First Hand: 'A man in prison can seem so romantic': A woman was killed last week by her pen-pal, a prisoner. Lisa Nowlan explains how she too fell in love with a man on death row

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Indy Lifestyle Online
I FIRST wrote to Steve after watching a television programme about the organisation Lifelines, through which people write to prisoners on death row in America. I certainly wasn't looking for love, I had just come out of a relationship and felt pretty hostile to the whole idea of romance.

I wanted to be a pen-pal because I realised how lonely and without a voice people waiting to be executed often are. It was not until I got his letter and saw his name in print that I felt Steve was a real person.

This first letter was a rather formal response to mine in which I had told him that I was 34, divorced, that I have three children and about my college course in English literature. He told me he had been on death row in Alabama for 10 years and that he is now nearing the end of the appeals process. It means I have to face the fact that he could be dead quite soon and that is very difficult, very painful.

We exchanged photos quite early on and although he looked ill, I was struck by him being attractive. I suppose I had a picture in my mind of how a murderer would look and he was not like that at all. I learned quite a lot about his background. He comes from a fairly wealthy background and is, I suppose, middle-class.

I'm not a lonely women with a need for something to fill a void in my life, but I found myself thinking about him more and more, working out what time it was in America and wondering how he was coping. I persuaded him to start reading Dickens and to try Shakespeare and I sent him some of the poetry I write, which he liked. We found we shared political ideas, a love of nature and a taste for Eric Clapton]

We also have the same sense of humour and we send each other corny jokes, like 'What do you call a blind dinosaur?' 'D'yethinkhesawus'.

More and more I wanted to meet Steve, and eventually I wrote and suggested I go to America and visit. My first glimpse of him was hugging his mother. We had gone into the prison together, and when she said 'Honey, here he comes,' I was so terrified that I hid my head. When I looked up he was grinning at me. He picked me up, swung me around and said: 'Gee, you are little'.

I was struck by how tall he was and how much more attractive he is than in the photo. I have to stop myself thinking too much about that because the most you get the opportunity to do on a visit is kiss and hold hands. We don't talk about desire in our letters because it would only be difficult for both of us, but it is certainly there.

On that first visit Steve told me about his crime and I was shocked. I felt physically sick. Yet although what he did horrified me, I don't believe he is the same man who went in in 1984 as a a 19-year-old convicted of a drug-related murder and robbery. He told me about it, he said, because he didn't want our relationship to be a lie. He told me to go away and think about whether I wanted to go on writing. But that wasn't a difficult decision.

I am well aware of how easy it is for a relationship with a man in prison to come to seem like the biggest and most romantic thing imaginable. You can present yourself as you want to be known and he can do the same, filtering out the bad moods and nasty characteristics. It doesn't surprise me that men inside fall in love with pen- pals very quickly, or that a woman whose life is lonely would marry a man in prison, or marry him on release. But I wouldn't do that.

We have talked about what we would do if Steve were granted parole at some time, and we both feel it would be necessary to start almost from the beginning, getting to know each other as people on the outside.

Obviously, anyone coming out of prison after a long time has processes to go through, and probably some kind of counselling would be necessary. It would be very important for him to live on his own and even have relationships with other women, so that he could be quite sure he felt the way he says he does about me. But of course I wonder whether these relationships can ever work, or whether they are built on too many myths. Certainly, what I have heard of them is not cheering. But the greater worry for me right now is that Steve will not be alive much longer.

I cannot say strongly enough that people should not go into writing to prisoners looking for romance. If romantic feelings grow - as they have with me - then you have to cope with that. But there are so many ways it can end in tears - or worse.

(Photograph omitted)