This book is dedicated to all those who over the years have supported me in any way with this ministry.
To those who have helped practically and financially and those who have encouraged me. Also those who have always had time to share my joys and sorrows and those who have cared when I have lost another friend.
This support has been and continues to be invaluable.
Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
Chapter One…....In the beginning.
Chapter two…….The Visit
Chapter Three…..The Involvement Grows.
Chapter Four…....Texas Revisited.
Chapter Five…….On Reflection.
by Ann Stevens
Suppose if we look back over our lives, most if not all of us will remember at least one life changing conversation. I can remember a few but none more significant than the one I will relate to you.
As part of my job supporting adults with learning disabilities I was asked to accompany an individual to see her family and as it was at the seaside we booked a caravan for a week and made a holiday of it.
Part of the visit involved attending a family wedding blessing and the subsequent party in the evening.
As I really knew very few of the guests I sat and did some people watching and could not help overhearing other people’s conversations.
I was intrigued by one man's conversation as he talked about his wife’s involvement with pen friends on death row in the USA. I had always had an interest in this subject and was a staunch opponent of the death penalty especially since watching “14 days in May” on the TV.
The programme had told the story of a young man on death row and had monitored the last 14 days of his life up until his execution in the gas chamber. It had been followed shortly afterwards by another programme which detailed the terrible injustice that had occurred when the actual person responsible had been found. An innocent had died and my heart was broken.
I never forgot that programme or the young man's face. I approached the man when he had finished talking and asked if I could have his address so that I may write to his wife for more information.
That was one of the most life changing conversations I have ever had! The man’s name was Clifford and his wife was Barbara. Barbara was not at the party due to being unwell but I know that Clifford was there because I was meant to hear his conversation!
So many times in my life I have been convinced that the Lord has something to say to me but I am too busy to hear Him so someone else has to bring me the message!
I just know that I had to be at that place at that time because the Lord had some work for me to do. Work that would change my life forever; that would bring the most amazing people into my life, that would take me to the USA and to places I never would have chosen to go.
Perhaps it would have been easier had I turned a deaf ear to the conversation. I know I would be far richer financially had I done so, but how immeasurably much poorer would I be in my spirit had I done so.
The Lord has honoured my obedience amazingly and He has filled my heart with compassion and my life with His grace from the very beginning of my work for Him.
That conversation was not only life changing, it was life awakening, renewing, and it just goes on.
I hope that you can catch a little of my enthusiasm as you read on. Not that everyone should be a pen friend but if you can only see the man behind the crime briefly then I will be blessed.
To love the sinner but not the sin did not mean a great deal to me before; now it is the backdrop to all I seek to do, both for and through my “friends on the row”.
In the beginning.
wrote to Barbara as soon as I got home and she replied very quickly. Then began a time of what ifs and so on. I did realise that not everyone would be supportive; some people may even be hostile? I suppose I was subconsciously trying to talk myself out of making a commitment to someone who may bring problems with them. It could be someone who did not even believe in God let alone respect my faith. What if they turned up on my doorstep one day? I can tell you that I had so many reasons not to write and yet the inner voice encouraged me on and needless to say I wrote a letter to a pen friend organization requesting a pen friend. The organization had come into being via “14 days in May” and was created by Jan Arriens, purely to find a pen friend for death row prisoners in the USA.
Very shortly I received a letter from Rachel who co-ordinates Texas and she gave me a name and a number. ***** Buck 999***. Gosh how scary, I actually had a name now, a real person. I read the letter from Rachel so many times and the list of dos and don't s when writing to Texas death row. I was still unconvinced that I was doing the right thing. I had got some shall we say less than positive reactions from some of my friends and family.
As always I just had to go to the Lord and ask if this was of him. If it was then I would go on regardless, if not then I would stop it before it started.
Again needless to say the Lord spoke so clearly to me that I knew I had no choice. I thought of the tasks and sacrifices that had been asked of others and felt ashamed to be making such a fuss about writing to one man!!
It took a while to put together a letter to him that sounded friendly, but not too friendly, to get across where I stood with the Lord without preaching and to say a bit about my lifestyle without sounding proud or boastful.
Once the letter was in the post-box I was lost, there was no going back. I watched for the post like a child on their birthday and then, it arrived!! I had no idea then that this was to be the first of many, many letters and the start of a very exciting and demanding time in my life.
This letter was a revelation to me, for this man who was condemned to die, knew the Lord so well and put my knowledge of the Bible to shame. I remember thinking about how I had avoided preaching to him but he had written a full-blown sermon!! This was a man who referred to himself as “Brother” Buck and who was to become so very, very precious in my life.
Had I needed any more proof that the Lord was in control here it was in the shape of this small black man with a huge heart. I have thanked God for so much in my lifetime but never more so than for Bro.Buck.
This was around November the year 2000 and by Christmas we were already friends and I still treasure the first stmas card I received from Bro. Buck. I have never thrown away one card or letter from him and sometimes I go back to the beginning and re-read some of them.
I came to know him as an amazing prayer warrior and trusted him to pray for every area of my life. Also we made an agreement to meet in prayer daily, me at 10pm and Bro.Buck at 4 pm, as they are 6 hours behind us. I’m sure he hardly misses a day but my life style is not as ordered although I meet with him as often as I can. This came to be such a special time for us and our prayers are so often answered and we rejoice at these times.
Over the years he has prayed fervently for 2 of my friends who could not conceive and both have now got beautiful babies!!
That first year was so good, getting to know each other and also to trust each other. I have never lost the excitement of receiving a letter. I know that sometimes something such as food or coffee etc. will have been sacrificed to buy a stamp. There are times when pen friends really are a lifeline.
There is no TV on death row in Texas, no Church, no group recreation or any other sessions.
The men are in solitary confinement even for their one-hour a day recreation. I cannot even begin to imagine how important a letter must be to them.
That is why I knew that once I had started there was no going back, we that are” out in the world “ as the guys say have the upper hand really and unfortunately people have got hurt over the years.
Being a pen friend to someone on the row is certainly not an interest or a hobby; it is a big part of my life. My Christian faith is or should be obvious to people around me, likewise I never hide the fact that I write to my friends. If I am embarrassed about them I have no right to call them my friends.
I admit that my involvement has grown somewhat and I often wonder what I used to do with my life!! I cannot even guess at the amount I spend on stationery and postage but the Lord has always provided and I have been so richly rewarded.
Bro. Buck was my only pen friend for a year or so and then there was Richard!!
Alongside my growing friendship with Bro.Buck I also greatly valued the love and support of Barbara and her husband Clifford. The fact that they were Christians was such a blessing, as we all knew exactly where we were coming from!!
Barbara had a pen friend on death row in Ohio where the conditions were less stringent in a lot of ways and the prisoners often shared cells etc. Although perhaps the guys did not always find this a privilege!
Barbara contacted me regarding her friends “cellie”, Richard, who had recently lost his mother due to cancer. At first I was reluctant to consider having another pen friend, what if Bro. Buck did not like me writing to someone else? what if this man was not very nice?, What if?, What if?
Obviously I prayed about what I should do and the overwhelming answer was for me to go ahead. I now know that I was becoming too wrapped up in just writing to Bro.Buck and it was getting out of hand.
In no way did I “own” him any more than he did me and somehow I knew that writing to Richard would help me get a perspective back about my role as a pen friend. Not sure I had ever had this perspective but I wanted it back regardless!
Writing to Richard was so different to my previous experience; there was certainly no sermon in his first letter. Although not anti Christian, in no way did Richard profess to be a Christian, but he is a sensitive, caring man. There is such talent in this young man; his handwriting and drawings are beautiful. Having been on the row for 11 years he was still only 29 years old. I remember him asking in his first or second letter if everyone in the UK had the same schoolteacher as we all write the same way! Obviously he had seen Barbara’s letters to his cell mate and I suppose our writing is a little similar. Although I think he may have been implying that our handwriting was a little bland, unlike his own! We laughed about his comments later and he was apologetic for having given that impression, but I remain unconvinced that I wasn’t right about his implications. I certainly became more conscious of my handwriting following his comments bless him!
Not being able to play chess as Richard would have liked I nominated a friend of mine, Pete, to be his long distance chess partner.
Richard and I continued to correspond, nothing like as often as Bro and myself. Buck but about once a month and I always look forward to his birthday and Christmas cards too.
I have seen a real change in Richard too regarding his faith. More and more he sends lovely prayer cards and talks more now about prayer. How I pray that he will make a real commitment, has he not done so already?
I certainly came to value my friendship with him very much and am so glad that the, “what ifs” did not prevent me from doing the right thing. If only I could learn to trust God to help me out more often!
In the spring of 2001 a friend who was living in the USA for 3 years invited me over. Well what could I say? My friend Angela was a lovely lady whom I had met whilst working for Tesco, many years ago!
I had sung at her wedding when she married Martin and they now had two young daughters and Martins job involved them travelling quite a lot.
Angela actually was living in Rhode Island, which is a very long way from Texas but I knew I could not go to the USA without seeing Bro.Buck.
