On a quiet Friday afternoon in the summer of 2007, the phone rang in The Sun’s office. It was someone calling on behalf of a man on death row to inform us of a glaring error in an upcoming issue.
We’d accepted a piece by the prisoner for our Readers Write on “Rivals” but had failed to list him as “Name Withheld,” which he’d requested because he was worried what he’d written about gang violence in prison might provoke a violent reprisal. We’d sent the man our edit for his approval weeks earlier, but because of the sluggish prison mail system, he’d only just received it and was unaware the issue had already gone to print. Eighty thousand copies of it, in fact, were sitting in our printer’s warehouse, ready to be picked up by the postal service.
We called the printer and asked them to cancel the pickup.
We considered our options, which were few: his name could not satisfyingly be redacted, and snipping it out with scissors — a suggestion we gave serious consideration — would mar the other side of the page. In the piece the inmate describes listening “for the sound of metal scraping on concrete, sniff[ing] for the smell of burning plastic — telltale signs of a weapon being manufactured” in anticipation of an attack. The danger was real. Sy Safransky, The Sun’s founder and editor, asked the rest of us to imagine we were in prison, facing the same risk. “As soon as I’d uttered the words,” Sy later wrote, “I knew that there was no need to imagine: this inmate was one of us — another flawed and complicated human being, deserving of compassion. He was no saint — he was on death row, after all — but maybe saints don’t need our mercy as much as sinners do.”
All eighty thousand issues were reprinted, the old ones destroyed, and the piece went to readers in our September 2007 issue with the man’s name withheld. As the issue arrived with readers, Sy “imagined him flipping through the magazine, looking for his piece in Readers Write. Unsure if his message had reached us in time. Wondering if strangers like us even cared. Holding his breath as he turned the page.”