The 2013 Human Writes Conference was a friendly affair as many familiar faces filled the conference room and people shared stories, ideas and news about what was happening in their states. The day started with a fond welcome to Human Writes regular Pablo Stewart, a physician with a speciality in clinical and forensic psychiatry. He provided an update on his almost exclusive death penalty work and explained the different phases of the judicial system. More recently he has been focusing on post-conviction work. One of his recent projects had involved an inspection and evaluation of the prison conditions on California’s death row. Efforts are being made to improve the conditions on death row and a mental health programme has now been implemented in California. Pablo explained the categories of mental health problems he has encountered and the lack of professionals who undertake defence work. On a more uplifting note he provided examples of cases where his involvement, amongst other factors, assisted in achieving a positive result for the defendant.
Pablo emphasised the importance of letter writing and how prisoners he meets on many of the death rows speak so enthusiastically about their Human Writes penfriends. He gave individual examples of this from both Oklahoma and Texas.
Our second speakers were Mark Pizzey and Laura Shacham from One.For.Ten (www.oneforten.com). They spoke about their project, a series of short five minute films, which can be found on their website, focusing on innocence and death. In April and May they had undertaken a five-week road trip covering seventeen states and interviewed ten death row exonerees. A startling statistic they highlighted was that for every ten persons executed since 1973 there has been one prisoner exonerated, which is a reflection on the unacceptable failure rate and how people are incarcerated without hope. Their next project is to be the making of a feature-length documentary investigating the criminal justice system through the lens of the death penalty.
The morning session of the conference was concluded with state group forums.
Our main speaker of the day was Shujaa Graham, who began our afternoon programme. Shujaa had spent five years on California’s death row for the murder of a prison guard, before being totally acquitted. He was a captivating speaker whose raw emotions were present in every word. He told us that his experience on death row was the worst time of his entire life. Shujaa described how he had initially felt humiliated and angry but how, when he regained his strength, he was able to stand up for prisoners and campaign for better treatment. He spoke of the depth of mental pain he suffered and the despair he had felt. He spoke of his time in isolation - 'a cell within a cell' - where the only way to determine the time of day was by when the meals were served. Shujaa spoke of the relief of being placed back on death row following his time in isolation and he likened it to being back on the streets where others were happy to see you and passed you food.
Shujaa spoke of the emotions he went through following his release, his immense relief at being free coupled with deep sadness having left so many behind, still incarcerated. He fondly spoke of the strength his partner, Phyllis Prentice, gave him on his worst days and that her belief in him reminded him of his commitment to prisoners and death row issues.
Shujaa spoke of the importance of receiving a letter and how as mail call time approached each day the prison wings would quieten in anticipation. He explained how he and his fellow prisoners could always tell when somebody got a letter and when somebody didn’t. He likened the receipt of mail to 'freedom' and spoke of how prisoners would share some of their letters with those who hadn't received one. He said it was a wonderful feeling to know that he existed and somebody knew about him and how letters provide hope that there is going to be a better day.
Phyllis then addressed the conference and spoke about how she met Shujaa in the county jail where she had been working as a nurse. They formed a friendship which eventually led to her resigning from her job and joining his defence team. Phyllis spoke of the medical challenges faced in prisons and how many prisoners go undiagnosed with so many conditions. She too emphasised the importance to the prisoners of receiving letters and what a difference they make to our friends.
The afternoon saw a conference tradition; the lighting of two candles. The first to remember death row friends who are no longer with us and those who are still incarcerated; a second candle is always lit for the victims of crime and those whose lives they touched.
The day concluded with a brief update by Sue Fenwick of the organisation's activities during the past year, followed by thanks to all our speakers, to Sonya Woodsend and Cath Casburn for organising another inspirational conference, and to all Human Writes office holders who do so much throughout the year. Finally and most important of all, a sincere thanks was expressed to all Human Writes members, as it is through their commitment to the organisation that we are able to offer friendship to so many on death row.
Report by Caroline Hayward