Developing Relationships with Death Row Inmates

By: Michael Stark

Death-row prisoners are often the best experts on capital punishment. They know the legal system and legal procedures inside and out. They know the prosecutors, the judges, the defenders, other inmates, and the activists. Most importantly, they have experienced firsthand the brutality and injustice of the death penalty.

So it is essential that abolitionists develop working relationships with those men and women who live inside the prison walls. These relationships are two-way streets from which those on the inside and the outside can benefit. In Washington, D.C., it was building relationships with death-row prisoners in Maryland which has helped us build a larger and more powerful abolitionist movement.

However, it can be difficult to find out who is on death row, let alone build a relationship with him or her: the entire system is designed to limit human contact and interaction with prisoners. From limitations on visiting privileges to restrictions on the kinds of mail prisoners can receive, prison administrators do everything they can to make building such contact difficult.

But it can be done. The best way to make contact with death-row inmates is through their lawyers. Lawyers know the procedures regarding contact with prisoners and can help you negotiate them if difficulties arise. Contact your local ACLU chapter or other anti-death penalty group (Amnesty, AFSC, etc.) to find out what lawyers perform capital defense work in your area and what cases are the most urgent. Ask them for names and addresses so you can write to the prisoner directly. Use this contact as an opportunity to introduce those lawyers to the Campaign: invite them to come to a meeting and give a presentation on their case.

Understand that many defense lawyers can be very protective of their clients and, sometimes, view activists with suspicion. After all, many of the best capital defense lawyers have been passionately fighting the death penalty for years, making great sacrifices and losing many friends in the process. They usually view victories and defeats in a very personal fashion and don't want anyone else interfering in their efforts.

The best way to deal with this is to be up front about what kind of an organization we are and explain some of our activities. We are interested in developing the best strategies to fight for their client.

When you write a death-row inmate, explain what the Campaign is about: its purpose, arguments against the death penalty, and what tactics we think will abolish it. Send them Campaign material and get them a subscription to the New Abolitionist. In your letters tell them about Campaign activities and solicit feedback and ideas about the kind of movement we are trying to build. Ask if they have any friends or family members that may want to become involved with the Campaign.

Developing relationships with death-row inmates can make a world of difference in the kind of Campaign that we make. By bridging the gap between the outside and the inside, activists can get to know the human face of the barbaric institution we are fighting. These relationships can build whole new networks of people and resources that can help forge a fighting anti-death penalty movement.