LifeLines – Writing to Prisoners on Death Row

By Alice Maxwell

Jan Ariens who set up LifeLines in the 1980s

In the late 1980s the BBC screened a documentary called “Fourteen Days in May” which followed the last fourteen days of the life of Edward Earl Johnson before he was executed in a Mississippi prison. Amongst the horrified audience was one Jan Ariens, who was prompted to set up the letter writing charity “LifeLines”. Volunteers are assigned penfriends on Death Row, to whom they offer friendship and a connection with the outside world.

A friend recently told me of her intention to join Lifelines and take on a pen-friend. What an excellent idea! She left me some information about the project, which I read, and then allowed the papers to disappear into the general muddle of my home.

When I next saw my friend her letter writing was well underway and I wondered why I had done nothing. I realized that when faced with the enormity of another’s suffering my reactions left a lot to be desired. I close down, cut off, and think “that’s got nothing to do with me”, or “there’s nothing I can do, so I won’t trouble myself about it”, or “that person is so far away that perhaps they won’t suffer quite as much as if it were me, or my family”. Such reactions are driven by fear, fear that if I open my heart to all the world’s calamities I will go crazy.

Feeling none too impressed with myself, I hastened to fill in the forms, and before long received the name of my pen-friend to be. The distant, anonymous face of human suffering now had a name – Jack (not his real name), a birthday, and an address. The address was the Holman Correctional Facility, Alabama. A correctional facility? Let’s correct inmates’ erroneous ways, and then kill them? It is true that some prisoners undergo a complete transformation of character whilst incarcerated, but even so, stays of execution for good behaviour are rare. The Holman website also showed the opening of a new women’s Correctional Facility where executions are occasionally carried out. (There are very few women on Death Row). Staff were lined up outside cheerily cutting a ribbon as if they were opening a hospital. A chill ran down my spine, I felt afraid to get involved.

It took me a couple of days to think of what to write, to buy stationery from Jimmy’s [The Ship House Shop in Lamlash], and to read the prison’s rules on sending mail. Jack slipped in and out of my thoughts. The weather was lovely and my partner and I decided to explore the Glencloy valley, west of Brodick. Jack came too. He was filled with wonder at the sun’s warmth on his skin as it shone down on everyone and everything without discrimination. He watched the buzzards gliding in the thermals. He delighted in the sight of bees clambering in and out of fox-gloves and breathed in the sweet scent of honey suckle. He felt utterly at one with nature, peaceful within his own skin.

The brutal reality is that Jack will almost certainly never be released, and even if he were, I have no idea how he would react to being plonked in the middle of Scottish countryside after twenty years’ incarceration. Our walk together had however heightened my senses, and deepened my appreciation for my life. My heart had opened and my fear had dissolved. The purpose of letter writing is to bring a little light into a prisoner’s life, but I already had much to thank Jack for and our correspondence had not even begun.

I wrote Jack a brief letter, including a postcard of Arran’s mountains, walked round to Murray Crescent and dropped the letter in the post box.

To find out more about LifeLines (registered charity) please see the website