Return to Sender

Unlike the impression many people have of the work we do, our days do not begin with security pat downs or metal detectors. There are no armed escorts through sterile hallways or down noisy cellblocks, and we never see the inside of a classroom full of inmates. What we do is almost entirely clerical; it takes place in an office, at a desk with two computers, two letter openers, a filing cabinet, a glue stick, and a stack of envelopes. On the days we come in, there is usually a pile of mail so thick we have to pry it out of our mailbox. We spend the next several hours cutting through adhesive seals, deciphering all styles of penmanship, scanning letters for key words, and entering addresses into spreadsheets. There are also emails to answer, letters to write, manuscripts to file, and correspondences to repackage. Some days we fall into a quick rhythm and manage to get through the whole pile in three hours; other days, coffee spills and we leave with a bigger mess than the one we started with. Regardless, in nine months, we will file and respond to more than 1,000 contest submissions, enter almost 4,000 handbook requests, and sustain roughly 200 mentorships.

What pulls us forward, and keeps us from feeling like mice in a spinning wheel, are a few important deadlines: One, the distribution of the manuscripts to a committee of judges; two, the return of the committee’s results; and three, the mailing out of notification letters to all of the winners. This last task marks the unofficial culmination of our year’s work. It is an exciting day. We compose and review the letters with fastidious care, making sure that nothing is misspelled and nothing misstated, for we too are writers and know the significance of such a document. That this day always comes in the spring, when the flowers are beginning to bloom and the sun is resisting to set, is not a coincidence.

This year, just three weeks after the notification letters went out, I came into the office and found in our pile of mail a letter stamped, “insufficient address.” The name on the envelope was William Van Poyck, an inmate who received the second prize in fiction, and who had won multiple awards in previous years. My first thought was that we had copied down his address wrong, or that he had been transferred to another prison. Perhaps he had even been released. But when I searched for his name in our records, the address matched, and when I entered his ID number into the BOP’s inmate locator, his name was listed next to Florida State Prison. So, I took the next step, one we try to avoid at all costs, and Googled his name. What I discovered shocked me. Van Poyck was scheduled to die by lethal injection on June 12. It was June 7. I had all kinds of questions: Why now, after twenty-six years on death row? And why was his letter sent back to us if he still had seven days to live? Was it a clerical mistakedid the post office error was denial deliberate? Did the warden see the letter and choose not to deliver it?

A week later, I read online that Van Poyck’s last words were “set me free.” I immediately dug up his story, Death by Dominoes, and began reading it. The first sentence stopped me cold: “When the assassins come they kill everyone.” When the assassins come they kill everyone. I read this over and over again, trying to process its implication, to figure out if it were true. Then I took out his notification letter, the one that he never got to read. “Congratulations!” it began, that magical word that we all long to hear. I stared at it for a long time, neglecting the new stack of mail that sat on my desknew requests, new manuscripts, new lettersand thought about how it might have affected his final wish (set me free). Might it have made a difference even to a man who knew that death was coming?