From the Archives: Light on Death Row

This article is from the December 1996 issue of Friends Journal. It was adapted from a plenary talk given by Jan Arriens at the 1996 Friends General Conference Gathering in Hamilton, Ontario, which served as the inspiration for Rich Van Dellen to begin corresponding with prisoners on death row. Van Dellen wrote about his experience in an article “Witness to an Execution” that was published in the September 2013 issue of Friends Journal.

Friends Journal Cadbury Event, July 4, 1996, Hamilton, Ontario

One evening in November 1987 I had nothing in particular to do and idly switched on the television. It was a program about a young African American executed in Mississippi, which I had earlier decided not to watch, as I thought it would be altogether too depressing.

Within minutes I was riveted. Fourteen Days in May remains the most compelling television documentary I have ever seen. For reasons that remain obscure, the BBC was permitted to take its cameras into the maximum security unit of Parchman Penitentiary in Mississippi in May 1987 and film the last 14 days in the life of Edward Earl Johnson.

As the documentary proceeded, the viewer felt a terrible sense of impotence at what was happening, which was so manifestly wrong whatever one’s views on the death penalty. Edward Earl Johnson radiated a very special quality: a quiet charm, honesty, and simplicity. Guards, the chaplain, the attorneys—all expressed their liking for Edward Earl and clearly did not want the execution to proceed.

The voice of humanity, however, came from the least expected quarter: the other prisoners. Three other prisoners were interviewed in the film. The words of one, in particular, affected me profoundly. At ten past ten in the evening, less than two hours before the scheduled execution, one of the prisoners said quietly but with great feeling: “Everyone here is dying tonight, a part of them. I can never be the same after this. We’re supposed to be vicious and cruel, but this goes beyond anything that anyone could ever do.”

My overwhelming reaction was one of astonishment that a prisoner should have been able to say exactly what I was feeling, but was unable to express. I remember breaking down at that point.

I wrote to all three prisoners. All three replied. The first to do so was a man called Leo Edwards. I had never received a letter that had moved me more. He had been on death row for six years. His letter ended with the words, “May God be between you and harm and all the empty places you walk.” How could someone in the bleakest and darkest of situations worry about the “empty places” in which I walked?

Shortly afterwards, I received a letter from a man called Sam Johnson. It turned out to be Sam who had spoken the words that had affected me so much. He wrote that he was from Rochester, N.Y., that he had been on death row for six years, and that he was innocent. “I haven’t seen any of my family since I’ve been here; and I never knew that loneliness could hurt so very much. I don’t mean to cry upon your shoulder but speaking about this place one can fmd very little that’s happy to speak about.”

The letters were very far removed from my stereotype picture of death row prisoners as subhuman monsters. Here were people reaching out and displaying compassion, sensitivity, and insight. I showed the letters to others, who also began writing. My local meeting organized that most English of events, a cream tea in a village garden, and publicity of this curious event in the local Cambridge newspaper attracted about 30 correspondents. Through this we also learned that the brilliant young English death row lawyer who had represented Edward Earl, Clive Stafford Smith, then based in Atlanta, came from near Cambridge, and I met him that summer.

I also got in touch with Amnesty International, who were highly enthusiastic and supportive.

Later in 1988 the Quaker weekly The Friend published excerpts from Sam’s letters. In one letter he wrote: “In spite of all this I still believe in mankind. These people and this experience have taken me so low that I have to ‘reach up’ to touch bottom, but I still believe in mankind.”

In another he wrote:

For the first year or so I was filled to the brim with pure hatred over what had happened to me. Losing all I had and everyone I loved filled me so full of hatred I almost did go crazy. All of it drained out of me when it dawned upon me that I had to stop thinking about all I had lost and start thinking about what I could gain, even from the worst of positions a person could be in.

As a result of this publicity about 30 Quakers throughout Britain began writing as well. LifeLines had been born.

