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Xavier Magazine | July 26, 2017

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Letters form Prison

By France Griggs Sloat

Philosophy classes are designed to make students think, and those in Patrick Welage’s Philosophy 100 course certainly got plenty to think about. Yes, they got the requisite Plato’s Republic assignment, but things got really interesting when they engaged in pen pal correspondence with 15 of Ohio’s Death Row inmates.

The men had a litany of stories—some sad, some perplexing, some downright frightening: James Goff, on Death Row since age 19, spent most of his high school years in foster homes. Ray Tibbetts was on his own after running away from an abusive foster home and later convicted in the murders of his wife and “some guy.” And Frances Anne Spisak, who says she normally doesn’t respond to anyone who calls her Frank, said it was mental illness that “caused me to commit the homicides and other violent behavior.”

The contrasts in some letters are numbingly stark. In one sentence, Frederick Treesh chats with student Dana Hunter about their home state of Indiana. In another, he tells Rachel Kennedy that he committed murder.

By the end of the class, several students had changed their views on the death penalty, mostly to being against it, though some remained staunch supporters. Those who shifted views said they found the methods of death are inhumane or the penalty is unfairly applied.

Says Welage: “The students loved it. It was an in-depth exploration of the issue, and I hope each student walked away a better person.”

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