On 6 October 2012 we welcomed speakers and a large attendance of Human Writes members to our annual conference, which was once again held at the Royal National Hotel in London.
Katy Amberley, as Chair, began by introducing our first speaker, Clare Nonhebel, a Human Writes member who has published the story of her penfriend, Romell Broome, as an e-book. Rommell, a prisoner on Ohio's Death Row, survived an attempted execution and still seeks to prove his innocence. The online book is called Survivor on Death Row and full details can be found on http://clarenonhebel.com/deathrow/ 149-deathrow, on Facebook, and YouTube.
Clare was followed by a regular speaker at our conferences - 'our man on the ground' as he described himself, Pablo Stewart. Pablo spoke about two of the cases he has been working on recently, and emphasised the importance of letter writing from penfriends who often provide the only link with the outside world for those on the Row. He spoke of several Human Writes members by name, who had been mentioned to him by their DR penfriends.
The third speaker of the morning was Claire Phillips, an art graduate from Northbrook College and a Human Writes member. Claire's portrait work focuses on the link which the artist provides between subject and viewer. She has painted a number of paintings relating to Death Row which have been making an impact in exhibitions around the country. Telling the story behind several of the paintings she had brought with her as examples, Claire explained how she was trying to convey experiences through what could be seen in her work. She told the story of Ryan Matthews who struggled for five years to prove his innocence with the help of Reprieve; the story of Krishna Maharaj, still fighting from his Florida prison to prove himself not guilty; of Howard Neal, now serving a life sentence in Mississippi, and finally of Linda Carty working with the aid of Reprieve to prove her innocence in Texas. The intention of her work, Claire summed up, is to “observe, challenge, and provoke thought”.
This interesting and stimulating talk was followed by State Groups a chance to talk with co-ordinators and other writers before the lunch break, when raffle tickets and arts and crafts by prisoners were on sale.
The afternoon was largely given over to our main speaker, Terri Steinberg. Terri is a mother from Virginia who, although she had not been a campaigner, had never condoned the death penalty. However, she came up against it when, in 2001, her son Justin Wolfe, was accused of a murder he did not commit. Her story showed the huge impact on family life, and the lives of her children, of living with a loved-one on the Row. She described in detail the trial of her son, and his subsequent appeals. Eventually, in 2011, after a confession by the actual killer and support from the Innocence Project, a Federal judge vacated the sentence due to prosecutorial misconduct and Justin was declared innocent of this murder. However, the state of Virginia instead of releasing him and admitting the mistakes of the prosecutors, as would be expected under the circumstances, held him and is now trying to bring the original charge and others against him; a new prosecution team is seeking a retrial. Terri explained that having support, for example through penfriends, can be enormously helpful to the families of prisoners, as well as providing an all important link to the outside world to the prisoner. She emphasised how correspondence, love and support bring a bright spot to the end of a long day in prison for so many.
Katy thanked Terri for her inspirational talk and moved the proceedings on to the Lighting of the Candles, which Sue Fenwick performed, lighting one for those caught up in the Death Row system and one for the victims of crimes, all of whom were remembered in a one-minute silence. This was followed by short talks from two writers. Terry Philpot described his visit to his penfriend Richard in the Polunsky Unit. He had six and a half hours visiting time over two days, and had found the staff helpful and unobtrusive. Richard appreciated the visits and explained that one thing which kept him going was “people like [Terry] who cared” and reminded him that the world is more than prosecutors and police. The second speaker in this session was John Collins, penfriend of 'Michael', one of the inmates who feature in Werner Herzog’s film 'Into the Abyss'. John described how, after watching the film, he wrote an article for the Yorkshire Post, which led to an interview with local radio. John took our public information advice and had his points ready to make, and the broadcast went well. John explained how delighted he is that the correspondence has developed into a two-way friendship.
Finally, after a variety of short readings by co-ordinators from some of the prisoners’ work, Sue thanked all the speakers for their contributions to the day in addition to Katy for chairing the conference and Sonya Woodsend for organising what had been an excellent day. She then gave a brief summary of the organisation's progress and activities during the past year, reporting the encouraging and continuing rise in membership numbers. Office holders were thanked for all their work during the year as were our members whose loyalty and support contribute so much to the organisation. Katy then closed the conference, with thanks to Sue for her work with the Stamp Shop, and for being a source of information on all aspects of our work.
Report by Sheila Michell