What we rapidly discovered was not only that the men displayed qualities we had not expected to encounter on death row, but that they almost invariably told the same story. They were all poor. All had received bad legal representation. Many were African American. The vast majority came from broken homes and had suffered from violence and sexual abuse in childhood. Their parents were often alcoholics. Many had little education, had gotten hooked on drugs in their teens, and ended up on death row in early adulthood. Some had been juveniles at the time of the crime. It became apparent to us just how easy it was to end up on death row in the United States. While there are deeply disturbed men and women on death row, there are also many essentially “normal” people of whom we can truly say, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

Their backgrounds were really brought home to me in late 1988, when I went to the United States to meet Sam and the others. Leo Edwards told me that he thanked God for being on death row. I asked him what on earth he could mean. He explained that death row had been the first period of real stability in his life. In his words, it had given him an appreciation of love and of life that he had never had before. Sam Johnson told me that in comparison with his classmates, his lot was a fortunate one, as most had either met violent deaths or were drug addicts on the streets of New York.

The way in which the death penalty in the United States punishes life’s losers was graphically brought out by a Californian death row attorney, Jay Pultz, who spoke at a LifeLines conference in 1994. Jay said that one of his clients had told him he was one of six boys from the same urban kindergarten class who had all ended up on death row. We are, surely, dealing here not with individual criminal pathology but with a social phenomenon. Here, it seems to me, U.S. society is like a boiling cauldron. The death penalty is an attempt to keep the lid on the cauldron, whereas what needs to be done is to douse the fires- the fires of broken families, drug abuse, and lack of gun control.

We also discovered the extraordinary lengths of time that ·people spend on death row. One of the original three I wrote to, John Irving, was sentenced to death at the age of 20. When I met him, he had been there for 12 years. His death sentence was overturned last year, at the age of 39. He had spent his entire adult life—and half his total life—on death row.

Many of the men are abandoned and rejected by their family and friends. This is why the correspondence can be so important to them. Last April I met a man, John Nixon, aged 68, whom I had also spoken to in 1988. In the intervening seven years, he had not had another personal visitor. A man of 27 whom I met in 1988 had not had a personal visitor in all the four years he had been on death row.

I know that many of you know a great deal about death row, but others of you may not, and it may be as well to outline the overall situation. There are at present a little over 3,000 men and 49 women on death row in the United States. A number have been there since the death penalty was reintroduced in 1976. Until recently, a map of the United States shading in the executing states was virtually a map of the Confederacy in the Civil War, with the five main executing states being Texas, Florida, Virginia, Louisiana, and Georgia. Illinois has now also become a major executing state.

Since 1976 there have been about 330 executions and nearly 1,500 convictions or sentences have been reversed. What these figures mean is that out of a total of a little over 4,700 people who have entered the portals of death row since 1976, just under 7 percent have been executed and in a little over 30 percent of cases the state is saying, “We got it wrong. You should never have been there in the first place.” This figure of 30 percent can only rise, as more men have their sentences or convictions overturned after many years in the appeals process.

The system of nine different courts that prisoners can go through is designed to ensure the ultimate certainty for the ultimate punishment But mistakes are still made. What it shows above all is that the death penalty cannot be both just and humane: rush it through and innocent people will die, try to be just and it becomes a hideous, protracted cat-and-mouse game. This to me is one of the biggest arguments against the death penalty, although it is not often made. The death penalty is also about the way that society deals with those most at its mercy. It is essentially about revenge and retribution and provides no room for compassion, remorse, or change.

A few words about LifeLines. In all we have probably put the best part of 5,000 people in Britain and Ireland in touch with prisoners on death row. We also have members in a large number of European countries and in Australia. In 1991 I put together a book of extracts from the prisoners’ letters, entitled Welcome To Hell. A few months later, in early 1992, the BBC screened a film based on one of the chapters in this book, about the correspondence between a retired music teacher in England, Mary Grayson, and Ray Clark in Florida during the last few months of his life. In response I received an astonishing 6,500 letters from people wanting to write. By no means all joined, but it was in that year that the organization really took off. I am glad to say that Welcome To Hell is being republished early next year in the United States, by Northeastern University Press in Boston, Mass. Many people have told me that Welcome To Hell is one of the most powerful and moving books they have ever read. A number of British prisoners are even writing to death row inmates as a result of the book.

