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Letters to and from the edge

by
14 June 2024

Rosemary Power responded to a scriptural injunction

Alamy

Electric chair behind bar restraints

Electric chair behind bar restraints

IN 2006, I came home from a hospital operation to find a get-well card, signed by all 40 of the death-row inmates of an American state. That card must have cost something to those who have so little: the sacrifice of small pleasures, such as coffee. It must have taken some signing; for — with lives so tightly controlled, and association limited — it took a while to circulate. One man, Rocky, was executed two weeks later by paralysing, agonising, drugs that are banned for use on animals.

Only one of the signatories was known to me: Twin, a penfriend of the past 28 years. By then, he had been on death row for more than 20 years; now, he is in the main prison, with no chance of parole until he is 88. But this, at least, provides some outlets: legal knowledge; and opportunities to mentor younger inmates informally, or referee basketball matches — and, as ever, he prays for others.

 

OUR correspondence was a slow affair at the start. The charity LifeLines gives volunteers the name of the next person on their list. I wrote, and heard nothing for six months, but was advised to continue with cards — of wildlife, birds, and flowers. Then I got a stilted but not unfriendly letter: he had received all the cards and was deciding whether to write back. We continued to correspond each month, knowing that some letters never got through, owing to petty changes in the endless rules.

After ten years, we had, for a brief period, occasional short phone conversations. The man, whose writing was laboured (education had not figured much in his youth), was articulate, humorous, and patient. I sent him small amounts of money, to cover basics; sometimes a book, direct from the publisher. More recently, I was able to email him. I wrote on my friendships, work, and travel. He wrote about prison life: rules (in case of a fire, wet your towel and lie by the crack under your cell door); and his family.

When his death sentence was overturned, I discovered online what he had never complained of: the horrors of his childhood, and the fact that, in the drug-driven frenzy of his crime, he had ushered a small child out of harm’s way — a child who was later called to testify against him.

His aunt, who had three nephews in prison, kept faithful contact, and we occasionally spoke, until she died. Later, after hearing from him only once in more than a year, as his depression had taken over, I learned of his daughter — who had a serious illness — and his inability to see her; and of the death of his brother in prison. I had a brief exchange of letters with his sister, who had renewed contact with him: “He’s done some mistakes, but he’s a good man.”

At Twin’s request, I wrote for a time to the 24-year-old who shared his cell, and, although a Roman Catholic, kept Ramadan with him, sacrificially: as a non-Muslim, there was no end-of-fast meal for him; so they shared the one.

 

THERE were other penfriends, in different states. Two decided that I was not for them — one of the few rights that death-row inmates retain is making such choices. One was suddenly executed, dying with dignity, declaring his innocence. Another — now a friend of seven years, and the first white man among my penfriends — has been on death row for 48 years.

In the early days, unusually, he got books to study for his school exams; locked in as always, the invigilator sitting outside, while the other men kept remarkably quiet, he got good results. He reads, discusses films, poetry, politics, and the fact that — since his state is “clearing out the old ones” with the last of its stock of drugs — his time may come soon.

When they came recently for another old-timer, he fought; so the guards pepper-sprayed him, and then washed down his subdued body in the communal showers. Meanwhile, after eight months of attempts, I have permission to video-call him — except that the system is now changing.

 

MANY inmates are mentally ill, while some have learning disabilities, and many have no one who keeps in contact. All emails and videocalls are charged: American prisons are an industry. Some guards are decent, if overworked; and some enjoy exercising petty power, to delay or disrupt.

LifeLines, founded in Cambridge in 1988 and now global, is the oldest of the organisations linking penfriends with prisoners on death row. A new member is assigned the person at the top of the waiting-list. Once you’re writing, you normally continue for as long as the penfriend wants, sometimes making a choice to be there at the execution.

Why do it? In my case, it was a response to the horror that I felt, as a young person, hearing of the execution of a young man, James Hanratty; and this was followed by years of living through the Troubles and realising that, had legal executions still been possible, the impact in Northern Ireland, and in mainland Britain and Ireland, would have been still more destructive.

Then there is the haunting requirement of the scriptures that we visit prisoners — something that is not physically possible for everyone; but, today, there are alternative ways of recognising the humanity of others, whatever they may have done, both to others and to themselves. Usually, there was a crime that caused suffering, which requires acknowledgement, and which the penfriend, who is so much more than their worst self, generally respects.

 

WHAT happens? We humanise each other. People change; and the charity’s magazine shows that some inmates are talented sketchers, poets, and writers. Human creativity can flourish anywhere, however basic the equipment. I have gained friendships, and a partner in prayer. Common interests may be limited, but we are bound by faith and friendship. There are glimpses of resurrection — the knowledge that no one is outside the love and grace of God; that the Jesus of that first Easter morning can walk through every situation, and be invited into every life. Nothing can separate us from the love of God; and nothing can justify the taking of life from a fellow human being.

The kindness that I experienced is not unique. On another death row — perhaps more than one — a new arrival receives a “welcome bag” from the other inmates, of anything they can contribute: toothpaste, chocolate, soap. The only way to repay kindness is to pass it on.

 

Rosemary Power is a member of the Iona Community. Her most recent publications are Image and Vision: Reflecting with the Book of Kells (Veritas, 2022) and The Gift of Stillness: Iona pilgrim paths (Wild Goose 2024).

lifelines-uk.org.uk

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