Our 2006 conference took place on 14th October at the Royal National Hotel, London. This year more members and guests than ever attended, filling the hall to capacity. The day largely followed the format of last year, with our guest speaker, Rick Halperin, addressing us in the afternoon.
In the morning three co-ordinators reflected on the various aspects of Human Writes. Mary Vaughan outlined the organisation of Human Writes, explaining the key roles of the various office holders, all of whom work on a voluntary basis, and how new members are welcomed and allocated to their various states to begin their penfriendships. She explained that the organisation aims to keep costs, and therefore subscriptions, to a minimum, with the main expenses being advertising and production of the HW newsletter, which so many of our members and American friends enjoy reading. Mary continued with an outline of her own progression from writer to co-ordinator, encouraged by her penfriend Nick Yarris who, contrary to the norm, was able to prove his innocence and be released from Death Row. Mary made the point that both she and her husband had gained tremendously by her experiences as a penfriend.
Sal Slaughter gave an illustrated talk on Arts and Crafts on the Row, explaining that facilities vary enormously from state to state. Whilst some are able to paint in oils, carve soap, produce elaborate beadwork and make jewellery, others are restricted to pen/pencil and paper, but Sal showed how these could be used to effect with examples of origami, and outline drawings being used to produce embroidery. Writing, of course, is a means by which most of us can express ourselves and Sal read moving autobiographic extracts and poetry to prove this point.
Caroline Dipple then spoke encouragingly and informatively about being a writer and how much it can mean to someone who is incarcerated to have outside contact with the world in the form of their own personal friend who, above all, should strive to be honest and open in their communications. The mid-day session was devoted to state meetings when members were able to meet co-ordinators and other writers - always a rewarding and encouraging experience.
In the afternoon Sue Fenwick, our founder member, introduced Rick Halperin whose article many will have seen in the Summer Newsletter. As most people know, Rick is a long-time human rights educator and a dedicated abolitionist of the death penalty. He is an active member of Amnesty International and was recently elected to his third term as Chair of Amnesty USA. His website (accessed by typing 'Rick Halperin' or 'Death Penalty News and Updates' into Google) is invaluable to all those associated with these issues. Rick lives and works in Texas, a state driven, he considers, by hate but where he feels compelled to remain. He is obviously a man with a mission and as he described the barbaric methods of execution he said he felt he was "alive to stop this kind of butchery". He explained, as anyone visiting the States will have experienced, that most US citizens don't know about what is going on and often have no knowledge even of whether there is a death row in their state, nor of the conditions imposed on the row. He outlined some of those harsh conditions, expressing special concern for women on the row, who often live in great loneliness. Focussing on Texas, however, Rick was able to give some positive news, in spite of their having the highest number of executions - approximately one a fortnight (every two weeks for our US readers!) at the moment. He pointed out that eight years ago, with the exception of one off-beat newspaper, the press condoned the death sentence, but now many are supporting human rights and calling for a moratorium, a slow-down in executions and the establishment of a retardation statute. He further explained how abolitionists were managing to at least stop the expansion of the death penalty, maintaining that nationwide only 50% of US citizens still support it (not 65% as advertised). Rick said he is optimistic that the death penalty will be overthrown in our lifetimes, but that it will be a gradual process. One would wish for more Americans like Rick who are prepared to be critical of the status quo, and risk imprisonment by demonstrating their abhorrence of this inhumane and barbaric practice. Rick made an interesting contrast, in his political position, to the legal point of view of Clive Stafford-Smith who spoke last year, but there is no doubting the total personal dedication of both men to the abolitionist cause and we are very privileged to have heard them speaking.
The final session began with Katy Amberley, who had guided the programme throughout the day, asking Sue Fenwick to light the customary candles for a moment's silence, dedicated to our US friends past and present and also to those who have been victims of crime. This was followed by four of our writers sharing their experiences of being penfriends to men who were showing great strength in their ability to survive, all pointing out, as Mary had done in the morning, how much they had personally gained from their friendships. Some prisoners' poems were read, making a poignant ending to what had been a very full and motivating day.
Human Writes Patrons
"The very essence of the death penalty is to tell people that they are somehow sub-human, not fit to live. Yet even those people I have represented who did what they were accused of - a surprisingly limited number - have always been much better people than their worst fifteen minutes, as are we all. Those who recognise this by reaching out to the men and women on death row are true heroes, though I suspect they gain as much as they give to the relationship."
Clive Stafford Smith OBE, Founder of Reprieve and Patron, Human Writes
"As a journalist who has lived and worked in the United States, the horror of death row is one of the issues that never leaves you. The thread of humanity that Human Writes manages to sustain with men and women on death row is a profound contribution to keep alive the hope of life. Capital punishment is now on the retreat in America, but the numbers awaiting their fate are still very considerable. I am very honoured to have become a Patron of Human Writes and will hope to do my best to put my shoulder to the wheel".
Jon Snow Broadcaster and journalist, Patron, Human Writes
"In such an inhuman system small moments of human contact make a big difference. That's why I support Human Writes and why I would encourage you to do the same."
Gary Younge, Author and US-based feature writer for the Guardian, Patron, Human Writes
"I know what it is like to live in a cell for decades and feel that the whole world hates you. I never expected to be able to live again as a contributing member of a community. Prison life was precarious and unpredictable but I met people who worked there who wanted to help me and people like me - and I'm lucky that I live in a society graceful enough to offer me a second chance. At least I had hope. Hope for many of the people supported by Human Writes has all but been extinguished. Letters to people on Death Row let them know that however low they may have fallen, they are still human beings. They still have value and are worth caring about and letters might just help to keep hope alive. That is why I am honoured to have been invited to be a patron."
Erwin James, author and Guardian columnist, Patron, Human Writes