LifeLines has a quarterly newsletter, and we hold two conferences each year, for which we fly out speakers from the United States. Speakers have included Clive Stafford Smith and Sister Helen Prejean, before she wrote her book Dead Man Walking. We have regional groups and “coordinators” for each of the states, who provide a vital link between the correspondents and the prisoners. Right from the outset we decided that we should be nonpolitical and not campaign. We also have a team of voluntary counsellors to help a LifeLiner when the prisoner he or she is writing to faces execution and to deal with the problems that come up in the correspondence.

At present LifeLines has around 1,500 members, but the total number of people writing is much greater—probably around 3,000—as people join, start writing, and then drop out of the organization. For several years now, we have been able to say that every prisoner on death row wanting a pen pal has been given one. Many write to more than one person. For some prisoners, in fact, the correspondence has become an almost full-time office job. Most of us writing to them feel that the prisoners have given us as much or more than we have given them. To share with someone under such a terrible threat—no matter what they have done—is to be given an extraordinary glimpse into the triumph of the human spirit in adversity. We have also found the correspondence to be far more equal and two-way than we had ever imagined. Several hundred letter writers have now gone to the United States to visit the person they got to know so well on paper.

What can the correspondence mean to the prisoner? An African American man whom I met in Georgia writes to a much older woman in a small town near where I live in England. Johnny once wrote to her:

You know I never thought I could ever care about a person or truly trust anyone again in my life. You showed me wrong because I can be with you totally, I’m not afraid to express my hurts to you or my fear nor afraid to tell you who I am. That alone means so much to me when I had closed myself up from everyone, keeping the door to self locked up, I don’t have to place masks over the face of my real self.

Last year I attended a clemency hearing in Louisiana held on Maundy Thursday. The prisoner, Antonio James, was facing his thirteenth death date. During a recess I was introduced to him by Sister Helen Prejean. Antonio faced execution four days later, and this poorly educated man was, quite literally, pleading for his life. Despite the enormous stress he was under, he reached out his manacled hand and, with tears in his eyes, said that “the love and support I received from two English ladies I didn’t know before was one of the most beautiful things that ever happened in my life.”

Antonio James was unexpectedly reprieved, but was executed in March this year.

But there are also other problems in the correspondence. The main ones are money and sex. Nearly all the prisoners are male and most of the British correspondents—85 percent—are female. The combination of needy, intensely deprived men and compassionate women is obviously a potentially explosive one. Difficulties in forming relationships with the opposite sex are often an integral part of the prisoners’ stories, and they may feel they have to “come on strong” in order to prove themselves. One woman wrote back that there was no need for the prisoner to do this, but that she accepted him as he was. He wrote back saying that no woman had ever said this to him before. Time and again, women have found that if they can hold firm at this point, the two can then work through distorted and unrealistic romantic feelings and fantasies to reach the clearer waters of genuine friendship: something many of the men say they have never experienced before, and which they come to regard as one of the most valuable things in their lives.

Sometimes the problems are unexpected. One woman recently wrote to a man in Texas on some new primrose notepaper she had bought. She said she was using it as it cheered her up and gave her a lift.

The prisoner took this to be a coded message that the paper was impregnated with drugs and wrote back complaining: “I have eaten all four pages of your letter, but I don’t feel any different.”

But what, you may ask, about the victims and their families? Are we concentrating on the wrong people?

