This year the conference was once again held at the Royal National Hotel in London and it was attended by approximately one hundred and fifty writers, co-ordinators and guests. This time, however, we used the Galleon Suite with a table layout, which was hailed as a great improvement on the room we had last year. Each state had its own table, with smaller states doubling up and this gave a cosy feel to the proceedings. Many people had positive comments about the very friendly atmosphere, which, fortunately, was not spoilt by the group in the next room and their music (rather loud at times)!
Unfortunately our patron, Charles Wheeler, was unable to attend, for the lovely reason that his daughter was getting married. He sent a message of good wishes for the day.
Katy Amberley, who kept things moving along well through the morning, introduced the day.
Our first speaker was Brenda Gamlin who gave the audience an insight into the organisation of Human Writes. She explained how prospective members respond mainly to advertising and word of mouth and how, encouragingly, the membership continues to grow. She then spoke about the co-ordinators' roles and those of the other office holders within the organisation and concluded by saying that "I have a dream, that one day the death penalty in the US will be no more, and on that day the reason for the founding of Human Writes will no longer exist".
Caroline Dipple, the co-ordinator for Mississippi, then spoke about visiting the prisons. She stressed that Human Writes does not actively promote visits and that it is the choice of the individuals concerned. She emphasised, however, that anyone wishing to visit their friend on the row should check all of the rules for visits with their co-ordinator. Caroline told us of some of her own experiences of visiting prisoners which held many good memories.
The next item was a harrowing subject. Sue Fenwick talked about the two executions that she has witnessed. We listened to this with very mixed feelings - with respect for Sue for being there and being able to stand up and talk about it; with compassion for her, the prisoners and their families during their final few hours; with disgust that this practice still continues in the 21st century in a "civilised" society. Sue concluded her talk with a questions and answers session.
The next item on the agenda was State Groups which gave the co-ordinators and writers a chance to discuss any issues about which they had concerns and share happy and positive ideas too. On a personal note, I was delighted to be able to meet some of the Pennsylvania writers for the first time.
After lunch Sheila Michell, the co-ordinator for Illinois, took over from Katy and kept the proceedings running smoothly through the afternoon.
We all sat back in great expectancy for the talk that was certainly to be the highlight of the day. Clive Stafford Smith, the Legal Director of Reprieve, spoke to us for an hour about his work, in the US and at Guantanamo Bay. He reminisced about his 25 years of visiting and representing death row prisoners. He said that he was very proud of his association with Human Writes because of the power of letters, which gave the prisoners dignity. He added that we, who write to prisoners, get more out of the relationship than they do.
Clive told us several stories, reciting them with great clarity and humour. He is a superb speaker with great charisma, and the audience listened with rapt attention. Contrary to Brenda's earlier comment, Clive said that when the death penalty ends (see his article in the last newsletter), then our job would really be starting and that the prisoners will still need us.
Those of you who have seen the documentary "Fourteen Days In May", in which Clive appeared, will be pleased I am sure, but not surprised, that it was placed in the top twenty of the greatest documentaries voted for by those who make film and television documentaries.
Clive concluded by talking about the devastation in Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina. He said, and I quote - "The Lord Almighty is not good at choosing where He sends His hurricanes: He knows where George Bush's ranch is"!
We then took a short break for tea. During that time the raffle was held, run by Moira Brown and Sue Mitchell.
This was followed by Robin Woodsend's talk on the media and advertising in general with regard to promoting what we do and attracting more members.
The day concluded with the lighting of two candles, a minute's silence to remember our friends in prison, a short talk by four writers on their experiences, and excerpts from some prisoners' letters.
Everyone seemed to feel that it was a most interesting and enjoyable day. I overheard some members say that they are already looking forward to our next conference in 2006.
I would like to say thank you to all the people involved in making it such a lovely day, especially to Sonya Woodsend who had the unenviable task of organising the conference.
Report by Mary Vaughan
(We would like to thank all those who contributed to the special collection on the day for The Louisiana Capital Assistance Centre whose offices were damaged by Hurricane Katrina. We are pleased to let you know that a cheque for £157.71 was sent to Clive after the conference).