Dates were sorted and I had decided to go in April 2002, before it got too hot!! As I am one of those people who like everything organized I wanted to get my flights booked. Also I thought it would be less easy to chicken out when money had changed hands!
I had a dental appointment one Tuesday morning and I decided that I would go to the travel agents close by on my way home. All went to plan and by midday flights were booked and deposits paid! Gatwick to New York, New York to Providence, Rhode Island, stay for 10days then down to Houston and then home 4 days later!
I was so excited and really wanted to meet someone I knew on the way home to tell them!
By the time I had walked to work for 3 o’clock that afternoon I was bursting with the news.
Imagine how I felt when I saw what was on the TV as I walked I into work. It was September 11th and my heart sank into my boots.
How could I tell everyone that I had booked my flights, stopping over in New York, when New York was in ruins before my eyes? It was one of those occasions when suddenly I had fallen from the mountain top way down into the valley. Was it going to be ok? Would I be able to go? I had already told Bro. Buck I was going to see him, how could I let him down now?
Yet again I had to trust God to show me if I should go or not. I knew in my heart how much I wanted to go but had to accept that some of my family and friends were not happy at me going.
Bro.Buck however had no doubts at all that I would be arriving as planned and was busy making arrangements for someone to pick me up from the airport etc. Dorothy, whose husband, Thomas, is on the row, was to pick me up from the airport at Houston, and Betty (known as Sister Betty) was to keep me company when she could. I soon came to learn that all Bro Buck’s Christian friends were known as Brother or Sister; hence I became Sister Ann from there onwards!
I was to stay at the Hospitality House in Huntsville, which is funded by the Baptist Church for the use of prisoner’s families visiting the many prisons in the area.
Huntsville is known as a prison town as the majority of employment in the area is provided by the prison service. Huntsville houses vast numbers of prisoners from all across Texas. The condemned men are executed at the Walls unit there, which is around 40 miles from the Polunsky Unit, in Livingston, where they are housed.
The journey from Polunsky to the Walls unit is quite scenic which means that the condemned at least get to see grass and the beautiful Lake Livingston on their last journey.
Everything seemed to be so well planned that I began to feel quietly confident!
When I thought of the flights I felt a flutter in my stomach, when I thought of the Polunsky Unit my stomach lurched. Would I…could I cope with it all? Was I as some people were saying, a little crazy? Surely a Saga holiday would have been more appropriate, genteel and with all home comforts. Problem is, I am not genteel and comforts sound boring. How could I fail with the spirit of the Lord in me? I knew He would not take me half way there and then leave me.
Great anticipation welled up inside of me, this was just the beginning! The Lord was so involved in my plans that they could not possibly fail! We were setting out on this adventure together and what an amazing travelling companion He proved to be!
Christmas came around so quickly and before I knew it the trip was imminent. September 11th was still fresh in everyone’s mind but I had to push it to the back of mine or I was going to be a quivering wreck by the time I arrived in the USA.
Twenty years or so earlier I had been baptised in the Baptist Church and I was still in touch with the Minister and his family. Judith, his daughter now lived in London and kindly agreed for me to stay overnight with her before I flew out.
I was totally spoilt by her and what a blessing she was to me! I can’t remember the last time someone had run me a bath etc. I was so glad that I wasn’t alone that night. It did not seem long ago that I used to teach Judith in Sunday school and since I had held her as a newborn baby. The only reason we were together now was because we both loved the Lord, I knew that He had put us together for such a time as this.
We left the flat very early and Judith helped me onto the Gatwick express and waved me off. I suddenly felt so alone. No one returned my smile on the train, everyone seemed to be in their own little world and there was no room for anyone else there. It seemed to take so long to get to the airport and I checked that I had my passport and tickets so many times!
Before leaving home I had decided that I could either be a poor helpless woman as I travelled or I could look completely in control. I had chosen the latter and realised what a good job I was doing when the check in lady assumed I was a regular Transatlantic flier. If she had only known what I was feeling inside!
From there on things went amazingly smoothly, not that I should have been surprised really!
I sat next to a charming young American man on the flight to New York and on seeing my Bible he told me his favourite passages etc. and we had a great conversation about the Lord.
I felt very comfortable with him.
The next ten days were wonderful. Got to go to New York and have a picture taken with the statue of Liberty went to Boston which was beautiful, it was all so good. Always in the back of my mind I was thinking of the next stage of my journey, to the Polunsky Unit. Angela was a bit concerned and that rubbed off on me a bit but I just trusted the Lord to help me out.
Leaving Angela was very hard, we cried at the airport and I felt very vulnerable as I boarded the plane to Houston.
Somewhere deep in my heart I knew that this was going to be life changing, I knew that nothing was ever going to be the same again. I knew that I was going to see and hear things that would stir my soul and if they didn’t then I should be ashamed. I was totally out of control of what laid ahead. If Dorothy did not turn up to collect me from the airport I had no idea what I would do. Here I was again with my ifs and buts, still not quite able to trust God to help me out. I’m sure I must drive Him to distraction sometimes!
As we neared Houston it got so much hotter. It was evening but the temperature was about 80 degrees! At least I would be warm if I was left to sleep at the airport overnight! As we landed I just prayed so hard for the Lord to stick close by me, I had never needed Him more that I did then, and He has never been more real to me than He was that night.
I collected my bag and stood outside the terminal with a cardboard sign with my name on! I had no idea what Dorothy looked like and vice versa! I stood there so long but eventually she arrived and explained there had been a hold up. My bag was thrown into the trunk of her car and we sped off. Dorothy I later learned was loath to draw attention to her self due to her husband’s situation. I was standing in a no parking area, hence the speedy getaway!
Dorothy was a small black lady of few words that night as we travelled the 80 or so miles to Huntsville. However over the next few days I came to really admire this lady and grew very fond of her. Letting out rooms at her house and taxi-ing people around were all done to pay for a good attorney for her husband Thomas.
Dorothy’s husband may have fallen on hard times but what a faithful wife he had alongside him.
I arrived quite late at the Hospitality house and was surprised at how immaculate it all was! Everything was bright and new and there was a modern kitchen area and lots of food to go with it!
I was greeted by The Reverend and Mrs Bob Norris who “ran” the house and after a coffee was shown to my bedroom. It seemed that at the weekends the house was very busy as most of the “general population” prisoners were visited by friends and loved ones at the weekends. Texas is so vast that some of these people travelled great distances by bus etc to spend a few hours with those they loved.
General population is the term used to differentiate between death row and all other prisoners.
Huntsville is known as a prison town and a majority of the employment there is related in some way to the prison system. The death row facilities are now some 40 miles away in the purpose built unit. There are lots of separate units in and around Huntsville; the Walls unit being one of the biggest of them and also the condemned prisoners are executed there. A formidable place!
For the first night I would be sharing a room with someone but I was so tired I really didn’t mind where I slept.
On entering the room there was a curtain pulled across the room and obviously there was a sleeping lady behind there somewhere! There was an obvious noise, which I soon detected, was an air conditioner and it was very efficient, as the room was freezing cold. On coming in from the sultry temperature outside it was initially quite refreshing but then it got colder. Suddenly I felt very alone, very vulnerable. I wanted to turn the controls down but I somehow felt like an alien who had no rights here. Eventually I got into bed with my dressing gown on and a big blanket pulled over my head. I had visions of my being found frozen solid in the morning that was possibly the coldest night of my life!!
I got up quite early and went to the bathroom to get thawed out in a hot shower. There were lots of people there and everything was provided. Some of the ladies there were probably quite poor. The main person I remember was an elderly black lady. I first saw her in the bathroom wearing a hairnet and rinsing her dentures under the bath tap. An hour later she was to emerge like a butterfly from a chrysalis and asking my opinion of her outfit etc. What a lump in my throat! After 26 years of not knowing if her son was alive or dead she had found out that he was in the Walls Unit here in Huntsville and was to see him for the first time in all those years that day. I can only imagine the emotions that they both felt when they were reunited. I am sure he was very proud of his beautiful Momma. There was a small quiet room close to the bedrooms where you could go to pray or just to collect your thoughts, I saw her there before she left for her visit, my heart went out to her.
I was told in no uncertain terms; by my room mate that I should have turned the conditioning down if I didn’t like it. The harshness in her voice made me feel uneasy but then she went on to tell me about her husband whom she was visiting and softness came over her. We parted as friends, as women who were in a place that was not familiar, that was so full of emotions that it hurt. I’m not sure that she understood why I would put myself through this for a “pen friend” but I think she had enough going on in her own life, without being concerned with mine.
The Polunsky Unit did not allow weekend visits other than Saturday night. I was to await the arrival of Sister Betty and Brenda, an English woman who was married to a man on death row. Brenda stayed with Betty when she was in Texas. Betty is a Christian Minister but lost the right to minister on the row when she married one of the prisoners, Gary.
I must admit I found this hard to understand, as I would so love to have the opportunity to minister to prisoners and feel sure I would not give it all up for one man. Betty continues to visit and minister to prisoners in the population prisons, but not on the row. I know that Bro. Buck misses seeing her regularly and she is a lovely warm person and truly loves the Lord.
