This blog will talk about life on death row in the USA and give insight into the world of those who must live there. How do their cells look like and what do they do all day long? And what about their families and friends: are they still around to support them?

Inmates, their family members and pen friends but also victims’ family members have a voice in this blog and share their experiences through interviews and narratives. The articles will be uploaded in no specific order and sorted into the categories. Questions and suggestions for topics are welcome.

Ines Aubert, Switzerland, 2021

Please get in contact for a short-term correspondence with a death row prisoner.

ACAT – The abolition of the death penalty remains a tender plant

By Katleen De Beukeleer, ACAT-Switzerland, November 2021

You shall not torture, you shall not kill: When countries enter a Human Rights Convention, this is good. To verify and demand compliance thereto is better, finds the Action by Christians for the Abolition of Torture (ACAT-Switzerland). For forty years, the human rights organization has been engaged in an effort to promote a world free from torture and the death penalty.

“Whoever deals drugs will be sentenced to death.” This is not a passage from the Chinese or the Indonesian constitution, but rather a provision that an initiative committee wished to add to the Swiss federal constitution in 1985. In 2010 there was a further attempt for a reintroduction of the death penalty in Switzerland. The constitutional initiative entitled “Todesstrafe bei Mord mit sexuellem Missbrauch”  (Death Penalty for Murder with Sexual Abuse) states amongst other things: “Torture and any other kind of cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment are forbidden. Excluded from this is the death penalty.” With both texts, preliminary review by the Federal Chancellery turned out positively; however, the initiatives fell through in the signature collection stage.

It is unknown how widespread approval is for the reintroduction of the death penalty in this country. In 2019, CH media a small survey and reported: “36 percent of the respondents find that terrorists who calculatedly kill should be executed.” A survey from France provided a further disturbing indicator: In 2020, 55 percent of the respondents stated in a survey by “Le Monde” that they would welcome the reintroduction of the death penalty in France.

Switzerland abolished the death penalty in peacetime in 1942. It has been deleted from the Military Criminal Code since 1992. But it is clear: the abolition of the death penalty remains – as probably each democratic achievement – a tender plant.

Why are there so many poor on death row?

Just for this reason is the death penalty in the year 2021 in Switzerland in no way an outdated issue. For NGOs such as ACAT-Switzerland, providing information and sensitization remain a core task. Why are predominantly the poor and minorities on death row around the world? Why are the lives of many people destroyed when a relative is sentenced to death? Why is the death penalty a form of torture? The backgrounds are as complex as they are revealing – and must be explained many times over. The campaign work of our small team from Bern, together with the approximate 1200 members of 22 regional ACAT groups and numerous sympathizers, remains necessary and highly topical.

Intervention at the highest level

Worldwide the trend is positive: every year the number of recorded executions as well as the number of countries who adhere to the death penalty declines. However, it is certainly no occasion to rejoice. In 2020, there were, according to Amnesty International, at least 28,567 people worldwide who have been sentenced to death. The number of unreported cases is estimated to be very high.

With urgent appeals, petitions, open letters, and targeted interventions, ACAT-Switzerland exerts pressure. Our members and office are used to being heard at the highest level – in letters, mailings, and petitions, we remind countless presidents, vice-presidents, ambassadors, and committees of conventions which their countries have ratified. Predominantly it involves cases of torture; time and again we call for fair trials for people who are at risk of being sentenced to death, or we demand more humane prison conditions on death row, the commutation of a death sentence – or the total abolition of this cruel punishment.

ACAT is present in thirty countries. Many African ACATs were or are significantly involved in the abolition process of the death penalty in their country. The Federation FIACAT coordinates and intervenes with international bodies such as the UN, the Council of Europe, or the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

The effort is often great and the successes moderate. But every time someone experiences an improvement in his/her situation, the effort was well worth it. A current example is the pardoning of Stanislau and Ilia Kostseu by the President of Belarus. The two brothers had an extremely difficult childhood and committed murder while still minors. For this they were sentenced to death. After great international pressure was exerted – amongst others from ACAT – their death sentence was commuted to a life sentence in May 2021.

The urgent appeals from ACAT in the area of torture and the death penalty can also be signed by non-members.

