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Oregon nonprofit pairs pen pals with inmates

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VENETA, Ore. (CIRCA via KVAL) — Melissa Schmitt reads from a letter.

"I am honest, caring and understanding, seeking not only a spiritual pen pal but most importantly, to establish a friendship."

The writer? A prisoner on death row.

Schmitt collects these letters from prisoners, convicted of crimes from minor to major, in hopes of connecting them to people on the outside who are willing to write back.

But finding those people — even at community events in Veneta, a city in western Oregon — can be a challenge.

"Sometimes they'll say, 'Adopt an Inmate — what about adopt a dog, or how about adopt a veteran?'"
Melissa Schmitt, on what some people say when they aren't supportive of her program

"It just becomes ridiculous because I have hundreds and hundreds of these people who have sent us requests and haven't heard from us in months and months and months," Schmitt said.

Her nonprofit — Adopt an Inmate — started when her brother was incarcerated just more than five years ago.

She mostly runs it herself, and fundraising is tough: Sites such as GoFundMe don't allow finances to be raised for people who are incarcerated.

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Melissa Schmitt started her nonprofit when her brother was incarcerated just more than five years ago.

Schmitt said she faces a lot of resistance from the general public.

"Sometimes they'll say, 'Adopt an Inmate — what about adopt a dog, or how about adopt a veteran?' Now I like when they say (adopt a veteran) because there's lots of veterans in prison," Schmitt said.

But she said it's also rewarding. To date, the organization has matched more than 500 inmates with people on the outside willing to write back.

She recalled one instance of an inmate who had given up on clemency, but then decided to take a second chance at life on the outside only after finding someone who cared.

"They unanimously granted him clemency, so I mean it changes people," Schmitt said.

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