Our 2010 conference was held at the Royal National hotel in London on 9 October.
For our first speaker we welcomed the return of long-time friend of Human Writes, Pablo Stewart, a forensic psychiatrist involved in defending many prisoners across the US at their various appeal stages. Pablo told us that at present the US faces “the best of times and the worst of times” - the 'best' being that, mainly due to global financial difficulties, fewer death sentences are being handed down at State level as prosecutors know their states cannot afford the huge costs involved. However, the flip side of the coin is at Federal level, where the government seems to be bringing more and more death penalty cases despite shortages of money.
Pablo pointed out that Maricopa County, Arizona, seems to now be the 'death penalty capital' of the states, with over 150 capital cases in their county court last year. He concluded his talk with the reminder that this is a time when our friends on the row need our support more than ever.
Our next speaker was Connie Wright from Livingston, Texas. Connie had been married to Greg Wright, executed by the state of Texas in 2008. Connie shared her personal and very moving story with us from the time she came to first know Greg through to the final days of his life. She emphasised the changes she had seen in him from the time they had first met, and spoke of how, by the time he approached his execution and having corresponded over the years with penfriends (including herself), the smile had returned to his face. She emphasised how important penfriends are to prisoners, saying that his friends had been Greg’s hold on sanity, and they had enabled him to live beyond the concrete walls of his cell. Connie also read a letter written for our conference by Mark Stroman in Texas, who emphasised what a difference his Human Writes penfriends have made to him over the years.
At the end of the morning session we got together in our state groups, always a popular part of the day, where writers can meet and share their experiences or talk with their co-ordinators.
We were pleased to welcome our main speaker of the day who began our afternoon session. Juan Melendez had spent 17 years, 8 months and 1 day on Florida’s death row for a crime he did not commit. Juan recalled the day that he had been wrongly arrested and went on to describe the awful conditions on the row and, sadly, how he came very close to taking his own life. Fortunately he had second thoughts on this and he began to adjust to the surroundings in which he found himself. He spoke warmly of the friendship that was shown to him by fellow prisoners, some of whom had taught him to read, write and to speak English. He emphasised how grateful he will always remain for this as it enabled him to fully understand the legal proceedings and the case that had been made against him. He spoke of many aspects of the realities of life on death row and told us how “I was not saved by the system, I was saved in spite of the system”.
Juan had been on Florida’s death row for sixteen years before the evidence that would eventually free him was properly examined. When he was eventually released (having been totally exonerated of all charges) he was given one set of clothing and $100 from the state. Juan spoke of how, when he walked from the prison, he had been met by reporters who had asked him what were the things he had then most wanted to do, to which he had replied “I want to see the moon and the stars, to walk on grass, walk on dirt, cuddle a baby” all things that we take for granted in our daily lives. Juan says his main wish now is that during his lifetime there will be an end to the death penalty. He gave an impassioned plea to us all: “I want you to tell the US that the death penalty is racist; tell them it is cruel and unnecessary; tell them it costs too much; it does not deter crime; tell them there is always a risk of executing an innocent person; that you can never release an innocent man from the grave….please help us to end the death penalty.”
The final session of the day began with the lighting of two candles along with the observation of one minute’s silence. We do this at every conference, taking time in remembrance not only our death row friends, past and present, but also in respect of victims of crime and their loved ones. This was followed by three short speeches from Human Writes members about their US friendships. The first was read by Maureen Dunn, on behalf of Kate who sadly could not be present on the day. Kate writes to Scott in Arizona and it was clear from their words that Scott is very glad to have been matched with such a good friend. Next, David Barry spoke of his friend Willy in Alabama, who kindly sends birthday cards to fellow inmates and to the guards on the row too. Sally Harris then spoke of her friendship with Azad in Idaho, who has been teaching her the Kurdish and Arabic languages, whilst she has taught him some French.
Mary Vaughan, our co-ordinator for Pennsylvania and Washington, then read two contrasting poems written by death row prisoners. The conference closed with words from our Founder, Sue Fenwick. Sue warmly thanked all our speakers, our office holders who contribute so much to the organisation, and a special mention of thanks was given to Brenda Gamlin and Caroline Hayward who had organised a superb conference. The final thanks was to all our members whose continued support and loyalty bring such strength to the organisation. To conclude the day a personal message of good wishes and encouragement from our patron, Jon Snow, was read aloud.
Report by Doug Bohn
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