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Interview: Sue Fenwick, founder, Human Writes

18 April 2019

‘It’s very difficult to be given the date and time of your death’

Human Writes is a long-established organisation, founded in 2000 for the purpose of befriending prisoners on death row in the United States through letter-writing. I set it up with a friend, just for two states, but it got bigger and bigger in the ensuing months as other people joined us.

We have approximately 1400 members, men and women. There are currently about 2800 prisoners on death row in the US, and very many of these have Human Writes penfriends. Our minimum age for membership is 21 years, and it covers a large age span: some penfriends are still writing in their late eighties.

People join sometimes because they think they’ll be doing good in some way, and they’re surprised that they receive so much back. When my dad died, lots of friends supported me wonderfully, but it was humbling to receive kind letters from prisoners asking how I was doing for so many months afterwards.

The thing that surprised me most is the way the death-row systems and conditions vary so much from state to state, and the strength of spirit shown by many of those who are facing execution, and how they put so much into our friendships.

Every state with a death row has a Human Writes co-ordinator, who’s the main contact point for the penfriends. They know all the rules and issues about their particular state. We have regular correspondence with the prisoners in our US state as part of our role within the organisation. I also correspond with one prisoner, outside of my state responsibilities in Texas, on a more personal basis.

The prisons accept us because we respect their rules and don’t cause any difficulties — apart from the extra work in their mail rooms. If we took a political, religious, or anti-death-penalty stance as an organisation, that might affect our acceptability, but we’ve gained firm acceptance and have good relations with the US prisons.

Likewise, by not having a specific religious element, we’ve found that that encourages membership here from all walks of life, and different beliefs.

We also publish a newsletter three times a year, with news updates from each state by the co-ordinators, and original articles and artwork by prisoners. Some of the writing can be emotional, and some of the artwork is lovely — we like to encourage and include work from all levels of talent. The prisoners like to see their work in print, and sometimes send a copy to their families. If they, or others, had been able to see that talent in themselves earlier, they might not have ended up where they are.

Just having a penfriend to write to, someone who regards them as a human being, can bring a prisoner hope and self-belief. I can remember one prisoner telling me that the birthday card we had sent him was the first he had ever received.

At our annual conference, we light a candle for all the people who have been executed. We also light a candle for the victims as well — we never forget them.

Many US states have abolition groups, and many of these also support prisoners, although not necessarily through letter-writing.

Texas executes more prisoners than all the states put together. When I first became involved, I didn’t know about the death penalty. There’s no one on death row who’s rich, for example.

Looking at the childhoods and upbringing some of the prisoners have had, a chaplain there said to me it’s no surprise that they’ve gone down the wrong road. Many of them were abandoned as quite young children, and got into trouble just to survive.

Last month, on the evening of an execution in Texas, lawyers for the prisoner, who was a practising Buddhist, appealed to the Supreme Court against the decision that he could be attended at his execution only by a Christian or Muslim chaplain [News, 12 April]. After a delay of two hours beyond the scheduled time, the court granted a stay. A ruling has subsequently been issued that, while ministers/spiritual advisers will continue to be permitted to visit with a prisoner on the afternoon of his/her execution, they will have to remain in the adjacent viewing area during the process: none will now be permitted inside the execution chamber.

It’s very difficult to be given the date and time of your death, especially when you’re healthy, and some are told three or four months in advance. But some have been on death row more than 40 years, locked up 23 hours a day, never seeing or talking to anyone. I spoke to a prisoner on the phone in November before he was executed, and he said: “I’m ready. At least I won’t have to put up with this arthritis any more.”

Some are ready. They don’t want to carry on in that existence. You can’t call it living. When it gets to near the end, I have found that a few have a quiet acceptance, and just don’t want to go back if they have a stay of execution. Some do, and get another date, and go back and forth.

The execution of a penfriend is never an easy thing to accept, although we’re always aware that a penfriendship may, sadly, end in this way. Our members are always strongly supported by their state co-ordinators in the time leading up to, and following, an execution, and we have a good team of qualified counsellors who can be contacted at any time.

Support for prisoners at their execution varies considerably. Some have good and solid support of their families right to the end; but, sadly, others have been abandoned by their families, either on entry into the prison system or many years earlier.

I was with a Texas prisoner, at his request, at his execution. Standing a few feet away while a friend was legally killed was so unreal, and something I’ll never forget. In the days leading up to the execution, a little more of him seemed to die, and almost just a shell was left on his final day. At the end, his thoughts were more for me than for himself, and lying on the gurney just before the lethal drugs were administered, he smiled at me and gently said, “I’m OK.”

Another prisoner asked me to witness his execution, to support his wife. He wanted to wind down, and, in his last days, he was very cold. He told me he’d been living on bread and water, trying to do what Christ did. Again, there seemed very little left of his body or spirit by the last day.

I went to a church primary school; so I grew up in that environment. My children also attended church schools, and, in their earlier years, we regularly attended church and sang in the church choirs.

Now, I’m a legal officer in local government, working mainly with conveyancing cases on housing and large industrial units, together with sheltered-housing accommodation for elderly residents.

I love the sound of birdsong, or the tranquillity of total silence, which is rare these days.

Cruelty to others makes me angry, and especially to defenceless animals.

Peace makes me happiest, and understanding of others; being able to bring warmth and happiness into the lives of others.

The most demanding thing I’ve ever done was staying strong at the side of my younger son during the months of his terminal illness, encouraging hope when I knew in reality there was none.

Seeing individual acts of kindness, however small, gives me hope that goodness will prevail. It’s often hard to find goodness among so much negative news, but it is there.

If I was locked in a place of worship for a few hours, and could have any companion with me, I’d choose my father. He died more than 20 years ago now, but he was the most wonderful man I know, and I still miss him very much.

Sue Fenwick was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Further information about Human Writes can be found on their website www.humanwrites.org, or by emailing humanwritesuk@yahoo.co.uk.

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