Tessie Castillo is an author, journalist and public speaker who specializes in stories on criminal justice, drug policy, prison reform and racial equity. She co-wrote her first book, Crimson Letters: Voices from Death Row, with four men serving death sentences in North Carolina, whom she met while volunteering at North Carolina’s Central Prison in 2014.
While volunteering, Castillo was moved by the wisdom, humility, and accountability of the men in prison. In May 2014 she wrote an editorial to the Raleigh News & Observer advocating for the humanity of people on Death Row. In response, the prison administration canceled her class and revoked her status as a volunteer. Castillo began writing to her former students. The letters and essays they exchanged formed the base for Crimson Letters: Voices from Death Row. After its publication in March 2020, the prison confiscated the book from its co-authors and banned it from NC prisons.
Crimson Letters illuminates the complex stew of choice and circumstance that brought four men to Death Row and their search for hope and purpose behind bars. Since its publication, Castillo and her co-authors (who call in from prison) have been speaking on criminal justice issues and sharing their story with universities, faith groups, non-profits, radio shows, and podcasts, including NPR, Longform Podcast, and the Greensboro Bound criminal justice series featuring anti-death penalty advocate Sister Helen Prejean. They also host a free book club where co-authors call into virtual discussions to answer questions and converse with book club members.
By offering the unique opportunity to listen and interact with people on Death Row, Castillo and her co-authors debunk the assumptions and stereotypes that shape criminal justice policy. Crimson Letters is more than just a book. It is a collaborative project that challenges us to witness and engage with humanity behind bars.
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