EDITOR’S NOTE: Shane gives a lot of interviews, but he doesn’t get to interview many people (not in print, anyway). But he’s so excited about LifeLines, a project initiated by guys on North Carolina’s Death Row, that he asked to do RLC’s Red Carpet interview this month with their outside organizer, Lars Akerson. You can learn more about the Life Lines project here.
SC: I got to visit North Carolina’s death row and meet some of the men in a writing group there. Tell us about that group?
LA: They’re really a remarkable group of men. Because of this project and prison politics, I’m not able to go on the row, but I talk with them by phone. One of the really unique things about their situation is the stability of the population on the row. These are all guys who have lived on death row for years – most of them for more than a decade, And while they’ve been in, they’ve been writing. They write and share their work with each other and with their families on the outside by mail. They give each other feedback and read books together. They’re driven to express themselves, to use words to try to make sense of their lives, to share their lives with each other through writing.
Out of that writing group, a new project has emerged called Life Lines. It seems pretty revolutionary and the first of its kind. What is it and how does it work?
Like I said, these men have been mailing their writing out to their families for years. Some of their families have started blogs or social media accounts for them, to share their work. So in one sense, this is nothing new. What we’ve done is build an app that runs a phone line. The guys can call in and record their pieces whenever they want. The recordings are saved and the pieces go through another editorial process here on the outside before some of them are published. This part is new. We don’t know of anything else like it and we’re excited about the possibilities this technology and medium are opening up.
What are some ways we can support, and how can we listen to the audio journal? Can people respond by writing the men?
At this point, we’ve only published a few demo tracks. The app is still in development, and our hope is to build a website where people on the outside can listen to these men read their own work. Maybe eventually we’ll even start a little podcast or something.
We’re actually in the final days of a Kickstarter campaign to get Life Lines off the ground and keep the lines open for the first year. Our goal is to raise $16, 000 by next Tuesday, September 13. We’re about halfway there, so we’ve got a lot of ground to cover in the next few days! But if everyone reading this gives a little, I bet we can make it.
You asked about writing to these men. Their names and the address of their prison are public record and on the internet. I’m sure they would appreciate hearing people’s responses to their work.
One of the things that happens with incarceration and the death penalty, is people become numbers — rather than names. I have a picture of a gravesite of men who were executed and instead of a name it has their DoC number. What role do you think art and story-telling play in ending the death penalty?
What an image. So much of the journey to and through the criminal justice system in this country is marked by tragedy. In the face of such horrifying situations – the kinds of situations that land a person on death row – I think it’s natural to lose our words, to be made speechless, and to cling to certain stories we tell ourselves about each other and the world. That’s a dangerous place for any of us to stay though, both because that kind of silence can be terribly lonely and frightening and because none of us can be reduced to a single story. As Bryan Stevenson, the author of Just Mercy, has said, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”
So I think storytelling and the arts are tremendously important both for these guys, living where they’re living, and for us on the outside, where it’s so easy to add them to the list of casualties and forget about them. There’s no question the folks we’re working with on the row find life in sharing their words. One of the writers described a poem he had written by saying, “this isn’t free verse; this is freedom verse.” What an audacious claim! But I think this voices something essential about their work. These writers are struggling to find and hold onto life, to share their experiences – experiences of pain, terror, and regret, but also of love, wonder, and joy. There’s something fundamentally true about this struggle. It’s a reminder of the stakes of life; and at some level, it is life.
For us on the outside, I believe these stories are important for another reason. We’ve become so comfortable in a society that kills people – whether by mass shooting, state-sanctioned execution, extra-judicial drone assassination, racially-motivated killing, or the slow violence of climate change and economic exploitation. We neglect each other’s humanity, which in turn has made us less human. Listening to voices we never imagined could ever speak to us has the power, I think, to shake us out of our complacency with the way things are. Hearing stories from people with whom we normally would never relate can inspire us with new visions for the way things could be. Storytelling can shift the frame for us. It can show us things about ourselves and others we hadn’t seen, and help both the teller and the listener reclaim a bit of their shared humanity. That’s our hope: that in small ways we can shift the narrative and build the collective courage necessary to decide to live together in a less violent world.
Online you can hear one of the first Journal entries. Tell us about the man who wrote that and some of the other folks we will be hearing from?
The first author, Paul Brown, is an incredible writer and storyteller. He’s thoughtful, soft spoken, and serious, with a keen eye on the world. Some folks on the row call him Mr. Blue.
But I’d rather not tell you too much, because he and the other authors can introduce themselves. I’d encourage you and others to listen to them. They’ll tell you who they are. That’s part of what Life Lines is about: creating space to tell and to hear new stories. Here’s “Life Lines, ” by Paul Brown: http://bit.ly/2ce43Wl
Learn more at these links:
Kickstarter project page: http://kck.st/2ce9PVr