Like many people, Mike Nadraus wears many hats. He’s a husband, father and president of U-Haul Company of Long Island. But it’s one of his “other” hats that really stands out. You see, he’s also a counselor and friend to death row inmates.
Nadraus got his start reaching out to others through prison ministry. He had been hesitant to get involved initially, but after his first visit to Cook County (Ill.) Jail in 1999, he was hooked. Over the next six years, Nadraus continued visiting inmates throughout the Midwest, and also began offering counsel and friendship through letter-writing, particularly to death row inmates. At one point, Nadraus and his friends had written to every death row inmate in the country.
“I don’t want to justify what any of these guys did. If you kill someone, you can’t come back from that, but you’re still a person. You need friends, someone to help you through, and that’s what I try to do,” Nadraus emphasized. “You learn forgiveness. You don’t focus on what they did; you talk to them as friends.”
Nadraus understands that a lot of the death row inmates haven’t had anyone write to them in years. He knows they’ve been abandoned by their friends and families and they just want someone to talk to, so that’s what he does.
“It’s like having a pen pal. Sometimes I’ll play chess with them through letters. I remember being in the middle of a game and getting the letter back saying ‘return to sender,’ because they had been executed,” Nadraus recalled. “I would say around 40 of the people I’ve corresponded with have been executed. I’ve lost some good friends.”
When Nadraus moved to New York in 2005, his in-person prison ministry came to somewhat of an end because it’s much harder to visit prisons there. While he still visits inmates occasionally, he primarily counsels and keeps in touch with them through letters.
“The letters can be insane at first, but once you break them down and talk to them on their level, the more human they become and the more you can open them up,” Nadraus explained. “It’s a good feeling to counsel them and know I’m helping them. It helps me even more sometimes.”
After receiving hundreds of letters over the years, Nadraus decided he wanted to share their stories. He compiled various letters, pictures, drawings and inmate information, and published them as a book titled “God on Death Row” in 2005.
“It was hard to pick and chose, but I’m happy with how it turned out. It was never about selling books; the number of copies isn’t important to me. I probably give more away than I sell,” Nadraus admitted.
“I know copies have been put in prison libraries,” he added, “and people have read it and sent me letters saying, ‘You really helped me out.’ That’s what it’s about, offering redemption so they can move on and make a better life.”
Paying it forward
While Nadraus is not concerned with how many books he sells, a portion of the money he makes goes to support a youth group he has been actively involved with over the past 10 years.
It’s a church group, but Nadraus said it feels more like a big brother/sister program because it’s a lot of kids from poor or broken families that they bring together to make friends, through playing sports and going on field trips.
“It’s nice showing them things I love, sharing those experiences with them and making sure they know they’re important humans too,” Nadraus expressed. “With the kids, I’m not boss. I’m just a friend who’s there to hang out and help them. They help me too. They ground me and keep me energized.”
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