Dead man writing ...

Shelley Bovey is the mother of small children. Ricky Langley is the killer of a six-year-old. She lives in Somerset, he lives on Death Row in Louisiana. Despite the world that separates them, they write to each other. As she explains, it is a correspondence that has changed both their lives
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"Death Row" is not a colloquialism or a concept. Death Row is an address. It is what I put on the envelope when I write to my Louisiana penfriend and it is what he writes at the top of his letters to me. Those who have seen me post my letters shudder at the address because it brings reality too close to home.

I have always been passionately opposed to the death penalty. I live in despair because of the sickness of a so-called civilised society which renders murder for murder with a calculated intent that strikes at my soul with its chilling premeditation. When the execution of Nicholas Ingram, a British death row inmate, dominated our newspapers and television screens in April 1995, I watched his lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, as he talked to reporters outside the jail after the execution. He wept openly and unashamedly for this one he had lost. The feeling of helplessness that I had lived with for so long spilled over and I wrote to Clive, asking what I could do, while feeling that there was nothing that could be done. There was one thing, though - to correspond with a death row prisoner. I asked Clive if he knew of someone.

His reply was warm, encouraging and very frank. Nick Ingram's death had affected him at a profound, personal level. "It took me some time," he wrote, "and probably several beers in a good pub near my mother's house in England to put even a little distance between me and what has happened." He suggested I might like to write to one of his clients, Ricky Langley, a young man whom, he said, "the majority of the world loves to hate".

Ricky has been on death row for two years. He is typical of the men and women there. He is poor and he is mentally sick. His life has been a catalogue of tragedy and confusion which led to the ultimate, horrific act; in a state of delusion Ricky killed a six-year-old boy.

My reaction to Clive's letter brought me up short. I found myself in a state of dismay and panic. I couldn't do it, I thought. I couldn't befriend a child killer. I have children of my own and my mind veered away from imagining how I would feel if it had been one of them. If I wrote to Ricky, would I be betraying my own children in some way?

I had asked Clive for a death row correspondent, he had provided me with one and now I was balking. Perhaps, in some unformed part of my thinking, I had been expecting a clean, sanitised sort of murderer. Someone whose crime would not penetrate the part of me that could feel at such a primordial level. But alongside these feelings was something deeper than my first horrified reaction. It was a sense of shame, something I could not, for a few days, bring into the light. It made me examine my conscience closely, and what I found there was that I had no right to be selective. If I believe, as I do, that reparation and redemption are always possible, if I accept that in the fundamental nature of mankind good and evil co-exist, then it must follow that the purest good could exist in someone who had committed the most evil crime.

Clive Stafford Smith said about one inmate facing imminent execution: "You don't judge him just by that one horrible, horrible act he committed. The paradox is something I very much believe in - I'm glad to be able to see so much goodness in someone who did something so terrible."

And so I wrote my first tentative letter to Ricky. I told him about myself and my family and about the place where I live. I was sure from the beginning that honesty was required, and that it should include a recognition of what had happened to Ricky, to the child he killed and to that child's family. I felt that this was no place to be squeamish, to avoid the issue or to write platitudes. If Ricky wanted to talk about his feelings, I was ready to listen.

His reply to that first letter was full of delight. He thanked me for "choosing me, of all people, to write to". And so began a correspondence that has profoundly enriched my life. In the normal course of events we do not come upon murderers, and in this country we do not have to consider the implications of murderers waiting for their own death. We are safely and comfortably removed from all that, especially if we belong to the educated, privileged middle class. It is the stuff of film, documentary or news. Now, for me, it became reality. By the act of writing that first letter I involved myself irrevocably with this man's life - and with his death.

Writing to a death row inmate demands unconditional and total commitment. Very often the prisoner's pen friend is his only emotional outlet. Death rows are often inaccessible by public transport and a long way from home, so visits are rare. Inmates spend 23 hours a day in a cell measuring eight feet by six. The creation of a rich, interior world becomes essential to their survival and their sanity. Writing is, for many, their sole means of real communication. The commitment to correspond with a death row inmate must last for the rest of his life; to fall away would have the most devastating consequences.

It is not easy. There are times when the brightness of a summer's day is dulled by the knowledge that this man, of whom I have become so fond, is living the life of a caged animal and is facing death. To paraphrase John Donne, his death, the prospect of his death, diminishes me because I am involved in mankind; I am involved with Ricky Langley.

It is not the sort of thing I can easily talk about. Whatever people's beliefs about the death penalty, most find it difficult to accept that someone they know well is writing to a death row inmate. There is still much social taboo about death - even more so about murder. Even many who in principle oppose the death penalty feel that to become involved with someone who has killed another human being smacks of something like collusion. One or two of the very few who know about Ricky have suggested, as a kind of sop to their own uneasiness, the possibility that he may be innocent of the crime for which he has been sentenced.

