Crime & Justice

Letters to death row: Italian project forges ‘beautiful friendships’

By Andrea Cuesta

Rome, Nov 30 (EFE).- A decade after Laura Belloti became a pen pal to a Florida death row inmate, the 73-year-old boarded a plane and crossed the Atlantic to meet the person with whom she had forged a “beautiful friendship.”

Stefania Tallei, one of the organizers of the project by the Sant’Egidio charity, told Efe that the ethos of the scheme was to offer inmates a way of reconnecting with society.

The idea first emerged in 1995 when one of Tallei’s colleagues found an advert in an Italian newspaper posted by a United States prisoner who had been handed a death sentence.

The request was simple: Write to me, I know you cannot do much for me, but you can write to me.

Tallei’s colleague started writing to the inmate and soon other volunteers were reaching out to prisoners on death row in places as far-flung as Russia and Trinidad and Tobago.

“In 2000, we launched the initiative under our volunteering section of the San Egidio website,” Tallei said.

Over 15,000 letters have been posted since the project first launched. In recent years, some 5,000 people have contacted the charity to become pen friends to prisoners in the US.

Most volunteers are women and they enquire about inmates’ day-to-day activities and hobbies. Volunteers often open up about their personal lives with their pen pals.

The spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, which saw millions around the world forced to remain at home, saw the number of pen pal requests skyrocket — the charity received 100 inquiries in just one day.

“Locked up, alone at home, they identified” with the prisoners, Tallei continued.

“Loneliness is a significant disease that is imposed on convicts,” she added.

Covid restrictions have made people more aware of the terrible effects of being deprived of freedom.

For inmates on death row, striking a relationship with volunteer pen pals means they can enjoy company, friendship and maintain a connection with the world beyond the prison walls.

A recurring topic of conversation is Italian cuisine, and inmates love sharing their favorite pizza and pasta dishes.

Sometimes they ask for legal or financial aid, and volunteers are often keen to help where possible.

“They must not get false hopes, neither from an economic point of view nor regarding desires for freedom,” Tallei added.

Many stories have emerged over the years through this unconventional volunteering opportunity.

Such as that of Belloti, a translator and writer from the northern city of Turin, who hopped on a plane to go and meet the inmate she had a 10-year relationship with. EFE


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