Who am I to judge, hope I am not being judgemental?
Betty and Brenda came to “call for me”, mid morning and I was very glad to see them. We all three got on immediately and spent a good day together, eating, shopping, and shopping and eating!!
I cannot tell you how good it feels to be with others that feel exactly what you feel, believe what you believe, and pray the same prayers that you pray. Sometimes I have felt that I am fighting a losing battle trying to make people understand why I love these guys and then I meet others that are fighting the same battle and I am so blessed.
I remember with affection the time I spent with Betty and Brenda, the time we spent in prayer, both for us and for our friends and loved ones on the row. The rest of the world with all its problems seemed as nothing somehow. I felt that I had “come home”. I believe that the Lord had planned my footsteps here, long ago. That the words I was to speak to Bro Buck and whoever else I may meet here were predestined also, long ago. For the first time for so long I felt part of something. Felt that I belonged and was totally accepted for who I am, in the same way I accept the “offenders” for who they are.
There was no going back now, I had lost control and the Lord was at the helm, steering me in His ways and for His purposes. How exciting, I had to prove myself worthy, not to the Lord but to the sceptics out there who may have doubted my motives.
On Monday I would be face to face with Bro. Buck and I was nervous of his great Bible knowledge, which made mine inadequate in comparison, but I knew it would be a good visit; it’s always good to spend time with a close friend.
I slept little on Sunday night. There were many scenarios going around in my head. I was concerned that the visitation papers etc would not be right. I tossed and turned and got up early looking worn out and frazzled!
I was now the only person staying at the hospitality house and it felt strange after all the hustle bustle of the weekend. I was glad of the company of Edna, who worked at the house. Being a visitor to Polunsky she was able to reassure me that all would be well.
The problem is that the Southern Baptists generally are pro death penalty as they still live by the eye for an eye law. This meant that I was not too sure whom I could really talk to if I needed to, but Edna was a Godsend. Was it Ghandi who said, “If it were an eye for an eye then the whole world would be blind”?
I made myself eat some breakfast, as I knew I would not be eating for sometime. Part of me wanted to hide away somewhere so that no one could find me when Dorothy called. Part of me was afraid, part of me excited. Such a mixture of feelings and yet in the midst of it all there was the still small voice of calm that encouraged me. I took myself to the small quiet room and just let all the feelings out and asked the Lord for just a little extra strength today.
Dorothy arrived on time and we left the house in brilliant sunshine, it was so hot. Due to some problem or other there was no air conditioning in the car and I felt myself melting into the seat. Dorothy was quite amused at this as she was obviously used to the hot weather. We chatted quite freely and I’m sure she could see how nervous I was but she had the good grace not to mention it!
As we drove across Lake Livingston it was so beautiful but boy what a strong smell of fish! There is a huge bridge over the lake and it was built in sections and as we drove over it there was a rhythmic sound as we went over the section joints. For some reason that stayed with me long after the visit was over. It was a reassuring sound, we were held up by something solid and I was so grateful.
Suddenly I saw the towers, the razor wire, and the Polunsky unit. This was it, the end of the road. Dorothy explained that she had something to do but would be back for me later. I had hoped that she would come in with me but for her this was commonplace, something she did every week of her life, visiting her husband. I was on my own now, but I felt the Lord at my side as I went through the doors into the entrance lobby.
There was an enclosed area with glass and a slot to push your passport/ID through. At first I thought I had been struck dumb because my words would not come out of my mouth. It was just nerves and my mouth was so dry that it felt as if my tongue had stuck to the roof of my mouth. I so wanted to look in control of myself! The steely eyed female prison guard who took my passport looked and waited for me to splutter out the name of my friend. “Special visit, ***** Buck, number ******. After what seemed like an absolute age she exchanged my passport for a big yellow plastic badge that read, DEATH ROW VISITOR and a number. I had to then pass through a security structure and was frisked by a male prison guard. Buttons were pushed and catches were released and I was out in the sunshine again at the end of a long path that led to Death row.
On either side of the path were well kept lawns or meticulously neat flowerbeds tended by general population prisoners All seemed to be young black men who kept their heads down and never attempted to look at me. They all looked really small but this may simply have been due to their stooped positions.
At last I arrived at the main entrance having had to ask a dental nurse en route for help to pin on my badge. My hands were too shaky! Well Lord I guess it’s you and me now I said under my breath. Had I ever felt more isolated from the real world, no? Had I ever felt so out of control of what happened next, no, all I wanted was one person to smile at me, just one person to acknowledge that I was even there!!
It seemed to be assumed that everyone had been there before so I just adopted the “I’ve been here before” look too. I passed through a room that I later learned was for legal visits etc and into a long room with a table at the entrance where a female prison guard was seated. I handed her the green slip of paper I had been given with my yellow badge. Without looking up she told me the number of the “cage” my friend would be put in and told me to sit at that “cage” to wait for him.
It was one of those situations when you didn’t want to look but couldn’t help but! There were several men sitting behind the glass in their “cages” waiting to be taken back to their cells following their visits. I did not want them to think I was staring at them, like they were animals in a zoo, but I did not want to appear to ignore them. I had never seen hardened criminals before, in the flesh, and surprisingly they looked like everyone else. They had neat hair cuts, were shaved and their white clothes were clean. I was to learn later that the men on level one had to shave etc. or they would be dropped to level two. The difference between the levels is quite a lot. Level ones can have a radio and are able to buy food etc. from the commissary via the staff. As there are no televisions the radios are a precious commodity and therefore the men do all they can to stay on level one. Special four-hour visits from such as myself are also only allowed on that level. Level three tends to be occupied by the “wild” ones as Bro. Buck calls them. I think these are the men who have given up on life and have lost all dignity and self-restraint. Possibly the only way they can handle the solitary confinement.
I didn’t wait too long before he came! Although handcuffed as he came into the “cage” he was immediately un-cuffed and he sat down and lifted the telephone. At the same time he put the palm of his hand against the glass and I automatically did the same. Then he prayed. That was how the visit was, really comfortable and relaxed, and he took every opportunity to introduce me to the other prisoners as they were escorted past the back of him. They all said, “How are you doing Ma’am?” and I thought, better than you my friend.
There are vending machines in the room and when it is your turn the guard gets what your friend wants. I put the money in but must not touch the food as it comes out it is collected in a brown paper bag by the guard and taken along the back to its eager recipient. To have salad and fruit is an amazing treat and it’s surprising how much someone can eat whilst talking on a telephone!
Although it was so hot outside the air conditioning was very similar to the first night at the Hospitality house! I was freezing and sat on my hands in turn to try to warm them up. I did not make too big an issue of it as poor Bro. Buck had no conditioning at all his side of the glass and was very hot.
The four hours past so quickly and I was saddened to leave. In those hours I had waved to a man who was to be executed the next day, a man who had lost a leg from gangrene due to diabetes. Even he mouthed, “How are you” through the glass. I had watched a family, including young children all trying to get a picture with a man behind the glass as he was due to be executed in two days time, he was their Daddy.
It was all quite surreal to me, more than I could take in. I did not want to show my emotions, as I knew that Bro Buck lives scenes and scenarios like that all the time.
At the end of the four hours I was asked to leave the window and go to sit at the table and wait for Dorothy who was nearing the end of her visit. It was strange because I could see Bro. Buck sitting in his “cage” and he could see me but we could no longer communicate. Other prisoners were also waiting to go back to their cells and they shouted to each other and exchanged greetings and indeed blessings. Now they were kept in solitary confinement they never got to see friends that they had got close to when housed in the Ellis unit in Huntsville. It touched my heart to see the delight in their faces at being able to talk to old friends. I felt a real and heavy sadness and even now as I write this I can remember the feelings I had that day.
These “animals” or “damned murderers” as they are described shared a warmth and fellowship that the Church would embrace. I sat and looked on, seeing the smiles and feeling the joy, and knowing that a lasting affection for these men was growing in me.
I so wanted to hug them, to show them some human compassion, the love of Jesus. They were individually cuffed and escorted away, still shouting to one another and wishing each other well.
I had learnt so much that day, not least that we good people out in the world could learn a lot from these “offenders”. I never have, nor ever will, excuse their crimes.
All I would say is that the man who committed that crime, or in some cases, the boy, are not the same people now. The drug culture is responsible for much of the crime and many of these men had grown up thinking that was the norm.
No, I could never condone their crimes but the law has already condemned them, surely they do not need my condemnation too?
The journey back to Huntsville was good. Dorothy and I chatted and although she and her husband were of the “moors” branch of the Moslem faith she appeared to have a real affection for Bro Buck.
After a few miles we stopped at a “Dairy Maid” restaurant for something to eat. I did not see a lot of evidence of dairy products but plenty of burger and chips combinations! The Americans certainly like their food and their size often reflects this. I was certainly not what the UK would term “slim”, but Sister Betty described me as being “tiny”. Oh bless her!!
