Our 2009 conference was held in the Royal National Hotel London on 3 October. The underlying theme this year was illustrating the way in which being in contact with those on death row has changed so many of our lives.
The conference began with a report by Caroline Dipple, co-ordinator for Mississippi, on some of the activities undertaken by Human Writes during the past twelve months. The morning session continued with a series of talks reflecting the theme of change and development. Elizabeth Lancaster Thomas's talk Art Inside Out described how her correspondence with a prisoner in Georgia led to the subject of her MA in Art, and how, together, the two of them are widening their learning and understanding of art. Sheila Michell then spoke about how, through visiting her friend in San Quentin, she has become a volunteer with Death Penalty Focus (the main abolitionist group in California) with whom she works during the weekdays of her regular visits to San Francisco. The third contributor to this section of the programme was Jacqueline Homan, a visitor from America, who spoke passionately about the violence and corruption she had found in the judicial system in the United States. This led to her writing a book Eyes of a Monster showing just what can go on to 'fix' things in the legal system.
State groups talked together at the end of the morning session, and it was nice to see old friends as well as to welcome many new ones, who enjoyed meeting fellow writers to their states.
We opened the afternoon's proceedings by welcoming our main speaker, Ron McAndrew, abolitionist and former US prison warden. Ron explained in graphic and moving detail how from somewhat passively supporting the death penalty he had become an impassioned speaker for its abolition. An American by birth, Ron started his professional life in the Air Force, and after he had completed his term found himself living in France and with a job selling perfume. In 1978 he was once again in the US and in his search for a job, he accepted the post of prison guard in Florida. He soon realised that he had the ability to excel in this type of work and resolved to become a prison warden which, through hard work and flexibility, he achieved. In 1988 he became warden of Florida State Prison, where death row was housed, and in order to secure the post he had to agree to supervise the administration of the death penalty. Ron described in some detail how he supervised his first execution, which had been by electric chair. He had been instructed to “make it as pretty as you can” and it is clear from his description of what he defined as “barbaric” and “ceremonial premeditated execution” that he was profoundly moved by the experience. Nevertheless he proceeded to supervise, as humanely as possible, a second and then a third execution. The latter went disastrously wrong and Ron was sent to Texas to learn how to administer the lethal injection, where he witnessed a further five executions. He was, however, moving on in his own personal development.
Tortured by dreams of the executions he had seen, he looked inside himself and realised that there was no way he could continue to support the death penalty. He had also realised the unfairness of the system in which, particularly after President Reagan's cuts in legal aid, the poor had limited access to experts in criminal justice. Once out of the system he was given the opportunity to speak about his change of heart. He finds doing this so beneficial to himself and others that he has now given 71 talks against the death penalty, the majority of these in the United States. With such experience and dedication to his cause he gives a speech which is moving, vivid and fascinating and we were honoured that his first talk in Europe was with Human Writes.
Later in the afternoon, we heard from four writers who talked about what their pen-friendships mean to them and how it had helped them develop their own lives and interests. Laura, writing to Mark, the “coolest Texan there”, spoke with admiration of her penfriend and her trips to visit him. Sandy described the interests she shares with her penfriend Al in California, explaining how he had helped her with her Access Arts Course. Caroline, a civil defence lawyer, exchanges experiences of their respective legal systems with her penfriend Dayton, in Oregon, as well as sharing interests in music and having sunflower growing competitions. Irene, who writes to Sydney in Kansas, reflected on the powerful effect of education in our lives. An erstwhile teacher, she has interested him in learning Spanish with her.
The last session of the day began with lighting our candles and observing a minute of silence in memory of friends who have been executed, and also in respect for the victims of crime who we always remember too. The final contributions to the conference were words from prisoners themselves, read by co-ordinators, showing how some of our friends have adapted to life on the row. Helen Barker read from a blog about a prisoner's first day on death row, Caroline Hayward read moving and effective poems from Reginald, Earl, Mahir and William which illustrated various aspects of survival on the row, and Mary Vaughan read extracts from a letter written by a Tennessee prisoner reflecting on his wonderful relationship with his new penfriend, followed by a moving poem by Melvin, and finally (assisted by her son Paul) gave an amusing demonstration of an ingenious device to warm up prison food.
The conference concluded with closing words from our founder, Sue Fenwick, who thanked all the speakers for their contributions throughout the day, Sonya Woodsend for organising another superb conference and also all office holders within Human Writes who give and contribute so much to the organisation throughout the year. The final thanks was to all our members who support Human Writes and their penfriends so loyally and enthusiastically and who add such strength to the organisation.
Finally a message of friendship and support from Pablo Stewart, our speaker from previous conferences, was read aloud and the day ended with a message of good wishes and encouragement from our patron, Jon Snow.