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Last Updated: Thursday, 8 May, 2003, 10:29 GMT 11:29 UK
'My pen pals await execution'
Life Lines has 1,700 letter writers
Jan Arriens was so moved by a 1987 BBC film about a US death row prisoner, he wrote to the executed man's cellmates. The replies inspired him to found a group - now boasting 1,700 members - to correspond with condemned convicts.

It's so strange to wake up at six in the morning and know that a person you have been writing to is at that very moment being strapped into the electric chair.

You sit in bed and watch the second hand of the clock sweep around and you know that it is all over. One minute there was a fit, able-bodied person, the next minute they are dead in the name of the state.

Before watching Fourteen Days in May [about the final weeks of Mississippi death row inmate Edward Earl Johnson], I'd never been into having pen pals. Nor was I really actively against the death penalty.

'Vicious and cruel'

Sam Johnson, another condemned man in the documentary, said of the execution: "We are supposed to be vicious and cruel, but this goes beyond anything that anyone could ever do."

I was so moved by his words, and those of two other death row inmates, that I wrote to them. I just wanted them to know that they had been heard and I had no expectation they would reply. All three did.

Edward Earl Johnson on Death Row in 1987
Edward Earl Johnson's plight touched Mr Arriens
I was astonished by how articulate the replies were. What each had written was so rounded and utterly lacking in self-pity.

This sowed the seed of an idea. I thought there must be a need for these men to have some kind of contact with the outside.

I didn't know if Sam Johnson, Leo Edwards or John Irving were representative of death row prisoners, I thought the filmmakers might have chosen them for being especially articulate.

I had formed the normal stereotypes about what such people would be like. It came as a matter of some amazement to find that most prisoners had so much to offer.

'Stability at last'

They were not deranged serial killers, but utterly normal people who had been to the extremes. Many had come from very difficult backgrounds.

It was amazing how they grew, ironically, in the stable conditions of death row. It is often the first period of real stability many prisoners have known.

It's sad how some people only discover themselves while waiting for their execution. Some enter prison illiterate, and learn to read and write there. Only then do they discover that they're actually quite smart.

A US execution chamber
Your letter and feelings were of great importance and highly appreciated by myself and the others [on death row]
From Leo Edwards' first letter to Jan Arriens
People also develop emotionally. I met Leo Edwards in person in 1989. A few months prior to our meeting he had been due to be executed, but had been given a stay just 12 hours before he was scheduled to die. He heard about the postponement on the radio, since the officials hadn't even had the decency to tell him he wasn't going to be killed.

That had had a profound effect on him. He'd crossed some sort of line of acceptance and was no longer afraid of death. Talking to him was quite remarkable. His death sentence eventually was carried out.

When I began looking around for others to correspond with condemned inmates, I very carefully picked from the people I knew who I thought might be receptive.

'Appalled by the deprivation'

I had newly discovered Quakerism, so brought up the subject at a meeting. People were appalled by the deprivation and isolation of those on death row, and they suggested I widen my search for correspondents beyond the Quakers.

It is a problem to screen out applicants who want to write looking for romance or in search of some bizarre sort of glamour. We can't vet people, so we throw up barriers to ensure people understand exactly what they are committing themselves to.

Because of the deprivations of death row, the inmates can be very affected by the letters they receive and become dependent on them. Some correspondents hadn't bargained for the intensity of these relationships.

A US cell block
It's hard to imagine the psychological pressure these prisoners are under
Jan Arriens
Most correspondents are women, while most prisoners are men - which is an explosive mixture. These men get excited when a 300lb guard passes their cell, so when a female stranger writes to them, they can concoct all sorts of fantasies. I would do too in their situation.

That can often lead to a very difficult patch in the correspendence, but the woman has to hold firm. To some inmates, the idea that they can have a deep friendship with a woman that is not sexually charged is entirely new.

Another difficult phase of correspondence comes over the crimes for which the prisoners have been sentenced.

It's hard to imagine the psychological pressure these prisoners are under when they are faced with the state trying to take their lives. Some are very frightened that if they reveal their crimes their correspondent will stop writing.

It can be quite a relief when the reason they are on death row finally comes out, but it can also be a considerable shock for the correspondent.

Mr Arriens' group, Life Lines, holds its spring conference at The University of Manchester on Saturday, 10 May 2003.

Real Time gives people a chance to tell their own stories in their own words. If you've got something to say, click here.

'Best chance' for death row Scot
07 May 03  |  Scotland
Actress in death row plea
04 Sep 02  |  Scotland
Chatting as he went to the 'chair'
13 Mar 02  |  Americas

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