Lifelines Autumn Conference 2009, London

On Saturday 17th October I made my way to the Amnesty International Human Rights Action Centre in London UK for my first ever participation in a Lifelines Conference. I’ve been writing to my penpal on Death Row since May of this year and it’s going really well, so I was keen to meet fellow writers, State coordinators and committee members, put faces to names and swap stories and advice. The icing on the cake for the day was the agenda of speakers and I knew as soon as I had registered this was going to be something completely new and eye-opening for me.

The day was hosted by Lifelines Founder, Jan Arriens. I’d taken along my copy of ‘Welcome to Hell’, which is bit like a Lifelines Bible – it absolutely sets the scene for the type of correspondence one might expect when befriending a Death Row prisoner, and I managed to grab Jan during the lunchbreak and ask him to sign my rather battered copy. Proceedings were punctual, friendly, and one thing I particularly liked was that the four guest speakers on the day were given plenty of time to tell their story, there was no pressure to finish and in the case of our two eyewitness guests, they each had over an hour, which felt like they could really relax into relating to us their experiences and learnings in the way most comfortable to them. This made listening and learning a real pleasure. As a newcomer to the whole arena, I have many, many questions in my own mind, and feeling a little like a fish out of water, I was watchful for anything that I didn’t particularly understand, believe or which simply, for one reason or another, might not ring true. By the end of the day, I realised that I had been rapt throughout, and was entirely comfortable – if not with the sometimes harrowing, sometimes infuriating, content of the speakers’ tales, but with the authenticity and genuine emotion which each one of them brought to bear.
First, we heard from Sally Rowen, Legal Director for the Death Penalty at Reprieve. Reprieve is a charitable organisation which investigates and represents the rights of condemned and convicted British prisoners around the world. Sally’s office has grown from just two people to some ten now working to represent over 30 prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, in addition to numerous British nationals facing the death penalty. As well as the matter of potentially flawed identification, arrest and conviction, Reprieve recognises that some of these prisoners have NO access to legal, moral or practical support in country, and in many cases, the UK does not even know that these people are languishing in prison and in some cases utterly without the means of communication. Through their contacts and increasing presence in prison institutions and camps around the world, Reprieve is getting a much better picture of just how many UK citizens are incarcerated outside of the UK and aims to provide assistance to as many as resources allow.
“I didn’t think such an organization existed. I always thought that we all were “a no value prisoner”. Thank you for providing hope.”
Virendra Govin, a British man on Death Row in California
One of the efforts ongoing in relation to the US death penalty is Reprieve’s EU National investigation. There is a plan to establish exactly what constitutes ‘nationality’ in each of the EU member states, so that this information can be fed into a massive survey and cross-referenced as far as possible against each of the 3000+ US Death Row inmates. The purpose of this is to establish whether any more of these qualify for assistance and support on the grounds of EU national status. It’s obviously only the tip of the iceberg as EU law cannot be brought to bear on US territory, however, for some prisoners, just knowing that someone has acknowledged their existence and that they have some form of communication channel with people who have an interest in their case is SOMETHING.
Erwin James
Erwin (profile here) writes a column for the Guardian newspaper in the UK. His unique perspective as journalist is that he is a former convict who served 20 years of a life sentence, and was released in 2004. His mission is to be the authentic voice of the prisoner now he is on the outside, and to educate the public – and the young and future policy-makers and educators in particular – on what needs to change in the penal system in order for it to work better. This sounds super-simplistic when I try and tell it back. Erwin’s story – of his descent into crime and conviction, and his subsequent renewal and regeneration as a human being, is complex, life-affirming stuff. Hearing from Erwin was a reassurance to his audience of letter-writers that having people who give a shit and are able to give back a sense of value to the ‘scum’ that the rest of civilised society wants to forget is not just humane, but is a key element of rehabilitation; in the case of a life sentence, is a VITAL piece of rehabilitation. Erwin’s ‘lightbulb moment’ was the realisation while in prison, that he had a forgotten talent for English and writing, which prison visitors then encouraged him to nurture. A-Grade success at GCE O-level, followed by further study and a degree subsequently paved the way for a man who had previously faced total detachment from society to gain the skills, contacts and confidence he needed to ultimately face the outside world as a genuine contributor.
ipno (Innocence Project New Orleans): Emily Maw
Loved this girl! Emily is a British lawyer who works with prisoners in Louisiana and Mississippi, to identify, investigate and resolve cases of wrongful conviction. As Director of ipno, Emily also helps give prominence to the issue of mistakes being made and ignored by the criminal justice system. Since 2001, ipno has secured the release of 15 innocent prisoners. Two of these served 27 and a half years in prison before finally getting their innocence proven and their convictions overturned. Emily explained that the American judicial system cares so little for potential miscarriage of justice ( the lawyers have got their numbers of convictions in the bag, right, why worry any more?), that even once a prisoner IS proven innocent, it can take years of effort to actually get that person released and back out into free society. ipno focusses not on condemned prisoners, but on LWOP (life without parole) convicts, since a LWOP sentence means there is NO State representation available after the Direct Appeal stage is exhausted. So once a conviction is secured, there is no funding for prisoners, who often come from the most poverty-ridden quarters of society, via the State, to re-consider aspects of the case itself, since t
he Direct Appeal looks only at technical aspects of the judicial process. So these people utterly rely on the likes of Emily and Innocence Project to carry out whatever investigation might be possible to secure a reprieve. No wonder that ipno is completely swamped with requests for assistance. And the stats on false convictions in Louisiana alone make you shiver when you consider just how many under-represented people have ended up in jail, facing mind-blowingly long sentences and conditions, often with hard labour, and almost certainly death in jail, since LWOP means precisely that. Not to mention the innocent people who continue to face execution.

