The second Human Writes conference took place at the Royal National Hotel, Central London on 2nd October, bringing together approximately 130 people of various backgrounds, but with one uniting interest in common: a commitment to writing to people on death row in the United States.
The proceedings were opened by the co-founders of Human Writes, Mandy Hampson and Sue Fenwick. Sue described vividly how the organisation began in February 2000, and how it had grown from providing friends for people on death row in California and Texas to cover all the states with the death penalty in the United States. Publication of the Newsletter has increased from 500 to 2,500 copies, and Human Writes now has approximately 1,300 members.
Sue went on to explain that the purpose of Human Writes is to befriend people on death row through letter-writing. It is hoped one day to see Human Writes develop to the extent that there is no one on death row waiting for a penfriend. Human Writes has become well known internationally and several prominent people actively encourage and support the organisation. She commended everybody for their dedication; UK writers, state co-ordinators, money order co-ordinator, publicity team, membership secretary and treasurer, and made particular mention of our Amerian friends who gave us so much more than we would ever imagine.
The second item of the day was our guest speaker: Mary Vaughan had given us an excellent introduction to Nick Yarris in the Spring Newsletter and did so again at the conference, and it was fascinating to have the details filled in by Nick himself. It is difficult to imagine surviving 8,750 days in solitary confinement, with the first 730 days in silence, and more than 5,000 days (14 years) without touching another person. Nick described how he was married in handcuffs - a marriage which survived 10 years - and then how he became a global communicator, corresponding with people all over the world in his bid to defeat morally his gaolers, turning whatever deprivation he suffered into a challenge, and reading thousands of books to keep his mind alert.
Finally he explained how he was exonerated by DNA testing of the crime for which he had been wrongly convicted. Nick was the first death row prisoner to request DNA testing in order to establish his innocence. However, it took him 15 years to get the test that then led to him finally being liberated - after seven months in a worse kind of solitary confinement, while his sentence for escaping from Pennsylvanian officials was reduced from 30 to 17 years, against which were credited the 22 years spent falsely imprisoned. Incredible logic!
Now Nick is free but homeless and penniless since he is entitled to no compensation, nor any welfare or healthcare provision - which he would have received if he had been guilty and released on parole. Nick survives by selling DVDs about his case; if you would be interested in buying one, please email him by clicking here.
Nick went on to speak about the ineffective nature of Pennsylvania's judicial system. The state condones the death sentence, and 245 people are currently on death row there. Pennsylvania has executed four people in 25 years, and out of every 10 appeals, six are reversals. All this, Nick explained is to create the image of a state that is "tough on crime". Nick is dedicating his life to fighting the death penalty and has been promoting this cause in the UK and across Europe over the past month.