Pen Pals—Literally

Pen Pals—Literally

The letter addressed to me here at St. Anthony Messenger Press over 10 years ago bore my name in beautiful calligraphy with a small hand-drawn pastel flower in the lower left corner of the envelope. The return address in the upper left corner identified the sender as Randy C, a prisoner in California. From experience, I expected the letter inside to be a request for a free book.

I guessed correctly. Randy wanted a copy of Hope Against Darkness: The Transforming Vision of Saint Francis in an Age of Anxiety by Richard Rohr. The multi-page letter provided details about what kind of binding the book needed to have in order to pass prison security (paperback) and how to ship the book.

I responded to Randy’s request and told him that the book was a hardcover and thus would not pass prison security but that I would send the paperback edition when it was released in a few months. Meanwhile, I wrote, I would ship some other books that I thought might interest him.

Sharing our stories

This initial exchange of letters began a decade of correspondence between a “lifer” in a California prison and an editorial director from a Catholic publisher in Cincinnati.

Randy and I soon found out that we are both prolific and eager letter writers, and we began sharing our personal stories. I told Randy about my work and my husband and my hobbies, and he told me about his beloved mother and his siblings and what life was like in prison. His crimes were drug-related, and under California’s 3-strike law, he was sentenced to life in prison.

I knew immediately from Randy’s first letters that he was an educated and thoughtful man because his letters contained near-perfect English, punctuation, and grammar. His letters often included requests for other items: a Spanish-English dictionary so that he could teach the Spanish-speaking prisoners English, notepaper, stamps, envelopes, pencils. I sent everything he requested—except a TV that I could not afford and did not think appropriate. Was I being conned? My husband thought so.

From “the yard”

Even so, I kept writing and Randy kept answering. He once sent me a 11×17-inch painting of a flower. On the back of the painting were handwritten notes from several dozen of his fellow prisoners “in the yard.” These notes contained words of thanks for the books I had been sending and offered prayers for me. I cried at my desk after reading these kind words from so many men I did not know and would never meet.

Another time, Randy sent me a blue and white bookmark that he had woven from threads taken from his bed sheets and shirts. I wept again at my desk.

Soon his mother began writing me and even had a Mass said for me in Our Lady of Las Vegas Church. I was so touched by her gesture of appreciation for befriending her son.

And then, three years ago, the letters stopped coming from Randy. There were no hand-lettered envelopes in my mail bin at work. It was a sudden stoppage and I did not know what to think…

In a bad place

…until December 2010, when I spotted the familiar calligraphy on a letter sent to me at work. Randy said he’d been in a bad place mentally and emotionally for 3 years and had cut off many relationships, including ours. He wanted to be friends again. Could I forgive him?

We’re corresponding again. And I am shipping books and writing supplies to this man who has been behind bars for over 40 years. He’s not well now, dealing with multiple surgeries for a knee injury sustained in prison and the resulting infections that threaten amputation of a leg. His beloved mother, now in her 90s, has left her own home, gone into a nursing home and been rescued by her daughter from its poor care. His mother’s situation weighs heavily on Randy. He tells me that his relationships with his siblings range from rocky to loving but he is so grateful that his sister has taken their mother into her home.

Despite all this, Randy perseveres. He believes in Jesus, he begs forgiveness, and he wants to do right.

Randy sets a good example for me. We are all locked behind bars of some sort and live in our own prisons. Reaching out to others with love and seeking forgiveness leads us to Jesus.

Photo © rook76/


About the Author

Lisa Biedenbach, director of product development for St. Anthony Messenger Press books, works to identify great writers whose insights and experiences can inspire and inform us about the Catholic faith and help connect people to God and each other. A graduate of St. Bonaventure University, she is married, and loves to cook, garden, read books, and entertain family and friends.
  • Harriet Ann Burr

    Hi, Lisa!
    Just was reading the Saint of the day, San Jose Perez, ofm, and it reminded me of a Franciscan priest that we met many years ago.  He was ordained by Cardenal Jose Salazar Lopez, at the age of 17, and rested in the Lord, several weeks later.  His remains are in the Basilica of Our Lady of Zapopan.  I have no knowledge of any priest ever being ordained so young – he was dying of cancer.  Also, I understand that his process of beatification has already started.  Do you have any knowledge of this?  Could you get some information for us?

    I too, have a penpay in San Quentin – on death row.  Please pray for Michael.  I know exactly what you have experienced with Randy.

    God bless!

    • Lisab

      Thanks for your comment, Harriet. I could not locate any info about the young priest you mentioned. You might try the Vatican website re: saints and blesseds.

  • Gloriason

    Beautifully written Lisa, brought tears to my eyes. 

    • Lisab

      Thanks, Gloria, for your kind words. Let’s pray together for prisoners.

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  • Sharon Lape

    Wow, Lisa, that’s a beautiful story.  And one that reminds us to keep prisoners in our prayers.  They, too, are all children of God!


    • Lisab

      Thanks, Sharon. All children of God need prayers!