I did not ask Dorothy about her family etc. Somehow I felt that if she had wanted to tell me she would have done so. Before we got into Huntsville we stopped at her home. There was a Nissan hut type structure built alongside her single storey home and that was used to accommodate guests, mainly from Europe, who were visiting friends on the row.
I was invited into her home and she showed me pictures etc. relating to her faith and also photographs of her husband, Thomas, in his younger days. Thomas is amazingly tall and is a mean basketball player I was told! When I mentioned this to Bro Buck he laughed and said when they were housed in the Ellis Unit they used to play basketball and Thomas was able to put his hand on the top of Bro Bucks head to stop him moving, there is certainly a height difference there!!
I was later told that Dorothy never took people into her home and that I was very honoured! Perhaps she felt comfortable with me as I never asked her lots of questions, perhaps she trusted me because I was Bro Bucks friend, or perhaps she saw a little bit of Christ in me and somehow related to that. Who knows, but I do know that I am very glad that I was given the opportunity to get to know Dorothy, even if only a little part of her.
My arriving back at the Hospitality house felt a bit of an anti climax. There was no one to talk to, I felt lonely. I spoke very briefly to Sister Betty on the telephone but Rev. Norris was standing right next to me and I felt restricted as to expressing my emotions.
I sat in my room for a while and talked to the Lord, as I knew he would understand and I then decided to go walkabout.
Huntsville has not got too much to see other than courthouses and prisons but I wandered about for a while anyway. As very few people seem to walk anywhere in the USA I hardly saw anyone other that in pick up trucks!
When I got back Rev Norris met me at the door to tell me that it wasn’t safe to walk about in Huntsville at night! I suppose it would have been helpful if he had told me that before, but then people did not go for walks around here, people other than “crazy English women” of course!
As I lay in my bunk bed that night I began to question what I was doing here. Suddenly the Saga holiday looked really tempting! Here I was completely alone, not sure if it was ok to go and make a coffee etc., everything was so spick and span, I might spill a coffee granule! Actually I was feeling sorry for myself! I had all but forgotten the solitude that Bro Buck “existed” in every day of his life. The difference was that it was silent here, no fellow prisoners ranting and raving at one another or even at nobody. The difference was that I could change this situation if I chose to, I could go and knock on the Norris’s door and throw myself on their mercy! I guess you could say that both my self and the guys on the row got our selves into this situation, but again the difference is that they now have no way to get out of it.
I lay and considered all these things and finally got to pray about my feelings. I asked the Lord if He could not have found me an easier path to follow, I was not sure I was up to this calling. Perhaps I should be involved with the elderly where I lived, the children’s work at Church, anything but this; it was going to break my heart one day. I think I fell asleep praying and when I woke it was like a heavy burden had been lifted from my shoulders. This was going to be a good day, maybe a sad one, but good just the same.
I had my breakfast with dear Edna and was ready for Dorothy when she arrived. It was just as well to be ready for Dorothy because she was always in a hurry! It was still very hot and the sun was blazing in the big Texan sky. There was so much beauty in Texas and I did not want to miss out on it by thinking of the reason I was there. I almost felt disloyal to Bro Buck by admitting how much I was getting to love Texas, but then, it was his home after all? I had asked him if he had ever thought about the death penalty before he was sentenced to death and he had said, “No it was just something that happened to other people”. So much for it being a deterrent!
I felt a little more in control today! It helped that Dorothy came in with me as she was visiting someone that day too. In fact she was visiting a man who was to be executed later that day, the man I spoke of earlier. I had to sit and wait for a while for Bro Buck and as I looked around I was amazed at how young some of the prisoners were. I suppose the fact that some of them were only 17 or 18 years old when they arrived here explained that. Also due to them only having possibly one hour a week outside in the yard their skin was not open to the elements and some may have looked a lot younger than their years. A male guard was standing in for Miss Williams for a while and he launched into a great character assassination of one particular hard eyed young man. I questioned if he should be telling me these things and he went on to say that “these ain’t humans lady, these are animals”. When I told him who I was visiting he said that he “did not know what Bro Buck was doing here, he was a Mamma's boy.” Sadly he was here for the same reason as the other young man but he had got to know the Lord really well and turned himself around. I looked at the young man and he stared back, I smiled and he just carried on staring. This went on for a while and then he threw his arms up in submission and smiled at me. Following that he turned his back on me, possibly embarrassed at having let his image slip! When I got back to the UK I looked through the 450 men on the Internet and found him, his name is Victor and I have never forgotten him.
When Bro Buck was brought in I felt relief at seeing his smiling face again. Although I was seated at the window to his “cage” I pretended to be distracted, as he was uncuffed as I felt it was so undignified for him to have me watch the procedure.
The visit was excellent and I had come more warmly dressed which meant I felt more comfortable physically too! The four hours flew past and before we knew it I was being told “5 minutes Ma’am”. Bro Bucks charm managed to get us an extra 5 minutes but then I had to go. We prayed together and we could have been anywhere, the Lord was so close by. I felt a wave of emotion come over me and I tried not to let him see my tears, but he put his hand on the glass and said, “Don’t be sad.” I felt a sob coming up from the depth of my soul and knew I had to go, I could see him waving through the back of his “cage” and I somehow kept myself together until I had gone through the second set of steel doors. The guards refer to us as “hug a thugs”, although chance would be a fine thing! I really did not want them to see me in a crumpled heap but what did it matter. I was so sad to leave my friend in that “cage”, I felt so wretched.
I exchanged my badge for my passport and went out into the hot sunshine. Sister Betty and Dorothy sat on a bench just outside and they said nothing. I’m sure they have seen the sadness so many times and although not unmoved by it they had to stand back a little. I was given a hug by them in turn and then got into Dorothy’s car after arranging to see Sister Betty and Brenda later that night. I had my packing to do, as I was to fly home the next day. After only 4 days in Texas I already knew that I would have to come back, I think a part of me never left there.
Back at the Hospitality House was a very nice young Minister from Louisiana, named Wayne; he had been to witness the execution at 6pm and had recently arrived back as he was staying the night. I sat for a while with him and Reverend Norris and listened to them talking about the death penalty issue and I then excused myself and set about packing my bag.
It seemed I had gained a wealth of souvenirs, friends had asked for something from New York etc. and I seemed to have accumulated quite a lot! Reverend Norris had given me a teddy bear depicting a Texas angel, not quite sure that Mrs. Norris approved! Possibly seeing it as a sign of affection! I suppose it was just as well that she did not know that I had also been given a gardenia from the tree outside the house! I still have that gardenia, which I pressed and I keep it in my Bible.
I really cannot remember too much of the remainder of the evening. I was tired after seeing Sister Betty and Brenda and sad to say goodbye to them. Sister Betty’s car was a bit dilapidated and travelled very slowly! We certainly could not help but draw attention to ourselves as we chugged along! Over these few days we had shared some fun together and had prayed together back at Sister Betty’s bungalow. I learnt a lot about the problems involved with marrying a man on death row. Even the marriage was conducted by proxy, with each party standing with someone who represented the other in the marriage. Not even getting to hold hands all seemed a little bizarre really.
Having said all that I can see how easy it would be to fall in love with one of these guys, especially if any previous relationship had been with someone who did not appear to appreciate you. These guys were so grateful for everything you did for them, gave them etc. and it can make your heart very vulnerable! There was never any question of my falling in love with Bro Buck because I saw him as a brother and could not have sullied our relationship with “romance.” I also knew that many people had the idea that “sad” women became involved with prisoners simply because they had a captive audience! No way was I going to perpetuate that myth!
Before I left for the airport I took a last look at the memorabilia on the walls there. There were lots of poems and letters that had been written by men now executed. I remember one particular photograph of an angelic little boy running through a meadow and beneath it was written, “Who would have thought that this child would grow into a man, his life ended by execution?” That photograph brought home to me, the fact that all these so called, “animals” were once someone’s baby, whatever happened to those “innocents”.
Dorothy arrived to take me to the airport and I was ready to go. Suddenly I felt a need to be amongst those that loved and understood me most. Not with those who questioned my motives, nor those who thought I had “lost the plot”, somewhere along the way. I needed to be with those who loved me unconditionally, even if they were not anti death penalty. I especially needed to be with those people who saw the Lord in all of this, who respected the belief I had that I was being obedient and going about my Fathers business. I prayed for a safe journey home but more than that I prayed for some space. I so wanted to have time alone on the flight to collect my thoughts. How I prayed that I would not be sitting next to a Texas red neck that would be totally opposed to what I had been doing in his Lone Star State.
Dorothy and I hugged at the airport and I knew that I would be seeing her again if Bro Buck and Thomas were spared long enough for me to save for another trip! As I watched her drive away I felt completely alone again and knew I must slip into my assertive woman role. I checked my bag in before passing through security. Obviously security was very tight following September 11th. I was asked to remove my shoes, well told really, don’t think I had a choice! There were armed soldiers at the checkpoint and I didn’t think this was the time to be too assertive!