I remember a woman in Ireland who was writing to a prisoner, also in Georgia, who was deeply troubled by what he had done and asked her whether he should write to the victim’s parents for forgiveness. He wished to do so, but was held back by the fear of rejection, which had been such a big theme in his life. Slowly and prayerfully, she—an Irish Catholic—persuaded her Southern Baptist friend to take the risk. He wrote. By return he received a letter saying that the parents understood and forgave him.

Within LifeLines, one of our members, Lesley Moreland, a Quaker, asked if. she could write to a prisoner on death row after her own 23-year-old daughter, Ruth, had been murdered. Lesley came to a crossroads in her life. She decided to write to someone on death row as she felt the need to hold on to the difference between the act of murder and the whole person. The man in Texas she wrote to happened to have lost his own mother in a murder; Lesley has been to Texas to meet him and his family. She also met the victim’s family there. In 1995, after years of discrete and patient negotiation, Lesley managed to visit in prison the young man who had murdered her daughter.

Equally as remarkable is the story of another LifeLines member, Leanne, who as a child of 13 was raped, stabbed, beaten with a brick, and left for dead. But to this day she feels forgiveness and hopes that her attacker has overcome his anger—although she knows that he has gone on to rape again. She writes,

The physical torture or death of this boy would not help me in any way. Would this family’s suffering ease my own family’s suffering? No. There would be no “balancing” the scales. It would only have created more victims, more suffering, more heartache. As an “almost victim” I give the death penalty the definite thumbs down.

Leanne, too, is writing to a prisoner under sentence of death.

These two members of our organization both spoke at our 1994 conference held in Edinburgh. Other speakers included Pat Bane, the chairperson 10 of the U.S. organization Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation, and Betty Foster, the mother of a juvenile offender executed in Georgia in 1992. She too was a victim.

I have often wondered what it is about death row that can affect those of us writing to the condemned men so deeply. Part of this is because it touches the depths of the human psyche. As I see it, we all live in three kinds of prison. First of all, there is the physical prison of our particular circumstances—the country and house we live in, our bodies, and our physical limitations. Secondly, there is the emotional prison of our minds and personalities. Thirdly, we are in a spiritual prison, in the sense ofliving in the mystery, or as Paul put it, seeing through a glass darkly. We may have a sense of inner awareness, or a sense of presence, and occasionally people have transcendent experiences that change their lives. But for the most part the intimations of another dimension of consciousness are subtle, tantalizing, and elusive.

Now prisoners are, of course, very obviously in physical confinement: on death row they spend 23 hours a day in a steel and concrete cage. In terms of the second category, our psychological imprisonment, prison is also a deeply traumatizing experience, in which many of the weaknesses, fears, and pains that put people there in the first place are made far worse. In these circumstances, it is to me deeply inspiring to find prisoners who retain and indeed develop their humanity and inner spiritual resources, seemingly against all the odds, in this human hell.

I remember that when I met the 12 prisoners on death row in Mississippi and Georgia in 1988, it was very evident—sometimes painfully, sometimes upliftingly—how the men were thrust back on their own resources in the solitude and deprivation of their cells. Some were all but broken by the experience, but others had risen above it. Nothing summed it up better than the words of Willie Reddix in Mississippi: “Sometimes you can be so still you can hear the grass grow. Sometimes you can be so still you can hear the voices of the children who must once have played even in fields like these.” Another prisoner spoke of the peace of mind he had developed in prison, calling it the “quiet light.”

When I met Leo Edwards in 1988, it was just three months after he came within 12 hours of execution. He heard on the radio that he had been given a stay. He had given up hope. Talking to this poorly educated man who had looked death in the face was an experience I shall never forget. He told me that he had made his peace, and that death no longer held any fear for him. Eight months later he was dead.

Sam Johnson wrote to me that he sometimes thinks of life as an hourglass, with each moment being a grain of sand. Perhaps when we die the hourglass is turned over and all the sand runs through again without our being able to change it.

I don’t really know if life is as I’ve tried to describe it or not, but, if it is, and if I love all that I can this day, if I laugh all that I can this day, if I give all of the happiness that I can this day, if I do the least amount of bad that I can this day, then when this day comes back to me I won’t want to change it even if I could.

