Sam spends his days alone in an 8ft by 10ft cell. His meals are passed to him through the bottom of the door on the end of a long pole. On certain days of the week, he may leave the cell for two hours of exercise in a cage outside. There is no television. Once a month he is allowed a two-hour visit, but no one comes.
Sam has no dad, and his mom turned to prostitution when he was very young. From the age of five he looked after his younger brother and himself. In his teens he learned that drugs helped numb the loneliness and rejection, and he found comfort in the companionship of others like him.
One fateful night, a drug-addled Sam watched as his buddies robbed an all-night shop and murdered the assistant. He was sentenced to death. Today, 15 years later in a high-security prison, he remains on death row.
The door’s thin strip of wire mesh allows him only a sliver of a view of the world outside his cell. The same opening channels in the incessant clamour reverberating around him. His fellow prisoners on the row shout, bang, whistle and sing 24 hours a day. Sometimes the inexhaustible uproar, along with the wait for the execution chamber, pushes his mind to the edge. Fear stalks him.
But there is a glimmer of light in Sam’s otherwise dark life. Each month he receives a letter.
Its content is the stuff of ordinary life… a trip to see the spring daffodils, a meal shared with friends, volunteer work at church. But to Sam it’s a vital connection to the outside world, a reminder of normality, a kindness that helps him regain something of the humanity he once lost.
A life-changing decision
The letter-writer is Ann Stevens, a warm and openhearted Englishwoman whom I’m privileged to call my friend. In 2000 she overheard a discussion about voluntary pen-friendships with US prisoners and that life-awakening conversation, as she describes it, stirred up her spirit. “I knew that God had work for me to do,” she explains. “I began writing to my first death row prisoner, and a year later when I travelled to the US to see friends, I decided to visit him. That’s when others started asking me to write to them too.”
It developed into Concerning Captives, her self-funded ministry of letters and visits to inmates. She now writes regularly to 53 prisoners in the US and one in Zambia, and makes an annual trip to visit 23 of them.
Condemned to death
Do their crimes upset her? “Yes, the stories are terrible. I do not condone what they’ve done. But they’ve been judged and condemned to death; they don’t need me to condemn them as well.
“A prison guard said to me, ‘These ain’t humans lady, these are animals.’ But I have learned that no one is beyond redemption, and many of them are not the same men (or boys, as some of them were) who committed the crime. I look at the person behind the act, and feel compassion.”
Ann’s faith is the reason she gives so much of herself to the inmates she’s befriended, and she doesn’t hesitate to share her beliefs. Many respond; others don’t feel able to. She has noticed that it is those with a strong faith who cope better with their impending execution.
She loves meeting with them and fits in as many visits as she can while in the US. The extensive travelling, followed by three two-hour visits per day as well as trips to some of the prisoners’ families, is physically exhausting and emotionally draining. But for her friends, who experience little human interaction, the visits are priceless.
“I can’t imagine,” says Ann, “how it must feel to never have any human contact at all, other than being manhandled and shackled, of course.” In some cases she has been the first visitor an inmate has had in up to 11 years.
Last year she attended the execution of one of her friends. “It was awful,” recollects Ann. “Those I visited afterwards wanted me to describe exactly what had happened and what it was like. It was very difficult for me.”
But she’s grateful for her sense of humour (which includes a habit of launching into show tunes!) as it not only helps her through the bad days but also builds common ground with the prisoners.
This year she will celebrate her birthday while in the US, and some of her friends have promised to sing to her. Rather than Happy Birthday, it’s likely to be a soulful Luther Vandross song they’ll gift her with. It’s a bizarre scene: a 60-something English lady serenaded by a hardened criminal through a glass cage in a high-security American prison. That’s testimony to the mercy and grace God can bring into even the darkest places.
Far from average
This is not your average Christian woman’s ministry, and in her book Concerning Captives Ann describes the times she wasn’t sure she was up to the calling, asking God if He couldn’t have found her an easier path to follow.
“Sometimes I’ve felt I’m fighting a losing battle trying to make people understand why I love these guys. But the more I have felt God’s approval, the less concerned I’ve been about man’s approval. I really believe that I was born for such a time as this, to reach out and to love the supposedly ‘unlovable’.
“In sharing my heart with people who are said to be heartless, baring my soul to those said to be soulless, and finding priceless treasure in ‘ugly’ vessels, I’m going about my Father’s business.”
“When did we ever see you… in prison and visit you?” the righteous ones will ask Jesus at the final judgement. And he will reply, “When you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me.”
If you’d like to support Ann’s ministry, you can contact her through her website: http://www.concerningcaptives.com
US Death Row Data
- There are more than 3 000 prisoners on death row in the US
- The average amount of time spent on death row is almost 15 years
- 101 prisoners put to death since 1970 have since been found innocent
- California has the most death row inmates, followed by Florida and Texas
- Texas has had the most executions since 1976 (when capital punishment was reintroduced)
- 35 US states carry the death penalty