I was so relieved to get through with no problems! It was one of those times when you know you have nothing to hide yet you still feel nervous! Similar feelings to the ones I had felt the first time I arrived at the Polunsky Unit. I was innocent, yet feeling guilty. I cannot even begin to imagine how it must feel when you are guilty!
My backpack was so heavy that I was fearful that I would fall over backwards at any moment. I’m sure it did wonders for my posture but not much for any other part of me. The thing was that being a sentimental old fool; I had put all the bits and pieces that I had been given by Bro Buck, all the photographs etc.etc into my backpack. If my bag had gone missing or been damaged these things were irreplaceable so they stayed with me! Physically they weighed heavy but my heart would have been heavier had they have got lost or damaged. I would just have to carry them!
My constant fear was that I would get on the wrong aeroplane; a slim chance I know but not impossible! I sat in the departure lounge for some time listening to my Gospel music via my personal CD player. At times like this the Gospel music kept me sane. (ish!)
It had begun to get quite crowded now and I sat “people watching” and possibly someone else was doing the same to me! There was an Indian family who were obviously seeing their teenage daughter off to the UK before going to get their flight home. Mother was so upset and wept openly whilst the father tried to keep control of his emotions. I felt so sorry for them and it gave me a fresh understanding of how very similar all we different races are. We all love our children and hate to be parted from them. I offered a small pack of tissues to the father, which he gratefully accepted. I then moved away as my own emotions were very raw and I was on the edge of tears.
The flight was leaving on time and that was a relief. The problem was that my flight left at 6pm. the exact time that the young man I had seen being photographed with his children at the Polunsky unit was to be executed. I resolved myself to keep in control of my feelings and tried to concentrate on other things. What other things could I think about? All I could see in my mind’s eye was the young man strapped to the gurney waiting to die. O Lord help me out here!
Thankfully there were very few passengers and I had a full row of seats all to myself. I sat looking out of the window trying to hold back my tears. I guess that I was also thinking of Bro. Buck and when it was going to be his date to die. I felt a pain in my throat as I stifled my emotions; I wanted to scream, to cry out in the agony of my spirit but how could I? I knew no one. I was alone; just a woman traveller. As the minutes ticked by I felt a tangible tightness in my chest and thought I was about to have a heart attack, but I knew it was simply stress. As we started to taxi along the runway I was able to release at least some of my emotions, the noise of the engine drowning out the sobs that reverberated through my body. I was not strong enough for this. I must ask the Lord to lift this burden from me, to give it to someone stronger! I know the Lord does not make mistakes but perhaps I could be His first one? Perhaps He had got me confused with someone else? I was a 52-year-old asthmatic, how could I possibly be strong enough to do this work?
I eventually let go and all the stifled emotions flooded out. There was no one near me and I could not have helped myself even had there been. As far as I was aware the young man was now dead and my heart was broken. After a few minutes the stewardess from the first class compartment came towards me and said, “I hope you don’t mind me saying ma’am, but the closer you get to people the more you will feel their hurts.” I was amazed but knew that the Lord had sent her to comfort me, and she did. After fetching me a cup of coffee she went on to tell me that her father had recently died of cancer and that she was still grieving for him. We shared a lot about our faith and I was open about my reason for being in Texas. Fortunately she came from a different state and was opposed to the death penalty. Throughout the flight home I was supplied with coffee from the first class compartment and blessed by the “angel’s” conversation and understanding. What an answer to unspoken prayer!
I wrote to Bro. Buck on some airline headed notepaper supplied by the steward who served my meals etc. I suppose he had seen how difficult it was for me to write a letter on a serviette and had taken pity on me! Somehow I managed to write quite an upbeat letter without any mention of the execution of course. In my desperation I told Bro. Buck that I would be back to see him in November, although I knew that this was unlikely to be possible but I so wanted it to be! In retrospect I have learnt never to make promises that are unlikely to be kept. It is certainly not a good way of earning peoples trust.
The landing was uneventful and my bag was safe and sound, hallelujah! As I alighted from the train at the end of my journey in Northampton I saw my friend Hayley, who had promised to meet me via a text message at the airport. I must have looked a total wreck, with no sleep and so much crying. Graciously Hayley never mentioned it! I took one look at her and was off again, crying and trying to talk at the same time. I must have been a mess as the taxi driver let me off the fare home. Yet another miracle!
At that time I had no hope of ever getting in control again and began to fear for my sanity! One of the hardest things for me to accept was that I could not share my feelings with some of my family as they did not even approve of me writing to my pen friends. Again I thank God for my wonderful friends who rallied around and consoled me. The jet lag also played a big part in my feeling so tired and drained.
On reflection I had to admit that the Lord does not make mistakes and that He had brought me safely home and, ultimately, I would be a stronger person because of this work. The Polunsky unit (it was actually known as the Terrell unit in 2002) was in my blood. The smell of the place was in my nostrils and the guys that were incarcerated there were in my heart. This may have been the end of my trip but it was only the very beginning of my journey.
Chapter Three ……
The Involvement Grows.
Getting back into everyday life was difficult. My mind was full of memories and words that I had heard or said. The greatest blessing was that I learnt that Curtis, the young man that I feared executed as I flew out of the USA had in fact he had been given a very last minute stay. Although a lot of the tears that were shed across the Atlantic on my journey home were for him, they were not wasted. I always believe that there are times when nothing but tears can soothe your hurting soul. Like a damn held back and suddenly opened, they are inevitable. If I could have gone and seen the things that I had seen and not been moved then I would have known that this “work” was not of God. I also knew that very possibly one day soon he and his family would go through the same torment all over again. Surely the victim’s family were not alone in their suffering.
Gradually my life became more ordered again and I tried to concentrate on the future and where I was expecting to go from there. Sadly I soon came to realise that it was not going to be remotely possible for me to return to Texas again later that year. Bro Buck had told Sister Betty that I was planning to return in November and I then had to write and tell him that it was not going to happen. That was my first big lesson! I should never to make a promise or even a suggestion of a promise that you may not be able to keep. When I was back in the UK out and about, meeting friends, going to work etc. I was able to put things that concerned me to the back of my mind. Being in solitary confinement 24/7 did not give Bro Buck that privilege. I felt really bad about letting him down and equally he felt guilty because I was feeling bad! What a nightmare, all because of a few ill chosen words. Of course our friendship was far too strong to be shaken by this but it could well have been.
It is amazingly hard to put misunderstandings right when we can’t use even a telephone, let alone emails and text messaging! That is why I always read all my letters several times as a word out of place can be taken wrongly and misinterpreted causing hurt. Perhaps we would all benefit from thinking more about the words we say sometimes. I’m sure that if our words were written down before us we could well be horrified at how insensitive we can be. To receive a letter containing such words and then be able to sit and dwell on them for hours, alone, could no doubt be devastating.
As time went on Bro Buck and I settled into a good regular correspondence and became closer, sharing our faith in a real way. I was not attending any Church regularly as I had become disillusioned with “Church” recently, not with the Lord but with “Church!” Bro Buck encouraged me on and I knew that I needed to find a fellowship that felt able to support me spiritually as I became more involved with this work. Perhaps were it not for him I may well have been content to “go it alone.” Knowing how much he would have valued sitting listening to the word and joining in the worship made me realise how blessed I was, made me determined to find a good supportive fellowship. I praise God that eventually I settled at Kingdom Life Church and am so glad that I am part of Gods family there. It is so easy to forget how privileged we are indeed to have the freedom to worship, yet how easily we can take it all so much for granted. I take Bro Buck there in my heart every Sunday that is as much as I can do unfortunately.
I feel quite humbled when I think of the strong faith of so many with so little and the lack of faith of so many with so much! I remember a man named Bo who came across from the USA to speak at a Lifelines conference. This man had been on death row for some twenty years or so when he was exonerated, his reaction was, “I guess God had to do something to get my attention!” In going on he said that had he been out in the world he would not have survived due to his “bad” lifestyle. Wow!! There was not even a hint of bitterness in this man. What an amazing witness. “Jail house religion” is the term often used to explain why prisoners with no hope turn to Jesus. This term also implies that were they freed, it would all be forgotten. Bo and many others certainly belie this explanation.
The pen friend organization has two conferences annually, one in London and the other in different cities throughout the UK. I have sat in awe of many of the speakers who have lived through the most amazing/heartbreaking situations but have emerged such strong, balanced individuals. Whereas some have lost loved ones at the hands of offenders, some have lost their loved ones at the hands of the lawful executioners. Their grief was equally hard to bear.
Throughout all this time my friendship with Clifford and Barbara continued to flourish and how very much I valued their wisdom! The Lord was so faithful and never failed to put the right person in my path at just the right time! I never felt cast adrift spiritually, even for a second. I may have felt physically alone on so many occasions during my trip but I never doubted the Lords presence. Now I can fully understand why so many turn to him when they feel totally alone. I felt I was gaining an insight into the desperation of those who had no hope. If “jail house religion” was the answer, then so be it!
As the year went on I began to think about my next trip. I knew that I would have to save a certain amount each month and that this would result in me not being able to support as many charities as I would wish to. I had to pray about it and trust that I would be given good direction. I knew in my heart that the Lord would not have brought me this far only to turn me back. My main thought was to be sure of my facts before I told Bro. Buck. I was not going down that road again!
