Recently, we have been marking LifeLines’ 25th anniversary. Over that time we have put over 5,000 people in this country in touch with condemned men and women.
The very first prisoner with whom I corresponded, in 1987, was a man in Mississippi called John Irving. His death sentence was later overturned and he was eventually released after 31 years in incarceration. For our conference last October, marking the anniversary, John sent the following message: ‘There are not very many people about whom I can say, “their presence and activity in my life, preserved my humanity and made my life better because they passed through it”. I can say this about those members of LifeLines who corresponded with me for most of the years that I was on the Row. LifeLines broke the isolation the government kept our humanity in. I and a number of others on death row, who didn’t get executed by the state of Mississippi, would have, except for the presence of Clive and LifeLines.’
Clive is Clive Stafford Smith, the British death row lawyer who represented Edward Earl Johnson whose execution in Mississippi in 1987 formed the subject of the award-winning BBC documentary Fourteen Days in May; it was this that got LifeLines started. Clive will also be well known as the founder and Director of Reprieve, which has done so much to bring to light the injustices in Guantánamo Bay and British complicity in rendition and torture.
In attempting to summarise what LifeLines has achieved in the 25 years of its existence, I can do no better than allow the prisoners on death row to speak for themselves.
‘I became in truth what many represent prisoners to be; a dangerous animal in a cage. What brought me back was contact with decent people… This may sound overly melodramatic, but I speak truly when I say they saved both my sanity, and my humanity.’
‘For the truly fortunate, those whose life-force burns hot and shines bright, if you will open your heart and extend yourself in love and friendship to one who is hopeless, there’s a chance you could re-connect that person to their life-force. And in essence, restore life where once it was lost. And as a human-being, it is one of the greatest things you’ll ever do.’
‘Every time a stranger reaches out to us, willing to befriend a convict in the direst of circumstances with something as simple as a kind word or an offer of friendship, can invigorate our sense of self-worth. For us, these are our own magical strings, helping us to escape our Labyrinth with the greatest of gifts. The one gift, that if we are blessed with it, can sustain us in the present and in our futures. The one gift, that when nutured, can never be lost or taken away. The one gift that will always help us remember ourselves. That one gift is hope.’
If corresponding with prisoners under sentence of death has taught us one thing, it is that each and every prisoner has a story to tell. They are more, as Clive told us early on, than a three-inch headline in the Sun. But in the same way that we at this end can have an unexpectedly profound effect upon those we correspond with, so also those condemned to death can, paradoxically, greatly enrich our lives. We are given a glimpse into how the human spirit can cope in the face of great adversity – an adversity that is in nearly all cases self-inflicted, making it if anything harder to cope with, as the remorse and the ‘if onlys’ come flooding in. Also, people often open up more quickly on paper than they do in person. In doing so, we are able to enter into some of the deeply felt but rarely shared areas touched on by the prisoners in the quotes above.
When I turned 70 recently, one of the most valued presents I received was from Mike Lambrix, on death row in Florida. Incredibly, he has been there now for 30 years. We have been corresponding since 1991. Back then he wrote:
‘A simple plastic mirror hangs upon the door frame of my death row cell, faded with the age of years gone by. I could easily replace it with a new one, but I don’t want to. That inanimate object has become my friend. I can look within this reflection and see a person I’m still coming to know. When I first arrived and was placed within the confines of my solitary crypt, condemned to an existence of a seemingly endless state of judicial limbo, we had no mirrors. For reasons beyond my personal comprehension, any type of reflective object was deemed to be a threat to the security of this institution.
‘For years I did not see myself, with the exception of a few opportunities stolen along the passage of time. But it was just as well, as even when confronted with the reflection of my own being, I couldn’t recognise the person who looked back. It was a stranger I did not know, and could not understand. And it scared me.
‘My true friend, the mirror, is a patient being. Willingly, it has given me the time to look deep within myself, grasping in almost maniacal desperation for the person I knew existed beyond that shell of emotional void.’
It was the mirror that Mike sent me. His words bring out graphically the way in which prisoners condemned to death are forced to confront themselves in circumstances of extraordinary isolation, when outside support can be – well, a lifeline.
As one of the prisoners has put it: ‘I feel safe in speaking for all prisoners, when I say thank you to all who take time to write to someone behind bars. For any of you who ever feel your letters are “not enough”, you have my word that you are doing far more than you realize. You are not just writing letters. You are changing lives.’
Jan Arriens, LifeLines founder