Some years ago, my meeting in Cambridge “adopted” Sam: we even obtained special dispensation from London Yearly Meeting, and he is an Associate Member of Hartington Grove Meeting: the only Friend in the world, as far as I know, with that status! In late 1992 I attended Sam’s resentencing trial in Vicksburg, Va., and am glad to say that he had his sentence overturned and is off death row.

In the last few months, another man I write to, Mike Lambrix in Florida, has come very close to the end of his appeals. He has been on death row for 13 years, and is now aged 36. By his own confession he arrived on death row as an alcoholic and a drifter. A few months ago Mike wrote to me that he was nearly executed in 1988. He writes:

The morning of the scheduled execution I woke up literally in a cold sweat. It was more than just a nightmare; it was an “out of body” experience. I didn’t just dream it, I physically felt it, even the execution. And awoke just as the bright light consumed everything. The immense light I sensed as I was awaking was not a physical, environmental light, as that obviously would have been noticed by the guards who stood watch over me. This light I can only describe as that sense of light people experiencing “near death” experiences describe.

He goes on to say that this was the day when God died for him and when he lost the sense of presence he had always had before.

And although that may sound as if I deny God—I do NOT. Rather, it’s my belief that God is the collective consciousness, that eternal inner-self.

I must admit that there are times since the “death” of that former perception of God when I really miss that “personal” feeling. The way this transformation of my spirituality came about, it allows me to relate to the anguish Jesus felt at the moment of his death—how he cried out “why hast thou forsaken me,” as I think that he too felt that absence and emptiness of the spiritual inner-self. Yet equally so, I truly believe that I did not actually lose anything, but I gained a new and “more enlightened” perspective of what this thing we call “God” is, and more importantly, whereas before I could only wonder if there was life after “death,” I am now unequivocally convinced that not only is there “life” after mortal death, but that we “lived” before this mortal existence. Our “personal” God is a reflection of our spiritual selfishness, and as long as we want to possess it, then we are limited in our growth and perception of collectiveness.

I think these words have much to say to us Quakers. I am anguished that Mike, who is right at the end of his appeals, may be dead in three months. [Mike Lambrix lost his appeal in the Florida supreme court in September.—Eds.] Mike is not representative of the men and women on death row, but, as we have seen with Sam Johnson, nor is he unique. There are many, many men who, in their long years of incarceration under threat of death, have grown enormously in the spirit.

This meeting point between imprisonment and the spiritual life is integral to our Quaker experience. At the very start of his ministry, Fox had his famous vision in which: “I saw also that there was an ocean of darkness and death, but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness.” What we often tend to overlook is the preceding passage, in which Fox writes of being shown all sorts of depravities by the Lord. “Why should I be thus, seeing I was never addicted to commit these evils?” he cries. “And the Lord answered that it was needful I should have a sense of all conditions, how else should I speak to all conditions; and in this I saw the infinite love of God.”

Prison and imprisonment are deeply burned into the Quaker consciousness. Some estimate that as many as one in five Quakers were imprisoned for their beliefs in the early days, and George Fox’s Journal is of course full of his experiences in prisons.

In the United States, as you know far better than I do, early Quakers were persecuted by the Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and four Quakers were executed around 1660: the Boston Common martyrs.

In 1959, marking the tercentenary of those events, Henry Cadbury wrote in Friends Journal, “The best memorial is doubtless the recognition of the principles for which men [sic] died and the practice of them in our life today.”

William Penn rejected “the wickedness of exterminating, where it was possible to reform,” and Pennsylvania set a lead in the abolition of the death penalty. In Britain, Elizabeth Fry’s work visiting women prisoners carried forward the Quaker tradition of penal reform. She and others also worked steadfastly for abolition. In the long and often shameful history of capital punishment in Britain, Harry Potter has written: “One Christian group alone stands out: at every turn, running every society, campaigning everywhere, were the Quakers. They alone, as a Christian body, were completely and absolutely opposed to the death penalty.” The death penalty was abolished in Britain 30 years ago, and in Canada 20 years ago, while it is just over 20 years since it was reintroduced in the United States.