Having a real peace about planning another trip I decided to go at the end of March.
I went ahead and booked my flights although to get the best deal financially I needed to change at Washington. I felt that this would be an ideal opportunity to spend some time with President George. W. Bush. As a staunch advocate for the death penalty, having signed more execution warrants than any other Governor of Texas, I was sure that he would be happy to take tea with me! Unfortunately I never got to check diaries with him, his loss of course! Having said that, it was not acceptable to say such things in Texas as he is a local boy and is held in great esteem, at least in public!
With dates now set in place I had a new determination to save the amount that I needed and I could also write to Bro. Buck and Sister Betty with my definite plans. I must admit that I did not particularly want to stay at the hospitality house again, mainly because I felt so isolated there. The finer details of where I was going to stay etc. would have to wait. I was sure that Dorothy would not see me on the streets! I must tackle one thing at a time. News that Sister Betty had fractured her leg and had moved to live near her son some three hours drive away was a little disheartening.
I began to feel that as people saw that my involvement with Lifelines was an ongoing thing and not a passing fad, they became more supportive. Not everyone of course and to some of my family it remained a taboo subject but the more I felt God’s approval the less I was concerned about “man’s approval. I really believe that I was born for such a time as this, to reach out and to love the “unlovable”, at least in men’s eyes. Just as in the story of the little boy who was faced with hundreds of starfish that had been left marooned on the seashore. Although he knew that his efforts were futile in the worlds eyes, carrying them back to the open sea one at a time, knowing that for every one he saved a hundred would be lost, he was not deterred. The little boy knew that even if he could only save a few it was better than not saving any. I did not feel that the salvation of hundreds of men depended on me but I did believe that if I could only touch a few with a spark of hope and compassion then so be it!
As the year progressed I continued to write regularly to both Bro Buck and dear Richard, and as time passed Richard and I became more at ease with one another and I grew to be very fond of him. I had not told him that I was going to visit Bro Buck originally but after the experience of the previous muddled information I decided to “come clean.” I should have had more faith in him, as he was fine about it all. Ohio is so far from Texas that it would not have been possible to visit both states in 4 days. Having said that Richard did say that he would have been pleased for me to visit him but he understood. Also in later letters he talked about how low he feels when his visitors leave. I have read letters from prisoners in the Lifelines newsletter (that is published quarterly) who are desperate for their pen friends not to visit them. They simply could not cope with all the emotions etc that goes with the visits. As a pen friend organization there is no pressure whatever on the writers to visit their friends.
Although Ohio death row conditions are not ideal, Richard is in a pod, (cell block) where he can recreate with others, have a TV in his cell and own and play a guitar etc. Small concessions to us but to the guys in Polunsky they would make an amazing difference to their lives.
Somewhere along the way I was asked if I would write to someone in Louisiana, in Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as Angola. I was told that the man concerned was not on death row but had a 100-year without parole sentence, which is very formidable? As a non death row prisoner I would not be writing to him via Lifelines of course but I agreed and awaited his letter.
On seeing his name I was pretty sure that he was not going to be a Christian, his name was Abdullah Muhammad! Well where did I go from here? Was it acceptable that I, an upright Christian woman should be corresponding with a Moslem? Aarrgghh!! I had to consider whether the person who had approached me initially had set me up! Perhaps they had found it a little amusing and would be watching for my reaction?
I must admit that I did not rush off to Church and get in a Holy huddle about it, partly out of cowardice, but also I did not want to put my friends there in that position. I guess it was just God and I again!
I read and re-read his letter so many times; his referrals to Allah making me feel totally out of my depth! Should I write a brief but caring note to explain my position and “write him off”? Of course this then appeared as if I would only write to people who were either of my faith or no faith, such arrogance! In my usual way, I waited around for a bit and listened for God to tell me to not get involved with this man, I heard nothing. Therefore I sat and wrote a long letter telling him all about me, and stressing my Christian faith throughout. Perhaps I was sub-consciously hoping that he would decide not to get involved with me!! Oh dear, what a dilemma!
Of course he did not do the latter and he wrote back quite quickly assuring me that my faith would not be a problem to him!! I have to say that following a bit of a shaky start when he became a little to “personal” we became great friends and actually I felt very comfortable with my relationship with him. There are so many things that I try to say to him without him feeling that I am asking him to compromise his faith, but it is not easy.
There are 5,000 prisoners in Angola so as you can imagine it can be a tinder box at times and there are often conflicts between prisoners, sometimes fatal conflicts, and amongst all this turmoil Abdullah believes that he has found peace in Islam. It would be so amazing were he to convert to Christianity but I know that the Lord has His hand on our relationship and therefore I must trust in His wisdom.
The annual Lifelines conference in London is held in October and by then I was feeling quietly confident about finding accommodation etc. when I arrived in Texas.
As London is only an hours train ride away and the venue ten minutes walk from the station I find it quite easy to get there. I really knew very few of the other members but was hoping that Clifford and Barbara might make an unexpected and very welcome appearance! Little did I know that the Lord had other plans and that He was going to bring someone else very special into my path, Rachel Baker.
As co-ordinator for Texas I had spoken to Rachel occasionally and indeed it was she who “paired off”, Bro.Buck and myself, in that of course Rachel had already proved to be a blessing. Due to Clifford and Barbara not being there I found myself at a bit of a loose end during the lunch break and seeing Rachel I decided to go and join her at a table.
As the original conversation at the very beginning had changed my life so then did this meeting with Rachel. It transpired that she and another lady named Margaret were travelling to Texas in 2003 but in February not March as I was planning. It was ironic that Margaret was the pen friend of Curtis whom I spoke of earlier regarding his stay of execution. Rachel encouraged me to try to change my flight plans and to be in the USA at the same time as she and Margaret were to be as they were to hire a car and stay in the Holiday Inn!! Rachel’s a bubbly blonde lady and her enthusiasm was quite infectious and I got carried along with it. I know now that me sitting down with Rachel was pre ordained and I cannot begin to think of the difference Rachel has made both to my life and to the lives of those she has introduced me to.
I was off to the travel agent like a shot, (I was not confident to book tickets on the internet at this point!), and managed to change my flights. Unfortunately I could not travel with Rachel and Margaret but I would only arrive a day previous to them and I was to leave the same day. I was resigned to spending the first night in the airport but the members of my Church house group presented me with enough money for a nice hotel room for the night!! Other friends Pete and Liz gave me enough for my train fare to and from the airport!! How I could ever doubt God’s involvement in all this I don’t know! This was particularly helpful as my plans had of course been brought forward by a month, and as a result I had a little less time to save up.
I was not concerned about travelling alone, after all I was quite a globetrotter by now, but it was a nice feeling to know that I would have someone to share with when I was visiting and in the evenings. Felt really excited and never considered for a moment that the three of us would not get along! We were after all “singing from the same song sheet “as they so irritatingly say and we would be far too busy to be falling out with each other. (Hopefully!)
Rachel had plans to go to Houston to speak on a local radio station and also to visit a couple of guys who were under sentence of death but were waiting for re-trials in the County jail. Had I been travelling alone I would not have been involved in any of these things and would have missed out on meeting some interesting people and also on forming two more treasured relationships with the prisoners.
It began to feel as if the Lord was one step ahead of me throughout and obviously He was. I was afraid to become complacent but I did feel very relaxed about what was to come. Who needs a travel agent when the creator of the Universe is steering your course. Ooh! I just got so full of great anticipation and could not wait to see what He was planning for me next! Not because I am in any way special but as I said earlier, I felt I was being obedient to His call and He was honouring me in my obedience. I do hope I never lose the excitement and expectation that I felt then and have continued to feel subsequently. Although my path has not been totally smooth the bumps along the way have been softened by my confidence in the Lord and in those I know who also love Him. Rachel came into my life at just the right time and I am so glad that she did.
There were many occasions when I had to “tell myself off” for being so single minded! It was beginning to feel as if my whole life revolved around the next trip to the USA! I’m sure I became (and possibly still am!) a real bore, going on about my pen friends etc. It is simply difficult not to mention them as they are such a huge part of my life and they keep me grounded when I am feeling sorry for myself for example. I had to remember all the wonderful friends that had been part of my life for so many years as well as the new people that the Lord was bringing into my life for that time.
The busyness of Christmas kept me from becoming too wrapped up in the upcoming trip. I worked all over Christmas and my mind was fully occupied with buying and wrapping gifts and cards both for my own friends and family and for the families of the residents I worked with. I was able to send Richard a book on art that he wanted, Richard never asked for anything! It was hard work trying to get him to tell me what he would like for Christmas. Of course I am very limited in the things I can send; mainly books via Amazon and money via a long-winded money order system. Richard declined to have me on his visiting list as only those on the list can send him money and he doesn’t want me to feel obliged to do that. It is good for him to have such principles but I would like to be able to help him out occasionally.
