The History of Life Lines Ireland

LifeLines began with the execution of Edward Earl Johnson. The BBC documentary – Fourteen Days of May – first screened in November 1987, followed 14 days of Edwards life before his subsequent execution. Jan Arriens (a freelance translator who lives in Cambridge, England) was so moved by three of the other prisoners interviewed that he decided to write to them. All three replied.

Their responses and their concern for Edward were contrary to how the media portrayed death row inmates. As a consequence, friends of Jans began writing letters to prisoners as well. In May 1988 the Hartlington Grove Quakers in Cambridge organised a cream tea in a small village garden. It raised £270, but above all, news reached the media. The published story by Merrilyn Thomas led to 25 people volunteering to write. It also uncovered the fact that Clive Stafford Smith, the British lawyer who represented Edward Earl Johnson, came just 20 miles from Cambridge.

In 1988, Clive came to England and in September the Quaker weekly – The Friend – published extracts from Sams (Jans friend) letters. This time the number of people writing grew to 60. Eventually Merrilyn Thomas went to Mississippi in February 1989 and seven months later – Life on Death Row – was published. Later that year Tori Burbridge, the secretary of LifeLines, produced a newsletter – The Wing of Friendship – and this is now a quarterly publication.

By 1990 there were just over 160 people writing to men in the states of Mississippi, Georgia and Alabama and LifeLines first national meeting was held, with speaker Paul Hannann (the producer and director of Fourteen Days of May). An article in the Observer brought another 180 new letter writers. 12 months later, after radio and TV coverage, the numbers swelled to 750.

Speaking at the third conference, Clive Stafford Smith said he could never express how grateful he was for the letter writing which made an enormous difference to the morale and resolve to those on Death Row. By now LifeLiners were writing to prisoners in all the main executing states, while late 1991 saw the publication of Welcome to Hell, a compilation of letters and writings by Death Row prisoners, edited by Jan Arriens.

When Welcome to Hell formed the basis of an Everyman TV programme in February 1992, 6,500 people responded. The first letter arriving before the programme was even off the air. Another article in a magazine attracted a further 2,000 enquiries. By 1993 LifeLines had reached every US state with the death penalty and any prisoners who wanted a penfriend. At that time there were 2,600 people on Death Row.

Out of the Night, which also arose out of LifeLines, was published in 1994 by Clarion Press. It is a collection of prose and poetry by Death Row inmates edited by Marie Mulvey Roberts, with the assistance of poet, Benjamin Zephaniah.

From the outset, LifeLines did not at any point seek to mount an organised drive to recruit new letter writers, instead it has grown organically. Ages of members range from 18, the youngest age permitted to join, to 92, many of whom have travelled to visit their friends.

The Irish group, LifeLines Ireland, was founded in 1991 by Paul Cunningham, who is now actively involved in Amnesty International and anti Death Penalty work. Two years later Paula Hagan took the chair, giving the organisation many hours of her time. In January 1996 Audrey Kaufman became chairperson.

Although LifeLines Ireland still has close affiliation with England it has become an autonomous group with its own quarterly newsletter. The majority of members are Irish but it too has many members scattered globally. Recently we have had considerable media coverage which has brought an increase in our letter writers, we even have Irish prisoners wanting to correspond with those on death row. However, as we daily receive requests from death row prisoners the list never quite ends…

Personally, being part of LifeLines has brought me friends both sides of the bars and both sides of the Atlantic ocean. It has also simultaneously enriched and saddened my life. (Audrey Kaufmann)

“I am looking for a friend not a saviour. I am a guy who writes because he likes to communicate and learn about different people and places. I write regularly and would like someone who is serious about writing. I am not the sort to take advantage of anyone. I write because I am basically lonely…” – from a prisoner on death row.