Spiritual Support

Behind every “case” or “dossier” there is a person with his suffering and his hopes. This person should not be forgotten: This is also a core mandate of ACAT. For many of our members, prayer is an effective method of supporting affected persons. Others lend spiritual support with a song, a candle, a meditation, or a simple thought. Our roots are Christian, but every open worldview is welcomed. This spiritual level makes ACAT a special human rights organization which allows a space for the soul.

The “Nocturnal Prayer Vigil”, which we launch every year on the International Day of Support of Victims of Torture (26 June), is based on this idea of solidarity. Throughout the entire world, members and sympathizers of ACAT organize prayer nights, singing circles, letter writing campaigns and much more for tortured persons and those sentenced to death.

Time and again affected persons report that this comforting knowledge prevented them from losing hope: “Someone is thinking of me.”

Getting Active

We would warmly welcome your participation in our campaigns, urgent appeals, and further interventions! From CHF 40 per year, you can support ACAT-Switzerland as a member.

https://www.acat.ch/de     www.fiacat.org 

Download this article

It could happen to any inmate

I have the worst luck in the world! I ran out of toilet paper earlier and I asked around for some. A guy downstairs sent me a roll while I was in the shower and as I came out of the shower, I grabbed it from the guy in the dayroom. When I walked into my cell, I dropped my clothes (I wash my boxers in the shower), soap dish, and toilet paper in the sink before getting the handcuffs removed and the toilet paper fell out of the sink and into the toilet! It’s soaking wet! I got the fan on it. Hopefully it’ll dry so it can be used. Dammit, I suck!!!
Robert Pruett, on death row in Texas

Interview with Dieter Gurkasch – Crime as a survival strategy

The questions were asked by Ines Aubert, Switzerland, 2019

Background: Dieter Gurkasch grew up in Hamburg. At 23 years old, he was living as a drug addict on the streets of Hamburg and was known by the police. Together with a friend, he committed several robberies. In April of 1985, they robbed a Hamburg business with a blank gun As the 55-year-old shop owner tried to defend herself, Gurkasch, in a drug frenzy, injured her so badly that she died three weeks later. He and his friend fled with 320 German marks. For the robbery with murder, he was sentenced to 13 years in prison.

Once he was free again, he committed more robberies until he was injured in a gunfight with the police. He was subsequently sentenced to another 12 years in prison, which he served in the Fuhlsbüttel correctional facility („Santa Fu“).

While in prison, he discovered yoga and, in 2006, he founded the first yoga group in a German jail together with an evangelical pastor. Until his release in 2011, Dieter taught more than 250 prisoners. After his release, he wrote a book, Life Reloaded: How I Discovered Freedom in Prison through Yoga about his transformation from a violent criminal and murderer to a yogi. In addition, he founded the non-profit organization „Yoga und Meditation im Gefängnis“ (Yoga and Meditation in Prison“ (YuMiG), which makes yoga therapy available to inmates.

Dieter, a common friend introduced us to each other and I have told you about my contacts with death row inmates in the USA. I sense that you have a lot of inner wisdom, generosity and a great deal of knowledge about humanity. What motivated you to participate in this interview?

First of all, thank you for the compliment. In my life, I have caused enough trouble and have brought sufficient destructive energy to this world. After I realized all of that, and recognized that love is the true source of being, I have the feeling that an unbelievably abundant grace has been given to me. It lies deep upon my heart to pass this along within a reasonable scope: not to simply spread it over a wide area, but to observe with whom I can share it so that it is received by the right readers or listeners. I truly believe that there are no coincidences in life. And it is exactly because of this that you met Gerda, Gerda told you about me, and so things came full circle in that I felt that it was a signal for me to participate in this interview to try to share what I have come to believe.

In one of your Internet interviews, you said something that was significant to me: people are basically all very similar. Nevertheless, as a survival strategy – as you call it – you chose crime for a very long time. Can you say something about how crime can be a survival strategy?

Yes, people are basically all very similar. We all choose a survival strategy based upon our life influences in which we believe that this survival strategy leads to a better way to deal with the pain that life has apparently inflicted upon us. And in my life, I have gotten to know many thousands of offenders, and all of them whom I have come to know more closely I know that beneath the disruptive activities are fear and pain. And that is what leads to a person choosing a destructive survival strategy and holding onto it until a relaxed condition comes  that makes it possible to take a look at the path which has secured survival up to that point. Regardless of how awful this way was for me or for others, it had ensured my survival. That is the experience of those who have gone this way. Destruction is inevitable. Even when the person himself/herself pleads that he/she is evil because he/she wants to be evil, that is only covering up the pain which actually lies behind this wish. And yes, in this regard, choosing crime can be a survival strategy to ease the pain.