Before I go on I will explain the money order system! Money orders are what we in the UK would call postal orders and they are sent to the inmate’s trust funds in the relevant States. For these to be obtainable via the pen friend organization is dependant on people bringing quantities back from the USA. We that go to visit our friends there or go for leisure reasons volunteer to bring a substantial amount back. I cannot describe the look on the faces of the post office counter clerks when we ask for, “100x$20 money orders please.” There is an enormous queue (line as the Americans would say) by the time we are served. As I have usually purchased mine in either Huntsville or Livingston I have never been asked why I need so many. I am sure that people work it out for themselves and choose not to get into the subject.
The prisoners never handle money but are informed when something has been paid into their account. When there are long gaps between letters it usually means that they have no money for stamps. As they have to pay towards their doctors and dental treatments small amounts paid in by family and friends are soon gone. I once heard it said, by an eminent defence lawyer, that the only people that get capital punishment are those with no capital, a sobering thought.
Over the years I had made an arrangement with Sister Betty and could send her the dollars for the various inmates’ trust funds and she goes to pay them in at the office in Huntsville. When possible I like to send her a few dollars too as she can then get something to eat and drink for some of the general population prisoners that she visits and also to help pay for her fuel to travel the 6 hour round trip.
Now there is a wonderful system that makes it easy to pay money in via “Jpay” on the internet. This has been a real blessing!
Although I understand why some people think that I would do better to spend the money on myself, I enjoy being able to make my friends lives a little more bearable. The Lord does not provide for me and bless me that I should keep it all to myself, what would be the point of that. “Lord bless me to be a blessing” roles so easily off the tongue but is meaningless unless I am a blessing! If I never gave my friends another dollar I am confident that we would continue to have a good relationship. I cannot remember one of them ever asking for money, I choose to give it. That is as they say, between the Lord and me.
As ever preparing for Christmas seemed to take so long and then it was all over in a flash. I suppose working through Christmas and the New Year tends to make the occasions less “special”. I just knew that at the end of February I needed to be ready to go to the USA. It was the priority thought on my mind.
Again I had arranged to stay with Judith in London and I was so grateful to be able to do that. As I was flying out on a Monday I travelled up to London on the Sunday afternoon. I was prayed for at Church that Sunday morning and after the service a man named Phil offered to drive me to London so that I did not have to catch the train. Gestures such as that mean so much to me as I feel that it confirms people’s understanding of my ministry. Judith and her “young man” Chris met me and I felt safe and loved, what a wonderful feeling!
I had to leave early the next morning and Judith confidently pulled my suitcase through the London streets and we were soon at the tube station where we had to part. I must admit that I did feel very alone as I waved her off and I hated trying to negotiate my case on those awfully high escalators! I had a picture in my mind of the suitcase toppling way down to the bottom possibly with me still attached! Horrible thought!
Thankfully my worst fears were not realised and I eventually arrived at the train platform and ultimately at the airport. I always feel a great relief when my bag is checked in and I am free of it! I then can slip into my confident globetrotter role. Hopefully people do not see me constantly checking that my passport and tickets are still in my possession! In my everyday life I have a philosophy that if you smile at people at least some of them will return your smile. Airports tend to be the exception to my rule. As I observe the other travellers around me they all seem to be so stressed out! Perhaps they are nervous flyers etc. but they just look so tense. Of all the places I have been (other than the Polunsky unit!) airports have the most unfriendly atmosphere. I have to admit that I found myself not even bothering to smile at anyone, must try harder!
I had to wait what seemed an age before boarding and I wandered aimlessly trying not to be tempted by the duty free shop. I did buy myself a ring from the Pastimes shop as Bro.Buck was going to spend 8 hours looking at my hand holding the telephone I may as well give him something pretty to look at!
After boarding I was fine. I cannot be doing with the videos they have on the plane. I can never get them to do what I want them to do so I listen to my personal stereo and read. The flight to Washington was fine and other than having to claim my baggage and check it in again the journey on to Houston was uneventful.
I was to stay in the Ramada hotel that night. I will always remember it as it is the first hotel that I ever booked over the Internet. There was a row of telephones with various hotel names on them close to the baggage claim. All I had to do was pick up the telephone and say I needed picking up and it was done! What a relief. Rachel and Margaret were to arrive the next day and I had the luxury of a whole nights sleep and until noon the next day if I wanted it.
There were occasions when I thought about my Mum who had never got any further than the Isle of Wight! I can imagine how worried she would have been about me going on my “expeditions” bless her! Margaret is now older than my Mum was when she died but she obviously has that spirit of adventure too!
The Ramada hotel was very good. The bed was so comfy that I slept as soon as I lay down. Felt safe and secure as it was a good quality hotel. I woke up feeling rested and hoping that the jet lag would now pass me by! After a late breakfast I decided to go to the airport. Unfortunately the bus took me back to the departures terminal when I needed to be at arrivals to meet Rachel and Margaret. What a performance! There were problems with the internal rail link and I have to say that Houston airport did not seem high on customer service. I was frantic to get to where I needed to be but no one seemed able (or willing!) to help me. Suddenly I saw a man in a red jacket and I asked him for help and he responded. Hallelujah! Not only did he listen to my problems but also he said he was about to finish his shift and he would take me where he wanted to go. I automatically said, “Bless you” and he asked if I was a Christian. When I said I was he went on to say that he had a twelve year old son with brain cancer and how much he would appreciate my prayers for him. I was very touched by this man's love for his son and I did pray for him of course. Sadly the email address he gave me was not quite right and I could never get back to him. I do hope his son recovered.
As he had promised I was duly escorted to Arrivals in good time to meet up with my travelling companions. It was a very cold damp day outside but it was quite warm in the airport. We were to pick up our hire car and go straight to a vigil outside the Walls unit in Huntsville whilst a man was executed. As executions are quite frequent there, the vigils are small if indeed there is a vigil at all. This was to be our opportunity to stand up and be counted as it were.
It was good to see Rachel and Margaret and we were soon on our way. The hire car was super! It was an electric blue PT Cruiser, very swish. As most people in Texas drove black or white pick up trucks we were certainly going to be a bit noticeable. Why not? The baggage was piled in and we were off to Huntsville in no time.
The vigil consisted of half a dozen women of various nationalities and a film crew was there from ABC news. All I can remember is the cold. I only had a thin top on for some reason and a lightweight jacket. I cannot remember ever feeling colder than I did that day, except possibly that first night at the Hospitality House! I’m sure the thought of what was going on so close by must have affected me too in some way and that may have made me feel the cold so extremely.
The film crew were asking us questions and my teeth were chattering so much that I could hardly speak. We had the “eye for an eye” quote from the Bible and I replied that we had the New Testament in Britain. The man interviewing us seemed to find this very amusing. I fail to see the point of them conducting interviews with people that they so obviously disapprove of.
I must admit that I was so relieved to leave there and get on our way to Livingston.
The thought of being in a warm room at the Holiday Inn was very inviting and I could hardly wait!
Compared to the Hospitality house in Huntsville the Holiday Inn seemed huge! We had agreed that Margaret and I should share a room leaving Rachel all the space of her own room for all her paperwork! The rooms were very nice and we soon settled in although poor Margaret had an awful cold coming out and was not in top form.
To be honest the order in which we did things following that is a bit blurred! We had such a hectic schedule that we just got on and did it! Rachel had arranged for us to make a broadcast on the prison radio station that was based in Houston. The thought
of being in Houston at night and not really knowing where we were going was a bit scary! However we had visits before then and so I was just trusting God to guide us, as always!
It was Margaret’s first visit to see Curtis and it was such a pity that she felt so unwell. We arrived at Polunsky quite early but it was clear that there was a sort of “go slow” in operation. It was well over an hour before any of our friends were brought up to the visits room. Apparently there was a shortage of staff. During the wait we chatted to other visitors that were mostly European. The Miss Williams that was on duty that day was quite ok about us milling about chatting. The next day would be different!
When Bro Buck finally appeared he was a welcome sight. Of course we got straight into praying, about anything and everything. Our hands were on either side of the glass petition, oh just to be able to shake his hand, let alone give him a hug. I can’t imagine how it must feel to never have any human contact at all. Other than being man handled and shackled of course. It was so good though to sit and talk to him. It wasn’t any different to sitting with my other close friends really, other than the glass petition and the telephone!
Bro Buck soon spotted salad and fruit in the vending machines and he was desperate to have some! The quality of the food that the “inmates” get is very poor and the sight of fresh fruit etc. is like a child seeing a bag of sweets. As always I had to wait until Miss Williams was free to get the food from the machine. Although it was my second visit I still felt quite nervous and tried to follow every rule to the letter.
Bro Buck did not want too much to drink as he didn’t want to have to go to the bathroom and miss any time of our visit. I think perhaps he also did not want me to hear the inappropriate comments made by the female guards when he called out to be taken to the bathroom. I realised how humiliating it was for him. Over the visits I learnt to “pretend” that I needed the bathroom, giving the person I was with the opportunity to call out whilst I was not there.