Which brings me to the situation in the United States. Here I feel I must tread with great caution. It is not for me to come barging in with insensitive suggestions and criticism. I can only speak to you out of our experience in LifeLines and from the Quaker tradition.

Some U.S. Friends have told me that the Quaker response to the death penalty has been oddly muted. But there have been enormously encouraging developments among Quakers of late. The Friends Committee to Abolish the Death Penalty was set up in 1993. Recently, hundreds of Quaker activists for the FCADP handed out literature at cinemas where Dead Man Walking was showing. Friends helped collect the 20,000 signatures to abolish the death penalty that were delivered to President Clinton—a magnificent and inspiring achievement—to mark the 20th anniversary of the reinstatement of the death penalty. Several yearly meetings have adopted minutes reaffirming their opposition to capital punishment.

What lessons have we learned in LifeLines, and what can we impart to you?

In the first place, by being deliberately nonpolitical, we have, I believe, paradoxically achieved far more than had we set out to campaign. This is because we have focused on the human face of death row. People have asked to write because, like the rest of us, they have been impressed by the human qualities they have seen or read about, qualities they had not expected to encounter on death row. In your campaigning, I think you will be far more effective if you focus on individual human beings and bring their stories to the attention of the public. One case that people can relate to—no matter what the man may have done—can get through to people in a way that no learned arguments or statistics ever can.

With this in mind, I am wondering whether individual meetings might “adopt” a prisoner. You could write to him, individually or as a meeting. You might even be able to visit him. You could, indeed you should, get in touch with his defense attorney before drawing public attention to his case. By getting to know him, he would become a real person, as we have discovered. This in turn would help in portraying him to the wider community as a human being- whatever his frailties. I have brought with me details on a number of prisoners who would dearly welcome such support.

Secondly, a plea. Many abolitionists are putting forward life without parole as an alternative to capital punishment. Despite the temptation, I hope you will not do so. To me, life without parole is a doctrine of despair and but one small rung up the moral ladder from the death penalty.

Finally, I wonder whether it might be possible for minutes to be adopted. The following text draws on the minute of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting:

We affirm our unwavering opposition to capital punishment, which has been a deeply felt testimony of Friends since the establishment of our Religious Society in the 17th century. Where the sanctity of human life has been violated, we must comfort those who have suffered, but not repeat that violation. True security lies in our reverence for human life and our recognition of the godliness in us all, whatever we may have done.

I know that opposing the death penalty will not be easy for U.S. Friends, as the tide of public opinion is running so swiftly in the opposite direction. But I hope that you, supported by Friends elsewhere, such as in Canada and Britain will do so. We owe this to our Quaker principles, to that Light within ourselves that recognizes that of God in every man and woman, no matter where they may be or what they may have done. And we owe it to our Quaker heritage, to the light still shining today of those who were imprisoned for their beliefs, to the light of those who died on Boston Common. We owe it to the light of those Friends who, down the centuries and in many countries, have done so much for the improvement of prison conditions and the abolition of the death penalty. And, dear Friends, most of all we owe it to the light cast by the Sam Johnsons and Mike Lambrixs of this world—a light sometimes like a giant beacon effortlessly crossing the Atlantic and sometimes flickering but never quite going out; a light shining from the darkest and most improbable of places.

Jan Arriens

Biography from the 1996 issue: Jan Arriens is an English Quaker of Dutch descent. He studied at Cambridge, spent ten years as a diplomat in the Australian Foreign Service, and has been a freelance translator for the past 17 years.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Maximum of 400 words or 2000 characters.

Comments on may be used in the Forum of the print magazine and may be edited for length and clarity.