One of the most vivid memories from my childhood is a small, slightly time-worn and sun-faded polaroid of a a mixed-raced man in his mid-20s, handsome and healthy, with the first signs of five o’clock shadow and a cautious smile that hints at an imperceptible private amusement. It sat on a bookcase in the living room of the flat where I was raised by my aunt and grandmother, and would hardly catch your eye unless you were looking for it.
I've never met the man. Neither has anyone in my family. His name is Gene* and he was on Death Row in Texas, having been convicted before his 18th birthday, sometime in the late 1990s.
He was part of our life many thousands of miles away in both London, then Scotland, because my aunt wrote to him for years, even after his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment following a Supreme Court ruling. She, like many others, was a volunteer writer for Human Writes, a UK-based charity that links American Death Row prisoners with correspondents — or “writers” in the charity’s parlance — from across the pond. For almost 20 years, the charity has have worked towards the same, unwavering goal: an offer of friendship to those living within a particularly inhuman method of incarceration.
Human Writes is not unique, nor is it the first British organization of its kind. The civil-rights charity LifeLines formed in 1988 after its founder, Jan Arriens, found himself intensely moved by the BBC Documentary 14 Days In May, which charts the aftermath of one young man’s execution in Mississippi. In 2000, controversy erupted when Sue Fenwick, a senior member of LifeLines, married her pen pal, Bobby “Tenessee” Lusk, which caused a schism in the small world of prison writing. Fenwick joined Human Writes soon after and remains a key figure in its work to this day. The charity is entirely self-funded, with membership fees covering its essential operating costs, while all of the key office holders are volunteers, including the “state coordinators” who act as the liaison between Human Writes and each U.S. state with the death penalty. They are also the main point of contact for writers in the UK, there to provide support to both sides of the pen-pal relationship.
My aunt had seen Human Writes advertised in The Spectator magazine, she recalled when we spoke about Gene over the phone. It’s been a while since she thought of him, she later told me. “I corresponded with him regularly for several years and sent him money at Christmas time. I rattled on a lot about our life, and he enjoyed stories of your teenage experiences — a bit different from his, I think. He was still a very young man when we were exchanging letters and quite frightened at times. I remember he was frightened about leaving the Polunsky Unit — Death Row — for the main body of the prison, and that he told me about being insulted by some of the guards when the Supreme Court ruled that his execution was off.”
Luke Templeman has been a writer with Human Writes for seven years now, and has ran its media relations on a volunteer basis for the past three. For the duration of his time with the charity, he has been pen pals Florida. “It breaks my heart, how he made a decision when he was much younger, which resulted in him doing something terrible,” Templeman told me. “The consequences of that are his life now. He’s exceptionally intelligent. All of that is just lost to the world. [But] it’s heartening, for both of us, that he has this outlet.”
Human Writes has never been a campaign, or lobbying group. This was a strategic decision, as Templeman said. Unlike with the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty or Amnesty International, it does not express abolitionist sentiment. It makes a certain kind of operational sense, not to potentially antagonize the prison authorities they rely on for access to prisoners. It has no official religious affiliation, nor does it seek to minister. There’s little encouragement for writers to ask about inmates’ crimes, though what people choose to reveal is up to them.
“There are plenty of other groups that have a stance on the death penalty, both for and against. That is not what we do or get involved in and is ground very well covered elsewhere,” Templeman said. We do not have a view [on that]. What we do have is a belief in the importance of the mental well-being of the people who are living within this situation.”
Though it varies from state to state, the average inmate on Death Row typically remains there for well over a decade, with a significant number having been there for more than 20 years. In 2018, 61 year-old David Earl Miller was executed in Tennessee after spending 36 years on Death Row, the longest gap between sentencing and execution recorded that year. Conditions for inmates are brutally harsh by design. Isolation from other prisoners, exclusion from educational programs, sharply restricted visitation rights, limited opportunities for exercise and 23 hours a day spent alone in a cell. It is a double punishment: the inhumanity of solitary confinement added on to the looming death sentence itself. Many are bound with complex appeals and efforts to commute their sentences to life without parole. The companionship offered by pen-palship can be one small human mercy, if nothing else.
