At eleven o'clock on Saturday 10th October we welcomed our best ever attendance to the Human Writes Conference, in this our fifteenth year.
The first speaker introduced was Terri Bailey, who works with an organisation called Storybook Dads. This charitable organisation was first established in 2003 in Dartmoor Prison. Its purpose was to enable incarcerated fathers to read and record stories for their children. Many men are unable to receive regular visits from their families owing to their geographical location, but through these stories they are able to speak and read directly to their children, sending them reassuring messages and enabling them to hear, and often see images of, their fathers. Terri explained how the scheme has grown over the past twelve years and how it has extended so that not only parents but also grandparents are able to record stories. These are now edited to a professional level by inmates at Dartmoor and Channings Wood prison. The prisoners there have learned how to edit the stories and set them to music, with appropriate sound effects and images, leading to the production of CDs and DVDs. This also provides an excellent opportunity for the compilers to gain editing skills and they are often employed in the studios for six months after their release. Funding has been provided by organisations such as the JP Getty Trust and the National Lottery, enabling the scheme to grow. Last year four thousand stories were produced by an editorial team of sixteen. Now there are Storybook Mums, and Grandparents, not only in UK but also in a variety of countries around the world including Australia, Hungary and Japan. Furthermore, the British Army, Air Force and Navy have all been inspired to run similar schemes, helping children to feel connected to their absent parents. Altogether the scheme improves the morale, pride and sense of self-worth of all involved. While the possibility of running such a project in the US is doubtful, hopefully some fathers will be inspired to write and illustrate stories for their children.
Our next speaker was Dr Pablo Stewart, a forensic psychiatrist from California, who gave his regular update of the death penalty situation in the United States. As usual, there were both and positive and negative aspects to report. There have been several successes in appeals around the US, in addition to some developments on the issue of the legality or illegality of lethal injection. The actual constitutionality of the death penalty itself has also been in the news, with a Supreme Court Judge expressing his personal belief that the death penalty is unconstitutional and a judge in California taking this argument one step further by declaring that the death penalty constituted cruel and unusual punishment due to the length of time those condemned spend on Death Row. Pablo cited one particular case as an example of cruel and unusual punishment which was that of Richard Glossip in Oklahoma, who has been literally on the verge of execution three times and who still faces an uncertain future since all executions in that state are on hold while the legality of one of the drugs is investigated. In his conclusion, Pablo emphasised how beneficial letter writing is for the men inside, and how several of his clients had spoken very warmly about their Human Writes penfriends and what this support has meant to them.
After a session of questions and answers, state group meetings were held followed by a break for lunch and the opportunity to purchase a wide variety of cards, artwork and crafts. Raffle tickets - including those for a picture painted and donated by Erika Trueman - were also available.
In the afternoon we welcomed our main speaker for the day, Mr Harold Wilson. Mr Wilson is the 122nd death penalty exoneree in the US and the sixth from Pennsylvania. Harold was wrongly accused of killing three people in 1989, for which he was given three death sentences. The death sentences were finally overturned in 1999 on grounds of inadequate legal representation; however, the murder convictions remained. It was not until 2005 that he finally won his appeal on the strength of DNA testing which proved that blood found at the murder scene was not his. Harold regards himself as a victim of a judicial system with a death penalty damaged beyond repair. He explained that a death penalty trial can cost nearly two million dollars and that Philadelphia must have spent some 450 million on such trials, with no execution for fifteen years.
Harold described the challenging conditions and deprivations of living on Death Row, physically limited and mentally beaten down. Following the advice of a Jehovah's Witness, Robert Cook, Harold denied himself television and radio, so that he could not be deprived of them by others. He always referred to himself as Mr Wilson, and he made the best of his opportunity to learn by studying law, which enabled him to file many suits asserting his rights in the prison environment. During his incarceration he received letters from Alison which were "like a breath of fresh air, a drink of fresh water in the desert of Death Row." He told the story of Mary Hanson, his 'angel', whom he first met in a rehab unit, run by a group of nuns. Mary ultimately left the order, trained as a lawyer and eventually helped Harold win his final appeal. She also 'rescued' him after he was released with nothing more than the clothes he stood up in, 65 cents and a bus token. As a member of the Witness to Innocence Organisation, Mr Wilson has now dedicated his life to fighting to free all those wrongly accused and to abolish the death penalty in order to avoid killing an innocent man (http://www.witnesstoinnocence.org/).
The final session of the day began with the traditional lighting of two candles – one in remembrance of all those who have died on US Death Rows and the other in respect and memory of all victims of crime. Sue Fenwick then warmly thanked our speakers and all those involved in the conference, making special mention of Katy Amberley's ten years of chairing it and Sonya Woodsend and Cath Casburn who had once again organised a great day for us all. A final thanks was extended to all office holders and members who have taken the organisation from strength to strength in its first fifteen years.
Report by Sheila Michell
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