By Alice Maxwell
Every two weeks or so I take a walk to the post box in Murray Crescent and post a letter to America. I try to include a funny anecdote, a silly poem (Spike Milligan perhaps), or a photo of my garden along with a bit of British history. I want to give my friend Charlie a window into another life, because for twenty-one years he has lived in a tiny cell without a window. That is Death Row for you.
Recently he was moved to a larger cell with a window. For the first time in years, he feels warm sun on his cheek and can watch the free flight of birds. And he enjoys watching human activity as the guards come and go in their Tesla cars. However, the uninsulated, concrete walls cause noise to echo and amplify to almost unbearable levels, and it is cold. But against all odds Charlie is a cheery guy with a quirky sense of humour. He always begins his letters by wishing me and my partner David (who he calls Mr D) a blessed and happy day. Living so close to death he understands the value of life.
Last week we spoke on the phone for the first time. We talked a lot about accents – he loved my English accent, and was surprised that I could understand his southern drawl much better than I could understand a Saltcoats’ receptionist who I phoned the other day. He was amused by the idea of putting milk in coffee, (he likes it black and strong) and when I asked him if he had a kettle in his room he laughed and laughed. No – inmates are not allowed their own kettles.
His voice is kind and soft and I know he is no murderer. People change – he is not the same person as he was twenty-one years ago and he wishes he could be judged by who he is now, not by who he once was. Within American prisons beatings, rape, stabbings and suicide are commonplace. But Charlie tells me that, strangely, Death Row is one of the safest places to be – as inmates see their friends disappearing to the execution chamber, they often come to realise the preciousness of whatever life they have left.
The American spiritual teacher Ram Daas remembers visiting Death Row to teach meditation. He was disorientated and amazed because the inmates had an inner calm, a genuine sense of spirituality and they emanated love. He felt he was in a monastery surrounded by monks.
Yet despite these changes for the better, and despite prisons being referred to as “Correctional Facilities” the authorities have little interest in the wellbeing of inmates. Many prisons use inmates as a source of cheap labour- companies such as McDonalds and Microsoft employ prisoners for as little as 27 cents an hour. The work is optional but many prisoners have no other source of income, and take the work in preference to spending hours alone in their cell. Although not quite slavery, it is not far off.
In the 1980s the Reagan administration reduced social benefit payments to almost nothing, and instead filled America with privately run prisons, funded by the tax payer. Dishing out social benefits to the poor and needy does not benefit the rich. Lock up the poor and needy, and private companies stand to make healthy profits.
When Biden took office in January there was a general feeling of optimism that the Death Penalty would be disbanded. In Virginia it was. In another prison, the authorities are at present working on a new method of execution – a gas chamber. Inmates are given three months’ notice prior to their execution date but these are often postponed due to appeals. Miscarriages of justice abound as innocent people (too often black) are thrown into jail to await execution. It is laughable that the constitution of America bans cruel and unusual punishments.
My friendship with Charlie began eighteen months ago, when I joined the charity LifeLines which provides penfriends for Death Row inmates. At a recent Lifelines Conference, a former Death Row inmate, Kerry Max Cook described how he narrowly escaped execution after being proved innocent at the eleventh hour, having suffered years of physical and mental abuse in prison. His case has been termed one of the worst miscarriages of justice in American history. He asked Lifeline letter writers never to underestimate the importance of their correspondence. Prisoners are often abandoned, disowned and depressed and the arrival of a friendly letter means everything to them, a link to a world now so far away, where kettles and post boxes are taken for granted.
Any day now Charlie will receive a photo of the Murray Crescent post box. I imagine his reaction – How quaint! How small! How red! I resolve to pay more attention to the world around me, and feel a fondness for the little post box for affording me such an unusual and special friendship.
LifeLines supports and befriends prisoners on Death Row throughout the United States, through letter writing.