Centre MSc student Khushaal Ved recently gave a talk on Writing to US Death Row Prisoners, in conjunction with Dr. Gavin D’Costa and Life Lines, at the Oxford Hub, Turl Street, Oxford (21st March 2013). Below, he summarises some of the discussion.

In a forthcoming article (Ved, 2013, “A Living Death?” Everyday coping practices in a space of exception, Human Welfare, May 2013, 26 pages), I attempt to explore the idea of ‘waiting’ in supermax, particularly Death Row, environments. This piece answers a call for more research in institutionalised spaces by explaining that there are a number of coping strategies to deal with the oppressive nature of (solitary) confinement. Whilst there is no clear concurrent strategy of ‘waiting’ indicated, the research employs a multi-method approach through pen-pal correspondence, art and literary works by prisoners, and academic literature, to uncover an often hidden institutional setting. The work presented is interdisciplinary in nature, bisecting politics, emotion, and human agency, with particular concern for affect, carceral geographies, and prisoner agency.

The piece is formulated predominantly through correspondence with three death row prisoners in California, Texas and Pennsylvania. It is through John (pseudonym), in this last state that the lens of death row experience is articulated. Four strategies of coping in this environment are presented which are by no means comprehensive for the Death Row experience, but highlight the author’s research into four techniques employed by prisoners to make sense of their supermax carceral regime: ‘tripping’, reading and writing, religion, and other miscellaneous strategies.

These strategies are responses to the literature and more importantly, to my interpretation of John’s perspectives of life on Death Row. Understanding his views through reading and replying to his letters is nothing short of a challenge. The challenges of pen-pal correspondence are well-documented (Bosworth et al, 2005) and numerous. For me, they include the waiting times for letters to arrive, the apprehension of what to write and what to exclude when they finally do and the pressure of not giving back as much as I have received (from not writing back soon enough to not providing ‘interesting’ material in my letter). After the opening exchanges the emphasis or the topics, what is prioritised or what is answered or left unanswered, is not necessarily driven by one writer alone. Whilst one of us may bring up a topic, such as an anecdote of our daily lives, the other might choose to either ignore it, or mention it in passing, or expand upon it. The result is a hybrid of responses. I cannot solely see John’s understandings of his prison environment but a blend of what I have read about, studied and understood from his writings.

These writings are therefore not only informative but rewarding as they engage in a dynamic relationship to understand the (micro-scale) processes of life on death row. Even if one argues that these accounts of death row prisoners through correspondence are unique, personal and selective, they still offer semblances of the reality of being incarcerated. This evinces the value of examining life inside from the ‘inside’ and equally, the significance of actively engaging with these accounts (through writing) to build an active perspective of (US) death rows. These spaces are characterised by waiting, yet often overlooked as such, in comparison to the points of incarceration or execution.