Death Row penfriends: Configuring time, space and selves

Maybin, Janet (2006). Death Row penfriends: Configuring time, space and selves. a/b: Auto/Biography Studies, 21(1) pp. 58–69.




In this paper I look at what an ethnographic approach to the study of letter writing can tell us about the nature and meaning of a specific group of correspondences between men incarcerated on death row in the United States and their penfriends in Britain. I focus in particular on the letter writers' views about how the correspondence has changed them as people. While traditional letter writing on paper using pen, pencil or typewriters may have declined since the advent of emailing, chat rooms, and text messaging, it still survives where socially isolated people have an urgent need to reach out beyond their current situation but have access only to basic implements. In these circumstances, letter writing can provide an enormously rich and flexible channel for the pursuing of social relationship, new experience, and internal reflection. In order to understand this potential, I would suggest that we need to look not only at the content of the letters but also at the nature of the correspondences as a particular kind of literacy practice - in other words, at what the letter writers actually do, in what circumstances, and at the meanings and the values they attach to their correspondence. It is these particularities of practice in letter writing between prisoners and both male and female penfriends that create the opportunities for specific kind of epistolary relationship and an associated reconfiguring of the self.

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