The proceedings were chaired by Caroline Dipple, who welcomed all our guests, including a number of writers new to our conference, and went on to introduce two speakers from Prisoners Abroad, a non-judgemental organisation, partly funded by the Foreign Office, supporting British prisoners incarcerated abroad both during their imprisonment and after their return to UK. The first speaker was Harriette Douglas, herself a member of Human Writes. Her Missouri penfriend, Reginald, sent an appreciative message of thanks and support to us all, concluding with the words “I love the work of Human Writes”. Harriette explained that PA supports some 1,600 British people imprisoned abroad. The organisation sends free-post envelopes, language books and other reading material, grants for medical treatment, survival medicines as well as running a penfriend scheme. Prisoners Abroad also operates a help line for families and friends in the UK with regional support days. Their support continues for ex-prisoners when they return to UK in the form of assistance with accommodation, travel grants and work preparation programmes. These programmes are the special concern of our second speaker, Adrian Bailey. Adrian is an award winning trainer. His most recent award was that of Advisor of the Year 2017, from ERSA (The Employment Related Services Association). Adrian opened with an account of his own life story. Born in Britain, he went to the US at an early age. Living in a dysfunctional family, and not settling into the school system, he found himself on the streets of New York. One thing led to another until eventually he was in prison on a murder charge. That was in 1995, the year the death penalty was reinstated in New York. Adrian and others in a similar situation found themselves being treated as Death Row inmates, although they had not been to trial, simply because the prison staff were anticipating this eventual sentence. Adrian experienced abuse and humiliation within the prison system. The men were taunted with the threat of the ultimate punishment in the electric chair at Sing Sing Correctional Facility. As it turned out, this cruel oppression had been totally misplaced for Adrian since he was eventually convicted of manslaughter and given an eighteen-year sentence. Those years saw a dramatic change in him, but he found it difficult to accept the help offered by Prisoners Abroad when he was finally repatriated. However, he had learned the satisfaction to be found in helping others and he soon had a job in the UK; in fact, during his first years here he got through thirty jobs before returning to Prisoners Abroad to deliver a motivational programme getting ex-offenders into work. Adrian is now in the process of producing a book relating to employment The G’s Guide to Getting a Job. He concluded by saying how much he had enjoyed the experience of being with us, and sending a message to all HW members “Thank you for all your hard work and humanity. Please continue to carry the torch and shine your light on the world. You are true humanitarians”.
The third speaker of the morning was our old friend from San Francisco, Dr Pablo Stewart. The first point that Pablo made was that writing letters is one way of helping inmates avoid the slippery slope to insanity. Pablo gave an interesting update of his work in this past year, explaining that he is currently working on mental health provision in the correctional facilities of California, Illinois, Arizona and soon Nebraska. He picked up points made by Adrian about the use of intimidation and control of inmates, giving the example of Stateville in Illinois where, although the death penalty was abolished in 2011, the gurney is still extant and the therapy rooms for group sessions are just outside the former execution room. Pablo moved on to the current situation in the US and how, although as yet there has been no impact on the Federal Judicial System, he fears that eventually the virtual moratorium on executions through the Obama era will come to an end. He then updated us on various states and individuals including the story of Donnie Allen (DJ) Hulett of Georgia Atlanta who had taken his own life despite the efforts of his attorney to challenge his sentence.
The conference divided into State Group meetings at mid-day, followed by a lunch break, which gave people a chance to chat with their co-ordinators and other writers, buy raffle tickets, merchandise, notelets and Human Writes writing accessories etc.
We reconvened at 2.00pm for our afternoon speaker who was Professor David R. Dow, Cullen Professor of Law at Houston Law Centre. David works with his team of pro bono defence attorneys specialising in habeas corpus law and appeals for those facing the death penalty in Texas. He began by explaining how he first got interested in habeas corpus law and the death penalty after he had visited Death Row, then in the Ellis Unit, way back in 1988. There he met Carl Johnson whom he represented until his execution in 1995. It was this experience which made David realise the double standards operating in the judicial system with one for the rich and another for the poor. He also realised that when cases were properly looked into there were often mitigating factors which he considered should be taken into account. He had realised that the death penalty is not consistently handed down and that there is a quality of randomness dependent on jury, defence team, the colour of the person killed and often justices are not even aware that they are being prejudiced.
David also realised the human element of the death penalty, seeing inmates visiting with their children and meeting families of those convicted. He spoke movingly of Robert Pruett with whom he has been working closely. We learned of Robert’s early years, how he had come into the prison system under the Law of Parties and his subsequent transfer to Texas Death Row. David has continued to work tirelessly for Robert, for whom an execution date has been set.
David then went on to the talk about a specific aspect, that of the ‘volunteer’ - the prisoner who asks to be killed. Volunteering actually presents a legal issue since assisting a suicide is illegal in the US. David divided those who make the decision to volunteer into three categories - firstly, those who are mentally ill and for whom conditions on the Row are a likely contributory factor. Secondly, the moralists - those who are genuinely remorseful and see their own death as atonement for their actions. As an example of this David read an extract from a letter sent by Steven Renfro to Sue Fenwick in 1998 where he had written “I believe this is the best way I can pay for my crime.” And thirdly there is the fatalist who has studied the statistics and the low rate of successful appeals owing to the high fences of the legal system. This is the person who says to his lawyers “You’re going to lose and I’m being tortured“: they would rather die tomorrow than live many more years in hell. So what should HW penfriends do in any of these circumstances? The most important thing, David clarified, is to be a friend and offer support as we would to any other friend, respecting our penfriend and his wishes, since lawyers are not morally entitled to support their clients in this course of action. David summed up with the comment that he considers human relationships to be the most important aspect of anyone’s life.
The final session of the day began with our traditional lighting of two candles - one in memory of all those executed and the second for the victims of crime. This was followed by a minute of silence. Our founder, Sue Fenwick, then thanked all our speakers for their thought-provoking and superb contributions to the day, and Sonya Woodsend our conference organiser.
Sue spoke briefly about the work of Human Writes during this past year, with special mention of Brenda Gamlin and Helen Speight, whose deaths in May had been a very sad loss to the organisation. The resultant role changes were briefly outlined and sincere thanks expressed to the office holder team who had ensured that things had continued to run smoothly following the loss of Brenda and Helen. The final thanks was to our members whose steadfast support of Human Writes and to their penfriends has always ensured the strength and continued growth of the organisation.
Report by Sheila Michell