There are many people on Death Row in the US. They spend many years awaiting execution. Many are abandoned by family and friends and have little contact with the outside world. Letters can be a real lifeline. British Quaker Jan Arriens founded Lifelines in 1988, to write such letters.
Jan Arriens writes: In November 1987 I saw a BBC documentary called Fourteen Days in May about the execution of Edward Earl Johnson in Mississippi. This quietly spoken, thoughtful young man was widely liked and respected. No one, from the warden to the Chaplains to the other prisoners, wanted him to die. The agonising inevitability of his execution was dreadful enough, but as well as this there was the totally unexpected humanity of the other prisoners interviewed in the film. I wrote to thank them for what they had said. All three replied. Their names were Leo Edwards, Sam Johnson and John Irving.
The letters were articulate and deeply felt. I soon realised that I could not write properly to all three and shared them with friends. LifeLines had begun.
Amnesty International enthusiastically supported the idea of a letter-writing organisation. My Quaker meeting organised a fundraising event, which led to an article in the local newspaper, the Cambridge Evening News. From that I learned that Clive Stafford-Smith, the English lawyer in the BBC film, lived nearby. He is now the patron of Lifelines.
An article in the Quaker weekly, The Friend, in 1988 with excerpts from Sam Johnson's letters attracted 25 letter writers. The local article produced a similar number of volunteers. … Clive suggested names of prisoners for us to write to in Mississippi, Georgia and Alabama. We started our newsletter, The Wing of Friendship.
In 1990 we held our first conference. The speaker was the producer and director of Fourteen Days in May, Paul Hamann. That led to an article in a national newspaper (the Guardian) in response to which over 200 people volunteered to write.
Thus Lifelines came into being through an extraordinary series of coincidences, with the right people coming forward at the right time. There was a sense of rightness and a remarkable flow of energy. Above all, however, LifeLines survived because of what the prisoners brought to it. As in the film, we discovered that the discards of US society were human beings who, precisely because they had been through so much, had a great deal to offer and were longing to share.
Clive Stafford-Smith writes: In the early evening hours of May 20, 1987, I was driving towards Parchman Penitentiary, in Mississippi. … it was looking increasingly as if our efforts on behalf of Edward Earl Johnson would be in vain and he would die in the execution chamber that night. I found this difficult to grasp, as the Edward I knew was the antithesis of an irredeemable killer.
The physical sense of hugging Edward later that night, and saying goodbye inside the gas chamber, has never left me. In his documentary, Paul Hamann captured the uncontrolled anger I felt at the subsequent press conference. At that moment I felt, in Auden's words that "nothing now can ever come to any good".
Fortunately I was wrong. LifeLines grew directly out of Edward's death, and it would make him proud to know that his senseless death achieved so much good.
Working with the condemned does not win popularity contests. Your Death Row friend is so hated that society wants to strap him down and take his life. Yet it is the very fact that our clients are so swamped by hate that we choose to get involved.
Those who are most hated are often the most powerless among us, and those without power are those in the most need of help. Morally, we are all obliged to do what we can for them. Writing letters to those on Death Row may seem a very small contribution, but it is not. When I am present for my client's execution, I can only lend him dignity in that most terrible moment. LifeLines members who stick by their friends provide dignity and humanity for years on end. Over the years, I cannot count the number of times my clients have thanked me for putting them in touch with a LifeLines friend, nor can I relay everything they have said about what it means to them. I can say, however, what I believe Edward Johnson would say, if only he could: that there is no project with which I have been prouder to have an association.