Our annual conference took place at the Royal National Hotel in London on 6 October 2007. It was encouraging to see a full hall of attendees once again. The day took the format of talks in the morning, followed by state meetings and lunch, with our principal speaker addressing us in the afternoon, and concluding with various accounts of friendships and readings from some of our penfriends’ writings.
Katy Amberley opened the conference and this was followed by a talk from Brenda Gamlin on the history and background of Human Writes. Brenda outlined the main activities of the organisation, briefly also covering the roles of the office holders. She reminded members of the importance of keeping all information provided by their co-ordinators close at hand, particularly the rules and regulations laid down by the individual states. She concluded her talk by mentioning the newsletter and how contributions are welcomed for this.
Brenda was followed by Caroline Dipple who spoke on developing good relationships with our penfriends. She explained that all friendships are unique, but stressed the importance of trust on both sides and suggested that the most successful friendships are those which welcome the penfriend as a member of the family.
Our third speaker was Susan Totterdell, a Human Writers member, who gave a lively, entertaining and moving talk about her experiences in California when she was asked by her penfriend’s defence attorney to speak on his behalf as a character reference in his appeal. Susan stressed how truly remorseful he seemed to be and touched briefly on the help and encouragement he had given to his family by counselling younger members to get an education and to avoid gang culture. She spoke enthusiastically of their friendship, emphasising what a supportive friend he had been to her and the very positive effect he had on her family, friends and wider circle of acquaintances. It was heartening to hear at the end of her talk that Susan's penfriend's death sentence has since been commuted to life.
Susan's talk was followed by State meetings, lunch and a chance to purchase notelets and artwork by prisoners in addition to catching up with old friends.
The afternoon session began with the introduction of Pablo Stewart, a forensic psychiatrist who contributes an objective account of a defendant’s mental health at the request of defence attorneys.
Pablo opened with encouraging words to all of us, welcoming the opportunity to speak to us and expressing his belief in work of Human Writes. He then moved into the main part of his talk, explaining how he can be called in at any part of the defence proceedings.
In the US, although first degree murder may not be a death penalty case, there are clauses relating to aggravators and premeditation which stack the law against people in what he described as a capricious system. A forensic psychiatrist can be a called in at any stage of the mitigation process, from pre-trial mitigation, through the guilt phase and finally in the four stages of the appeal process (which is where most of our friends are) to the State Court of Appeals, followed by the Federal Courts, the Federal Circuit Court of Appeal and finally the US Supreme Court proceedings.
Pablo outlined the approaches open to him to defend clients, and further details can be found in his article in our Summer 2007 Newsletter. He emphasised too that when our penfriends are having a bad time with their appeals, these are the times when our friendship and support are particularly valuable in helping them from losing heart. He encouraged us not to give up on our penfriends at any stage, including when they were finding it difficult to write back.
Not unexpectedly there was a great response to Pablo’s talk which provoked many questions and left most of us wanting more! However, we had to move on into the final stages of the day, which began with the traditional lighting of candles and a minute's silence in memory of friends who are no longer with us, and also for victims of crime. This was followed by a talk from Mary Vaughan who spoke briefly on the role of a state co-ordinator. Five penfriends then spoke about the very different and moving effects of their penfriendships, including how a US penfriend was having an impact on a community in Northern Scotland, the positive effects of a prison visit to Pennsylvania, a friendship that had given a wonderful sense of 'shared fun' across the ocean, and how a prisoner had become a very special part of a family and home in Wales.
The day ended with co-ordinators reading poems and writings from our US friends. Sue Fenwick then closed the day with special thanks to Sonya Woodsend for once more organising an excellent conference and with words of appreciation to all those involved with Human Writes, especially our members for their continued encouragement, support and commitment.
Report by Sheila Michell