“It certainly gives you a very different perspective on life. Your life is full of movement and change, but they’re in their position, which is the opposite.”
One common objection from those who are queasy with the charity’s work is an appeal to the memory of the victims. How, the argument usually runs, can it be appropriate to prioritize the humanity of people who have committed such inhuman acts and erase the victims and their loved ones? The Human Writes answer is simple: It doesn’t. Candles are lit every year at the organization’s annual conference in memory of all those that have lost their lives; inmates and victims alike.
My aunt knew what Gene was inside for, though it was never an issue even as his constant proclamations of innocence rankled her. “It was clear he’d been bad. He'd shot somebody,” she said. “I made a point of never asking for details of his offense, it was irrelevant. But neither did I go along with him when he claimed he was innocent.”
The demand for new writers often outpaces the number of new volunteers. One of the key requirements is consistency. Though there are many compassionate people in the world, there are perhaps fewer who can commit to keeping a regular correspondence. Life has its way of throwing unexpected curve balls and frantic moments, for those on the outside at least. Life on Death Row, on the other hand, is in a state of suspended animation, and this is often one of the most difficult psychological gaps to breach for both correspondents.
“We have to make sure people are aware that this is a commitment that you really can’t shirk on. I think people generally understand that and get why that’s the case,” Templeman said. “They also need to realize that the relationship might end when a prisoner is eventually executed. It’s something that can’t be ignored.”
My aunt’s correspondence with Gene didn’t end when his sentence was commuted to life in prison. “I wrote to him for a couple of years after he was transferred from the Polunsky Unit to the Ferguson Unit after a period in solitary,” she said. But “the correspondence just came to a natural end.”
For Templeman, the pen-pal relationship necessarily contains a tension, as the writer is narrating events to a person who has done the same things over and over for years. “We have people that have been writing for a very long time. It certainly gives you a very different perspective on life,” he said. “Your life is full of movement and change, but they’re in their position, which is the opposite. You’re moving forward and telling them about your marriage and family, and everything else. That is, hopefully, an emotional support for them.”
My aunt knew what Gene was inside for, though it was never an issue even as his constant proclamations of innocence rankled her.
Though perhaps not for all. It’s another complication, knowing how much to reveal and how much to elide and gloss over when dealing with people who have not have seen a world outside their cells for many years or decades. Is there a point at which withholding is the greater kindness? It’s a question that many Human Writers have to grapple with on a regular basis. Like so much else, it depends on the individual relationship.
There are the obvious potential pitfalls. Readymade opportunities for oversharing or crassness. What is the right amount to give away about a recent summer holiday, for instance? Does the person at the other end really want to hear the breathless details of a particularly thrilling trip to Europe? The only correct answer is a personal one. I’m told that most inmates are keen on the full picture and genuinely want to hear about what’s happening in your life, far away from prison walls, something that’s usually positive for both sides.
This bind is something that colors my own memories of Gene. Children are not always subtle creatures and I wanted answers to the obvious questions. I’d ask my aunt the details of what he’d done to be there and she’d ask if there was anything I wanted to reveal about my own life, chocked full of all the typical youthful embarrassments. I remember receiving a mild ribbing from Gene after sharing my early adolescent infatuation with Public Enemy, that extended over several letters.
Talking over all of this through brought back plenty of memories for my aunt, as well as the thought that it might well be time to reconnect with Human Writes and offer up her services again as a correspondent. It’s something I’ve started to seriously consider, too. After all, I make my living by writing; an occasionally enjoyable, often entirely maddening pursuit. At times it’s easy enough to question what good it has ever done, for myself anyone else. Human Writes offers a clear corrective to these thoughts, and a reminder of the small, unpredictable joys that can come from the act of putting pen to paper.
*name has been changed