To go down that route would be tantamount to saying that the flaw in the death penalty is that some of those executed may be innocent; it imposes huge conditions on our acceptance of those convicted of murder. There is no doubt that Ricky killed a small child. His own remorse, his grief for what he did is something that will stay with him forever. In one letter he spoke of "intense feelings of sadness and a desire to do something for that child. The helplessness I feel can't be described, even now I still want to help that little boy, but he is dead and there's nothing I can do to change the harm I done to him. It hurts, Shelley, hurts deeply knowing that, especially knowing that taking his life wasn't intended."

Over the months, Ricky has entrusted to me his deepest emotions and the facts about his crime. He is fully aware of his mental state and he cannot escape from it or from the knowledge of it. "My situation isn't no particular one's fault," he wrote. "Just a bunch of things that finally lined up. I want help so bad I can taste it." Clive Stafford Smith often states that "madness is its own punishment." Ricky's understanding of his own madness gives him a degree of insight and sanity that may appear paradoxical but is nevertheless true. He has dedicated the rest of his life to teaching those who will listen about mental illness, about his crime and about the death penalty and how it debases human nature at all levels. But the help he so desperately wants has not been, and will not be, forthcoming.

Ricky's letters are vivid and articulate. He brings to life his childhood in the swamps of Louisiana, his love of ancient history and architecture, of nature and particularly of fossils. Though not well-educated, he has the gift of enabling the reader to see and experience whatever he writes about. He has a wry sense of humour and is a shrewd judge of human nature, seeing through cant and hypocrisy with the clear-sightedness of a child. We are close; of that there is no doubt. I find myself confiding in him things that I shy away from telling friends and his responses are always thoughtful and well-considered.

But there is pain in his letters, the anguish of a tortured soul. The bleakness of his existence leaks through his cheerfulness: "It is hard to describe what my life is like besides using common words - despair, gloom, misery, heartache, dark, lost, hopelessness," he wrote. "I keep a smile on my face to keep the pain at bay. It doesn't do no good to walk around with sadness on your face or tears in your eyes ... I often think about death, what I call 'true freedom'. I truly want to depart from this misery and non-existing life I live.

"I feel myself as a child trapped in a grown body. I never felt I belonged - this has been with me all my life. The reason I've travelled so much was to find where I belong but never have. The feeling I live with is thus: Earth isn't my home, never has been. There is like a voice, it is always calling me to come home. I've searched for where that voice is coming from to no avail, but whenever I gaze upward into the sky, excitement builds up and it's as if something on the inside is gently saying I belong somewheres up there, my true home is there. I want to go home, Shelley, I'm tired and exhausted but I don't know how to get to my true home besides giving my life up. I am one confused individual, that I know. The future is just too bleak to look forward to."

Feeling the need for contact with other correspondents I joined Lifelines, an organisation for those who support death row prisoners and would like to write to one. Lifelines has a waiting list of inmates wanting a pen friend, but anyone wanting to undertake this should examine their motives carefully. Some people find the notion of corresponding with someone awaiting death an exciting, even glamorous prospect. Worse still, some see it as a chance for an unorthodox kind of romance. Tori Burbridge, secretary of Lifelines, talks of "Death row groupies who will pick up and drop inmates". One prisoner, with much invested in his pen friend, was so badly affected when she abandoned him that he had a heart attack and dropped all his appeals. "People on death row are abused, unloved, deprived of human contact from the womb, and when they receive warmth and friendship they respond emotionally," she says. "An irresponsible correspondent can do so much harm. Lifelines is not a dating agency and we won't tolerate it".

Tori has been writing to a Georgia inmate for six years, a man who is brilliantly articulate, who writes her 40-page letters. "He is very, very depressed at the moment. He writes so movingly about the weight of years, about the heaviness of the air." This man gave the title to an anthology of death row writings: "Welcome to Hell". In this manner he began his letters to Tori: "Welcome to hell, Tori. Welcome to hell." She said: "Sometimes I can't bear to read his letters. He dreams about his children. When he writes about them I just howl." Like Clive Stafford Smith, Tori believes there is much we can do for death row inmates. "By doing nothing I am colluding with those who inflict the death penalty and I will not collude with these people." Echoes of Camus and of Gandhi: "Resist, do not collaborate in any way with a deed which you believe is evil".

Clive Stafford Smith was right; the majority of the world does love to hate people like Ricky. They are society's rejects, disposable people of no value and therefore easily put to death. In his first letter to me Ricky wrote: "Killing - oops, executing (the word Uncle Sam uses) doesn't benefit the victim's families, only creates more death and sadness. instead of one lost now there's two - where does it stop?'

"I don't like to talk about it", says Clive Stafford Smith. "There's something so utterly needless about the whole thing. Who thinks that just because we've killed somebody it somehow makes our world better? I just don't understand it."

Becoming closely involved with a death row prisoner so that your lives are linked until the moment of death is a humbling, life-enhancing experience. Ricky has given and taught me far more than I can ever return.

Lifelines, 96 Fallowfield, Cambridge CB4 IPF. Please enclose an SAE.