Alleviating the painful isolation of Ely’s death row

David Deitrich can find time to visit his stepson Rodney Emil only once a year. During phone calls, voice recordings constantly interrupt, making conversation frustrating and nearly impossible. Letter writing? Well, that’s the best way to stay in communication with him, Deitrich says, but even that isn’t without difficulty.

Of course, you wouldn’t expect it to be easy. Emil sits on death row at Ely State Prison, convicted of murder. But Emil, death penalty opponents say, is lucky. He has someone who cares, occasionally visits and keeps in touch. Most of the roughly 90 death-row inmates in Nevada don’t.

“For some of them, it’s been seven, eight, nine years since they’ve had a visitor,” Becky Hansen told members of the Nevada Coalition Against the Death Penalty at a press conference last week in Las Vegas. The meeting was held to announce a new pen-pal program initiated by the coalition. Hansen, a legal assistant with the federal Public Defenders Office, says the isolation and lack of contact with the outside world are taking their toll on inmates sentenced to die.

She doesn’t have to dig deep to find an example. Less than 24 hours earlier, Lawrence Colwell Jr., convicted of strangling tourist Frank Rosenstock in 1994 during a robbery, told a judge he didn’t want to appeal his sentence and was ready to die. His execution, scheduled for next month, will be the first in Nevada since 2001.

“At a point when he had an interest in fighting for his life, everybody turned their back on him,” says Tom Casler, an investigator and Hansen colleague. “Now that he’s volunteered to die, everyone wants to come to his rescue.”

Tim Gabrielsen points to the social and geographic isolation of Ely State Prison as the reason why many death row inmates abandon their appeals and decide to “check out.” Gabrielsen, an assistant federal public defender, says that, since Nevada reinstated the death penalty in 1977, eight of the nine prisoners executed volunteered to die.

“They are extremely isolated up in Ely,” Casler says. “I’ve done work in San Francisco, and San Quentin is jammed with people. Sometimes you can’t find a parking space, but in Ely there is nobody.”

The coalition’s pen-pal program has already seen some progress. There are several Web sites now devoted to helping prisoners find pen pals; the coalition hopes to get involved.

Ely inmate Dale Flanagan is featured on a number of sites. At age 38, he has now spent more than half of his life on death row.

Flanagan was convicted of killing his grandparents in 1984, when he was 18 years old.

Flanagan’s entries on the various sites differ in tone and need. One contains a short poem. Another seems to be searching for a friend: “Write me, talk to me. You will find me human. Not a monster, not an animal to be slaughtered by the state. I am just a man.” And a third lists his hobbies and reads like a personal ad. Flanagan writes, “Finding that special someone is important to me. To her, to us, I will give my all. I am loyal, motivated, fun, spicy, supportive, humorous and so much more than I can tell or show in a few words. … Let’s together see what treasures we can find to cherish in each other.”

Coalition members say that writing to an inmate can have a positive impact on their lives, aiding in the rehabilitation process for those who will someday be released. As for those on death row, the members say, it would give them a reason to go on.

“It would be wonderful for these guys to receive a single letter,” an emotional Deitrich told the coalition. “If you can write to one guy, it would be like a gift from God.”