The “bathrooms” for visitors are slap bang in the middle of the visits room and several pairs of eyes seem to follow you in there and watch you coming out! There is a safety handle on the door and if you close it as you come out, then no one else can get in! The guards love to let everyone know that you have closed the door and it is so embarrassing! Generally it is all done in good humour…..I think!
My visits with Bro Buck were and still are, very special. We love to talk about the Lord together and he just loves to lead in the prayers. I guess it is one of the few times that he feels respected.
As always he held up a scrap of paper with various telephone numbers for his family. As always they were not “in service” and I had to go back and tell him that I couldn’t get through. As they live so close by I know that he is so disappointed that they don’t get to visit him.
I have written to them on numerous occasions but have never had a reply. When his Mom, Sharon, was imprisoned for forging green cards for illegal immigrants she suddenly started to write to him and I sent her several books etc. via Amazon. Once released, she was gone again. Sharon is his stepmother as his own Mom was killed in a car accident when he was 9 years old. After remarrying his Father went on to have a total of 21 children altogether, yet not one of them visits. At the time of his death his Father was a Baptist Minister and he never once visited or communicated with Bro Buck following his death sentence. How that must grieve bro Buck’s heart. Anyway I digress!
The following day we were to visit the 2 death row prisoners that were in the County jail waiting for re-trials. I had never even written to the man I was to see, Eugene. Rachel and Margaret were to see Calvin. Must admit to feeling a little apprehensive, if only I had known!
We arrived at the jail in Houston and found it to be a newly constructed building that was huge. We were told to lock our bags in a locker and get in the queue. The queue was very long. It seemed that everyone there looked quite poor and there were a lot of Hispanic families all talking in Spanish and it was very noisy.
Amazingly the people queued for up to an hour for a 20 minute visit! As overseas visitors we were allowed half an hour!
I cannot possibly relate to you the noise and confusion that we found in the visits room! There were 3 large glass enclosures with concrete seats positioned around them for the visitors. In the glass were holes cut out periodically covered in wire mesh for the prisoners and their visitors to speak through.
The general prisoners were not handcuffed and when they were let into the enclosure it was absolute mayhem! Everyone was fighting for a “hole” to speak through and the noise was absolutely unbearable!
Our “friends” were handcuffed as they were death row guys and they were all together in one enclosure. Eugene was not very tall and found it quite hard to reach the hole to shout through and of course I had to try to remember to put my ear to the hole when he was speaking!
That morning Rachel and I had been to a local Baptist Church to try to track down Bro Bucks family. For the occasion I had brought a long dress and there I was looking like someone from “little house on the prairie” amidst all the shouting and pushing and shoving etc. I don’t think I have ever felt so out of place in my life!
I just couldn’t get to grips with the “hole” and found myself constantly having my mouth and ear there at the wrong time! Eugene was perspiring really badly as it was very hot and claustrophobic and he is a diabetic.
The man next to him began to argue with his wife who was there with his Mom. The language he was using was not good and Eugene asked him not to use that language in front of me. Well it all took off then and the other man tried to head butt Eugene while his wife laid into me and I feared for my life! Eventually he was overpowered and removed which then left his wife there next to me telling me it was my fault that he would not get a visit for a month etc. Throughout it all I could hear Rachel calling my name and I was so afraid!
At the end of our visit we ran………I was so concerned that someone would be waiting for me outside the jail! Margaret’s cold had made her hearing really bad and she looked quite bemused as she had not heard a lot of what went on! Wow I am so glad that I had the Lord with me that day. I have never needed Him more!
Sadly although Calvin had his sentence commuted to life in prison, Eugene was again given the death sentence. 4 years on, we are great friends and I have visited him every year since in the comparatively civil Polunsky Unit!
Despite a constant battle to hear the Lord and to believe that the Lord hears him, Eugene never could commit himself to the Lord. Recently however, there has been a real breakthrough and I praise God for that! Patience…………!
When I look back over the past 5 years I find it hard to believe that the person I am writing about is me!
Despite my being adamant that I would never get involved with co coordinating with the pen friend organization I think it was always inevitable that I would!
To coordinate a state involves being responsible for finding a pen friend for the prisoners in that state. I was encouraged to take on a small state and I agreed to be responsible for Oregon which had only 30 or so men on death row.
It was quite exciting getting my index cards all sorted etc and writing to the 30 men there and introducing myself.
There were some very “interesting” men on the row there including a Buddhist and someone who described himself as a practising witch! I can remember throwing his letter into the air and screaming when I read that! I trusted it all to the Lord and I believe that the guy was possibly having a bit of fun at my expense! I had introduced myself as being a born again Christian but stated that I was open minded and was not into writing or helping only Christians to the exclusion of all others.
This man then replied with “how open minded are you?” Now he sends me Christmas cards and has never mentioned witchcraft again. Perhaps he thought I was just another “do gooder” who wouldn’t stick around too long!
I have a really good relationship with a lot of the “offenders” in Oregon now and have formed a strong friendship with at least one of their Moms.
My involvement has over the years far surpassed my expectations! I now am writing to a few non death row guys too as they sometimes struggle to get a pen friend but have sentences of up to 100 years of course.
Although I still consider myself under the umbrella of the organization I always believe that I am answerable to the Lord first and foremost because I very much believe that I am about His business.
In 2004 I received a telephone call from Rachel to tell me that she and her husband were to move to Singapore for 3 years. I thought that sounded really exciting and then she asked the question….Would I co coordinate Texas with her! At that time there were 400 or so men on death row there and 10 women! I was lost for words. I needed to take time to pray about it.
I never slept that night. How could I do it with my demanding full time job? I had no one to help me at home, how would I fit it all in?
I had a picture in my mind of the prison and the people in it. I could almost smell it and feel the tension that hung over it. I saw Bro Buck’s smiling face. It was as if I was there and I then realised that part of me never leaves there. Then I knew what my decision would be. The Lord gave me a real peace about it all.
I had visited in 2003 and made eye contact with a young man, Robert, who had asked me to write to him because he knew I was a Christian. I knew that there can be a lot of jealousy between the men if their pen friend starts to write to someone else etc. and I had wrestled with that. I knew that as Texas coordinator I could write to and visit as many as I wished to as I my role gave me that privilege. I knew that was why this had happened. There were so many there needed to hear the word. Needed to know that someone cared for them
I knew that Bro Buck would be supportive and share the burden of prayer with me.
Making that decision changed my lifestyle beyond belief! There are some 300 writers from the UK writing to Texas and I am there for them if they have a problem, or just need to have some information about mail rules etc.
I need to ring and let them know when their friend is given an execution date and to keep in touch with them until the execution is over. Sometimes it is very emotional and I depend very much on the Lord’s strength to get me through it.
Rachel and I are a formidable team and her wealth of knowledge about how to access information etc. makes her absolutely irreplaceable! We get along so well too.
Last year I visited 11 prisoners. One of them was Abdullah in Louisiana. I had a very eventful trip there to see him which involved several hours on a Greyhound bus! I fell asleep on the bus and someone “borrowed” all my worship cds! I do hope that they were blessed by them. That part of the trip warrants a book all on it’s own I can assure you!
When I think of some of the experiences I have had, there is no way that the Lord wasn’t with me!
This year I am planning to visit at least 13 men and one woman, Linda, also on death row there. The women’s unit is a long way from the men’s unit but I made a promise…………
I have summed up the last 4 years in one short chapter because I now have so little time to write much else but letters!
Each person I write to is so unique and each has a special place in my heart. Every year I lose friends and gain more.
When a man writes to tell me that he is going to give up his appeals and ask to be executed how can I not respond? Especially if he doesn’t know the Lord …yet!
I am continually blessed and encouraged by a word here and there that shows me that someone’s heart is softening towards the Lord.
Since completing this I have resigned from Coordinating Texas as it became a real distraction to my evangelism! I continue to coordinate Oregon and have seen some great breakthroughs with my friends there. As there are still only just over 30 men there I can cope with Oregon!
It seems that the name of “Sister Ann” is quite well known and I now write to and visit several “lifers” that have had my name passed along to them! I don’t quite know where it comes from but ……life means life in the USA and there are some desperate needs amongst them.
What I have found amazing is that I am often their first visitor for up to 11 years! Those are some pretty special visits.
At the time of completion in May 2007 there are 14 scheduled executions between now and October. Although at times I feel that would love to just walk away from it all and grow old gracefully I know that isn’t going to happen until the Lord prompts me to do so.
This is only a small insight into my world. This world of sharing my heart with people that are said to be heartless. Of baring my soul to people that are said to be soul less. Of finding priceless treasure in “ugly” vessels.
If I have learnt nothing else throughout these past seven years, I have learnt that no one is beyond redemption. I have also learnt how good it feels to be loved and appreciated and how awful it must be to feel the total opposite
Sometimes in Church we pray “give me more compassion Lord” and I must admit I am thinking can I cope with having more? I know I can.
Thank you for reading this little book. I hope that through my eyes and my words you can perhaps get a glimpse of what an amazing enabler the Lord has been in my life.
In my own strength I would have given up so long ago, but in His strength, this may only be the beginning.