On 15th October enthusiastic writers and visitors packed our annual conference which took place in the Royal National Hotel, London. Caroline Dipple took the chair, welcoming and introducing our speakers.
Our first speaker was Luke Templeman, our Public Information Spokesman. Luke outlined his role within Human Writes. Speaking from his experience in journalism, he cautioned members on the possibility of being approached directly by the media, particularly tabloids looking for sensational stories, and requested that if anyone is approached, no matter how apparently transparent the journalist might appear, they contact him (firstname.lastname@example.org) before any response is given. Luke then spoke briefly about the pitfalls of having HW social media accounts and the negative publicity that this could encompass from those disagreeing with the sentiments of our organisation. He concluded his address by reiterating Human Writes’ non-political stance, reminding us that we do not publicly criticise the existence of the death penalty as an organisation, thereby remaining accepted within the prison authorities.
We then welcomed Dr Pablo Stewart, our regular visitor and speaker from California. In his opening comments he supported Luke’s advice regarding social media and its unsafe potential. Pablo went on to parallel the political split in the US with the division regarding the death penalty. He clarified that although the number of death penalty trials is undeniably down, it still prevails in the republican states, for example the former ‘slave’ states such as Missouri, Georgia, Delaware, Texas and Arizona. He explained how the political outcome of the forthcoming election will have a direct effect on the choice of the ninth member of the Supreme Court, following the death of Justice Scalia since, although any nomination must have the support of the Senate, the President has the power to nominate, approve or disapprove candidates. Pablo then turned to the situation in California, where there are two propositions in the November referendum: Proposition 62, to replace the death penalty with a Life Without Parole sentence, and Proposition 66, to speed up the appeals process by allowing non-qualified attorneys to represent those charged with a capital case. Pablo clarified that whichever proposition gets the higher overall vote will be the one that goes through. His final point was to urge writers never to give up on a penfriend, keeping a line of communication open. He also clarified that he can only get involved in a case when invited to do so by an attorney. When asked about the attitude of the two presidential candidates he said that neither had made their personal views known but Trump did not think there was “enough law and order”, while the Catholic Church and the Democratic Party had come out against the death penalty.
Our third speaker of the morning was Felix Jakens, Head of Priority Campaigns and Individuals at Risk for Amnesty International UK. Felix gave a detailed and informative talk about the work of Amnesty, focussing particularly on their involvement to support those on Death Row and to see the worldwide abolition of capital punishment. He explained some of the difficulties in working on such issues at an international level where, for example, there was no agreed definition of what the term “living in peace” means. Nevertheless, Amnesty stands in solidarity with those on Death Row and stresses the importance of reaching out to those held in these conditions. His final point was to urge writers never to give up on a penfriend as silence from an inmate means they are in a bad place, so receiving letters is a vital link to maintain.
Before lunch, writers and co-ordinators met together in state groups, enabling everyone to catch up with state news and talk together in a relaxed environment. Lunch time provided an opportunity to purchase cards, notelets and other items made by inmates and writers. Raffle tickets, including those for a picture, hand-painted and donated by co-ordinator Erika Trueman, were also available.
Our afternoon speaker was Human Writes member Swithin Fry, who used an engaging and original method of telling us about his friendship with Tim Coleman in Ohio which began with them exchanging letters. Swithin dedicated his presentation - ‘Dear Tim: Echoes of Death Row’ - to Tim. Employing a mixture of dramatic techniques, he introduced us to Tim, giving us a clear idea of his austere living conditions. Swithin continued by describing in entertaining detail his first and unforgettable eight-hour visit with Tim, their first bonding hug (despite Tim being shackled) in the depths of the Chillicothe prison, Tim’s plight on the Row and Swithin’s ongoing attempts to see justice done for his friend, whom he believes to be innocent of the crime for which he was convicted. Swithin is fortunate in so far as he is able to exchange e-mails with Tim and also to have video-link with him (not many prisons as yet have these facilities). As his finale, Swithin played us a moving message from Tim himself, in which he thanked all those involved in Human Writes and expressed his belief that “love, faith and hope will turn back to light”.
To begin the final session of the day our traditional one minute’s silence was observed following the lighting of two candles - one in memory of friends on Death Row who are no longer with us and the other in acknowledgement and respect for victims of crimes and those close to them. Sue Fenwick then closed the conference, individually thanking all our speakers for their varied and very informative contributions to the day. Thanks were also expressed to Sonya Woodsend and Cath Casburn for organising another great conference and finally Sue thanked all office holders together with our members for their continued contribution and support to the organisation.
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