of Texas.

In his first letter to me, Steven shared that he was working on a zine – a handwritten, self-produced magazine filled with rants and comics – entitled, “The Continuing Struggle of a Nail in My Coffin.” The point? “To educate and entertain!” Steven wrote me. “Sitting idle while the world wallows in ignorance and apathy just isn’t for me.” I asked whether he had any appeals left. “One,” he replied.

As the months passed, our pen-palship began to wear itself ragged. I was repeating myself, struggling to avoid the topic that burned at the forefront of my mind and the tip of my pen. Our letters grew further apart. We “chatted” increasingly less enthusiastically about protest behind bars. He wrote, “The biggest part of being an activist is reaching out and instilling the spirit of revolution and resistance in our fellows, to break the herd mentality.” I wrote, “I am so impressed with all you are doing!” I thought: “What good will any of it do? You’re going to die.” Steven’s bold enthusiasm for justice began to seem tragic to me, in light of his personal fate.

I stopped writing first.

For four years, I forcibly avoided thinking about Steven. Then, last summer, when I began diving back into prison research, I combed through a stack of letters from pen pals past. There he was. So, finally, I googled “Steven Michael Woods” and “Texas death row.” The Internet delivered the news: My friend had been executed in 2011. His last meal had included French toast, bacon-topped pizza, chicken-fried steak, and Mountain Dew – though he didn’t eat much of it. In his last words, he stated that he was innocent and that “justice” had let him down. He told his mom he loved her. He finished with, “Warden, if you’re going to murder someone, go ahead and do it. Pull that trigger…. Goodbye everyone. I love you.”

To this day, I’m not qualified to determine whether Steven Woods was innocent or not. However, I can verify that he was a human being. He was a “someone,” and on September 13, 2011, he was murdered by the State of Texas. (Notably, the State of Texas was not sentenced to death for its crime.)

Only ten countries carried out death sentences last year, and the United States was one of the top five executioners (along with China, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq). A very important moral of Steven’s story is that the United States must join with the rest of the world in abolishing this homicidal practice. But I think the problems raised by his story – and by the death penalty debate in general – go beyond the question of murder. Once the realization is permitted that all humans are human and the state shouldn’t sanction their killing, the inevitable follow-up question is: Which sorts of punishments are okay to inflict on a fellow human, and which are not?

As death sentences have decreased dramatically over the last couple of decades, sentences of life without parole (LWOP) have skyrocketed; they increased 300 percent from 1992 to 2008. The popular rationale runs like this: Since LWOP is a sufficiently horrific punishment, eliminating the death penalty doesn’t mean we can’t inflict proper vengeance.

I haven’t befriended a person on death row since Steven. But I hear from other prisoners that their sentences – “life”- are, in effect, equivalent to life’s opposite.

Marcos Gray, with whom I’ve been in touch since February, has been incarcerated since he was 16. He was convicted, along with another man, of the 1993 murder of a white woman. (Both men are African-American – and African-American juveniles convicted of murder are much more likely to be sentenced to LWOP if the victim of the crime is white. Conversely, white juveniles are less likely to be sentenced to LWOP if the victim is black.)

After 20 years, Marcos, who maintains that he’s innocent, continues to appeal both his conviction and his sentence. “Though some believe I’m lucky to be alive, I don’t concur because this isn’t living – merely existing,” he wrote to me in March. “Juvenile life without parole is the death penalty; simply put, it’s an existence in constant pain.”

Over the past two decades, most of his family members and friends have drifted away. Only his mom and two of his nine siblings are still in touch. Absence, he says, “makes the heart grow colder, not fonder.” He writes that he wishes for “a quick asphyxiation.”

But Marcos’s critique of his experience isn’t limited to the neverendingness of his sentence: later in his letter, describing the isolation of prisons – the way they cut a person out of the world, do away with hope, stagnate people’s lives, impair their presents and their futures – Marcos refers to cells as “cemented coffins.”

What does it really mean to take a life?

Mauricio Rueben, who’s serving a 30-year sentence for nonviolent marijuana conspiracy, has lost his wife, his friends and much of his family as he’s been shipped from prison to prison over the past 22 years. He writes to me of how many of those who aren’t sentenced to LWOP are still effectively positioned to die a prison-determined death: “We are warehoused for decades and then thrown out with no help or hope to sustain an honest living. Such hopelessness [is] brought on by the detachment from society.”

In what situations is it permissible to, by official decree, render a person hopeless? What are the benefits – and consequences, and implications – of that hopelessness, for the rest of us?

Over the years, Mauricio has watched as long-incarcerated fellow prisoners are released, only to reoffend and wind up back in prison. Some of them, he says, simply don’t know what else to do or where else to go in order to survive.

“I’ve seen them get out and immediately violate their terms of release or commit another crime to come back to what they know as HOME,” he writes. “Sad, isn’t it? But this is the truth.”

Mauricio’s experience reflects our broader national reality: over 40 percent of people released from prison return within three years. Although recidivism is certainly not the only (or even the best) measure of criminal justice “success,” the number provides a glimpse of the system’s dizzy cycle of futility. Clearly, lethal injection and electrocution – and, for that matter, life without parole – are not the only ways to take lives.

As the debate over capital punishment swings back into high visibility, we must look to the larger questions it raises about “life” and “justice.” We must challenge ourselves to think about how to deal effectively with those who’ve hurt others – or are accused of hurting others – without stripping them of their humanity.

We must work to conceive of how to confront harm and solve problems without depriving people of their lives.


To learn about ways that people are working to establish alternatives to the status-quo criminal “justice” system, check out these resources and organizations:

To Build a Better Criminal System: 25 Experts Envision the Next 25 Years of Reform
These essays (compiled by The Sentencing Project, written by people like Angela Davis, Todd Clear, Jeremy Travis and many more) map out a series of transformative new directions for justice.

Restorative Justice Online
This site centralizes a wealth of information about restorative justice – a movement that focuses on responding to the needs of victims; repairing injuries and relationships; and including victims, offenders and their communities in the process of determining how best to confront the problems at hand and hold offenders accountable.

Critical Resistance
Critical Resistance is a national organization that challenges the prison-industrial complex and the idea that prisons make society safe.

Project NIA
This Chicago-based center works toward ending youth incarceration and promoting the use of restorative and transformative justice practices.

Justice Policy Institute
JPI provides research, advocacy and new perspectives on the prison-industrial complex, aiming to reduce incarceration and advance effective, just policies.

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