John Thompson, founder of Resurrection after Exoneration
John Thompson, pictured above with Emily Maw, told possibly the most shocking and inspirational story of the day. Acquitted in 2005 for a murder and aggravated robbery which he did not commit, John left prison with next to nothing and the burden of 18 years of wrongful imprisonment on his back. He subsequently set up Resurrection after Exoneration to provide support and practical assistance to exonerees – of which there are many… and they continue to be released thanks to the work of ip-no and others. John’s 18 years in the Louisiana prison system included 14 years on Death Row and 7 execution dates, each one of which was appealed. The closest he came to execution in the electric chair was 30 days, at which time, by a stroke of utter good fortune, evidence was uncovered proving without a shadow of a doubt that John was innocent. John’s telling of this abhorration of a miscarriage of justice was flavoured with the rendition of how his teenage son had received the news of his father’s 7th (and would-have-been-final) execution date while in class at school, when the teacher had read the news item aloud from the daily newspaper. Thankfully, the boy’s flight from the classroom and arrival at home was met with the stunning news that THAT VERY DAY, a new investigator had applied a fresh set of thinking and a fresh pair of eyes, and managed to secure the proof of an incompatible blood-type with that of the perpetrator.
John’s account was stirring, emotional, authentic, inspirational and infuriating! Unsurprisingly, John has been unable to forgive the actions of those who put him and a number of others, subsequently found innocent, away. Read here how Jim Williams, the prosecutor in question, once featured on the cover of Esquire magazine posing with a model of an electric chair and 5 toy versions of Louisiana men he had sent to their deaths. One of these was John Thompson.

All in all, the day was a wonderful one for me, and I had the chance to be in a roomful of people who are genuinely making a difference. I am proud to be a Lifelines member and contribute the small amount that I do to make a few people’s lives more worthwhile and the world a more humane place.

October 18, 2009 - Posted by | conference, death penalty, Emily Maw, Erwin James, exoneration, ip-no, ipno, Jan Arriens, John Thompson, lifelines,, reprieve, Sally Rowen

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