The questions were asked by Ines Aubert, 2021
Ursula, we have known each other for twenty years as we are both active in the anti-death penalty field. You were also among those who launched the Swiss organization lifespark which arranges pen pal-ships with Death Row inmates and of which I am a member. Can you give us a short summary of your journey from the start to the current situation in which you have published a book entitled, “Du sollst nicht töten”?
It all began in the summer of 1986 when I joined an Amnesty International group. At one of our meetings, our leader said that he had received a letter from a man who had been sentenced to death in Texas. This man had been given an execution date and had less than three months to live. He wrote that his greatest wish was to communicate with someone before he was killed. It was asked which of us could write in English – and I was the only one who spoke up. I got the order to take over this. So, I wrote my first letter to a prisoner.
The execution was postponed, and it took eight years until he was executed. We had quite an intense exchange of letters during those years, and I also visited him several times at Ellis One Prison in Texas.
After his death, a radio station contacted me for an interview with them. This interview was broadcast in the area and reached several prisons. Shortly thereafter, I received dozens of letters from prisoners who wanted to correspond with me.
The whole thing was just too much, so I founded the lifespark organization together with two other Swiss women (also letter writers). I was the facilitator of pen pals, Alice was President, and Beatrice the Actuary/Treasurer, but other women were also involved in its founding. After three years, we had already arranged almost 150 contacts. However, since I was corresponding with five prisoners myself, had a family and ran a business, it all became too much for me and I resigned from my position, but stayed on as a passive member.
In 2006, together with three colleagues from our Amnesty group, I founded the organization Reach Out. There were some Death Row inmates who had absolutely no one left, neither family nor friends, to help them financially from time to time to buy the essential things they needed (warm clothes, shoes, writing paper, stamps, etc).
With 45 members and their annual contributions, we have been able to send these men a small amount every three months. In addition, they receive a food parcel about once a year and every now and then a book or a subscription to a magazine.
Until 2019, I wrote several prisoners over all these years and visited some of them every year, as well.
Then came 2020 and borders to the US were closed. There were no more permits to visit in the prisons. Correspondence was also very difficult. It sometimes took weeks until a letter arrived – or then they simply disappeared somewhere.
Since I was retired and we had to stay home a lot because of Corona, I suddenly had a lot of time. I began to write down some of the stories of those prisoners to whom I had written for many years. I found a good coach and a publisher. After reading through my first chapters, they wanted to publish this book. I was pleased, of course, and so I wrote down the stories of eight of my pen pals – exactly as they had told me about their lives and deeds in hundreds of letters.
I chose the title because “Du sollst nicht töten – Thou shalt not kill”; this was to apply to everyone involved – from the perpetrators who had murdered and were convicted of it to the states which, after all, commit murder when they execute someone.
In your opinion, what would be a more appropriate punishment for murder?
There is a good alternative to the Death Penalty: life without parole. This could be applied to any individual who poses a threat to society. We do not need to kill anyone thus making ourselves guilty, as well.
How many inmates are you still writing to?
At present, I am still corresponding with four prisoners: two of them quite regularly, the other two less frequently.
What impact have these pen pal-ships with your pen friends on Death Row had on your life?
Of course, these 35 years that I have been caring for prisoners have made a difference in my life. I think I have certainly reduced prejudices. After all, no one is born a criminal. A baby is like a book with blank pages. During their youth, pages are filled by their parents and through personal experiences. A person is shaped by the environment in which they grow up. At some point, they can freely decide which path they want to take. These decisions are sometimes wrong and carry bad consequences.
The fact that I have repeatedly witnessed injustice has made me very angry. But it was precisely this anger that gave me the courage and strength to stand up against the death penalty and for prisoners. I am aware that I cannot change anything about the death penalty itself, but I can bring some humanity and sometimes hope into a cell.
Certainly, it was not always easy for my family and husband to “spare” me so many hours. I used to write long letters, spending several hours almost every weekend. But over the years, I have found a healthy balance and fortunately my family is quite tolerant. They fully support me and think I am doing something useful.
Over many years you were active in different ways for prisoners on Death Row.
I assume we have made similar experiences with the public. For example, I have heard people say that someone who has killed someone don’t deserve any attention. How do you justify writing a book with their stories?
I do not agree with these people who say that someone who has committed murder should not receive any attention anymore. Nobody ceases to be a human being because he has done something horribly wrong. How can we even be sure that he really did it, and what the circumstances were which led to his deed?
My book includes the stories of eight men on Death Row. The ones who are still sitting on Death Row and are alive and accessible to me, I asked them for their consent to have their stories published in a book. They all agreed. Logically, I was not able to talk with the ones who are now dead, but I am certain that these men would have given me their consent, as well.
Here is another question that I often hear: Why do you care about Death Row prisoners and not about the elderly or the blind who need attention, too?
The elderly and the blind have plenty of good organizations from which they can obtain help. For Death Row inmates, there are only a few small organizations which find them penpals if they would like to write to someone.
What would be for you the best outcome with this newly released book?
Well, it would be nice if the book would eventually be translated into English and go on the US market, as it is there where people would need to read it. Hardly anyone there knows anything about their own justice system and about the men on Death Row. Perhaps it could help to change their outlook on the Death Penalty.
How do you feel today about the organization lifespark that you helped to launch
I have remained a passive member of lifespark for all these years and am quite proud that it is still going strong and doing a good job!
When someone joins lifespark, they are placed in a penpal relationship with the inmate at the top of the waiting list, regardless of age, gender, interests etc. I fully agree with this way of distribution, but can you say in your own words why you chose to set it up like that as opposed to having pen pal ads allowing them the choice of whom they want to write?
When we started lifespark, there were no computers or social media to work with. We used a simple list and connected the first inmate on top with the person who wanted to write.
However, when I arranged penpalships with inmates, I did not blindly follow these rules. After several months, I came to realize that it was easier for a penpalship to last if the ages are in the same range.
My experience has shown me that pen pal-ships succeed for many different reasons and that age isn’t such an important criterion. As for myself, I have a pen pal who could be my father and one who could be my son, and both are dear to me. That’s why I think the way lifespark handles it is a good method.
I know that pen pal ads that portray a good-looking inmate receive much more attention than an ad with a photo of a less attractive person. I have heard about a handsome inmate who received so many reactions to his pen pal ad (set up by another organization) that he wasn’t able to even respond to everyone.
I think it’s a great achievement that almost 2000 pen pal-ships have been set up since you helped to launch lifespark, and more inmates are waiting to be connected.
Thank you, Ursula, for creating lifespark many years ago! I wish you all the best with your book.
Ursula Corbin: Du sollst nicht töten, Rüffer & Rub, 2021
Whoever wants to have a short-term pen pal-ship with a death row inmate first before deciding whether to start one long-term, can do so through connectdeathrow.org.