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Foodie Lit
Steve Schonveld's Front Row on Death Row

For many years, I taught a Service Learning section at a university’s introductory English classes where I was an instructor. Among the 150 options for student to volunteer 30 hours was the popular choice of Pendelton, a maximum-security prison. 


During one of our discussions about students’ experiences in their volunteer programs was a student who had chosen Pendelton that semester. He tried to smuggle in an inmate’s favorite candy bar. He was caught, of course. The student was outraged. “It was just a candy bar!” The inmate, accused and convicted of murder, seemed to be “a nice guy. No different from me.”


A deep question emerged. How different are we from inmates? Should we be sympathetic to them? Should we, fellow human beings, judge them?

Steve Schonveld.jpeg

These same questions emerge in Steve Schonveld’s Front Row on Death Row, a memoir of his six visits to death row inmates at South Carolina’s Lieber Correctional Institute. Steve is a principal of a Charter Middle School in Charleston.


Ron, a parent in his school, a reformed ex-convict, now a chaplain, invited him to go along on visits to a prison. (Ron had been convicted of stealing cars and leading police on a chase.) Steve was both “nervous and intimidated yet curious.” His curiosity won out.


Ron accompanied him through the locked doors and them Steve was left on his own to talk to the inmates. The brief orientation had instructed volunteers not to ask what the inmates were convicted of. Their records are public and Steve looked the records up later. All he visited had been convicted of murder(s).

Despite the bars and cells, “The inmates seemed somewhat ordinary and they carried on a relatively normal conversations.” He was surprised at the quiet and calm on the floor. Steve shook each of their hands, with some trepidation. He often brought cookies, very appreciated.


Steve told me, “They were definitely sizing me up and trying to figure out who I was and why I was there.”


Those on Death Row were allowed out for some exercise but otherwise spent their days in their single person cells. One inmate, convicted of murdering a clerk during a store robbery, told Steve that he “spends 23 hours and 40 minutes of nearly every day in his cell. The other 20 minutes is in the shower.”


Steve felt sympathy for these inmates, so confined in their lives yet did not excuse their crimes. He discussed one man convicted of sexual abuse and murder of his infant daughter. Can one feel sympathy and at the same time feel punishment is justified?


Yes, Steve told me. “I don’t have any problem feeling empathy for the human being and anger for their actions. We live in world where most everything must be black or white now. You either agree with someone or you don’t and people will go to great lengths to argue their point. We need to listen more and talk less.”


Steve asked one inmate if he could tell the outside world anything, what would it be?


“Nobody is born a killer—that’s a learned behavior. Society plays a huge role in developing killers and I’m living proof. We need to reach troubled kids before they get to high school. Afterwards is too late. They’ve already made hard choices and know the difference between right and wrong. We should start with them at least by elementary school. That’s your homework, Steve.”


Because of Steve is an educator, I wanted to know more about what this inmate said. “We must teach kids that their beliefs, values, and morals are important, but also that it’s ok for other people to disagree with them. The world does not revolve around one person. Too often, we label kids as having this disorder or that mental health diagnosis. Feelings of anger, sadness, loneliness, disappointment and anxiety are all normal human emotions. We need to do a better job teaching kids how to deal with those feelings instead of telling them there is something wrong with them and throwing them in therapy. We have to let them resolve conflicts with their friends (or enemies) on their own and step in to help along the way. If we keep solving kids’ problems for them, they won’t know how to solve problems on their own when they are on their own.”


One difficult question Front Row on Death Row brings forth is on redemption and its possibility for these inmates.


“Redemption is a difficult thing. I do think people can change, for better or for worse. I don’t know how or when we decide that someone has been redeemed. And just because someone is redeemed, what does that mean? Do we just let them out of prison? I don’t think that’s appropriate. I do know that with visits like mine, if nothing else, inmates can feel worthy and listened to. That can only be a positive.”


The many questions in the memoir are all important for us to ponder in a world filled with hate, anger and violence. We all have a role to play.

Steve brings cookies to the inmates to smooth conversations. Snickerdoodle cookies have been a favorite cookie for generations. Chewy and sweet, who could resist them?

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