If I understand you correctly, you are saying that all of our pen pals in prison have committed a crime out of pain.

Clearly. Every person who is determined to live a destructive life path has a deficiency in his/her self-confidence. And everything that we do is an attempt to compensate for this deficiency.

And you equate this deficiency with fear and pain?

I create this deficiency myself because I am afraid of life and shield myself. A pseudo-reality arises inside of me, which at some point justifies my crimes. Also out of prison, we need justification to act in a destructive manner.

What would our pen pals say when I attribute fear and pain to them?

That depends on where that individual stands. If he/she is in fear and pain, he/she would deny that; but if he/she feels lifted and is soft, this recognition seeps through him/her.

For many years I have been in contact with prisoners in the USA and I find that each person deserves a contact person and to be treated with respect. I believe that theoretically each person has the possibility to change. You accomplished this change. Can you tell me more about this?

I agree one hundred percent that not only each person, but basically each being, that everything that exists has earned the right to be treated with respect. If each person deserves a contact person or not, I can’t really answer because I believe that life is very wise. And when someone acts like crap so that no one wants to talk with him/her anymore, that it is a maneuver of life to lead him/her to change his/her attitude. And to change, to return to love, basically every human being is in a position to do this. In my opinion, the earth is a planet of upward movement and in particular because here the highest highs and the lowest lows can meet each other, and through that an extreme transformation is possible, even more extreme than mine. As I understand the energetic spiritual development of a person, each person connects to spiritual beings during his/her time on earth, who promise him/her specific attributes. In my childhood, I called upon very aggressive spirits who had a lot of rage in them because I saw that as my source of energy. And as I experienced it, these spirits left me just in the moment that I got shot during the robbery, thinking that I would die. The first thing that I experienced after I was shot was a feeling of unbelievable freedom. My personal interpretation is that this was the moment when these spirits realized after my awakening from a coma that I was not able to be as furious as before. In my first letter to my wife, I wrote that I felt as if a piece of my heart had been shot out. I was simply not able anymore to be so angry.

Hm. I don’t know if someone who, in your words, behaves like crap, but doesn’t have anyone to talk with, can accomplish a change without that.

Life is carried out based upon wisdom and has a plan. When no one is present in the life of a prisoner, then that most likely leads to him/her adjusting his/her behavior so that people again come into his/her life.

We who write letters want to effect something positive in the lives of our pen pals. Can you say something about the best way how that can be done successfully? And where do you see the moments in which we must be careful? When do we go wrong as helpers?

The task is to be active in love. When someone senses an impulse in his/her heart, then he/she is suitable. It is like in relationships; when it doesn’t go about love, but rather the ego, it damages it, for example, if I would like that someone develops in a particular way. I have had a lot of experiences with volunteers, even horrible experiences. Many extend a hand as if they are benefactors. You should have seen their reaction as I stood up from a kneeling position. They think that I should go through life as compliantly still and with a bowed head!

One of my pen pals in the USA wants to know from you if you think that you would have had a completely different development if you had lived in a country which has the death penalty as a death row inmate.

I am not able to answer this question. I assume that each person finds the optimal conditions in his/her life to make his/her way back to love with the minimal amount of pain, and when this is so, then there can be no other development other than exactly that what I must experience. It is the same in the life of every person. He/she travels the optimal way in order to return to love, and the more that he/she begins to let go of his/her life situation, the more the divine guidance is able to seize him/her, and the less that their compulsory measures in life become which he/she must employ to travel in the right direction.

Thank you very much, Dieter, for the interesting conversation and for sharing your experiences. I wish you all the best!

http://www.dietergurkasch.de/

Download this article

Interview with Abraham Bonowitz from Death Penalty Action

The questions were asked by Ines Aubert, 2021

Abe, thank you for agreeing that we conduct this interview. Let me start with a simple question: how would you describe yourself?

I am a loving, authentic, and powerful leader. I am a bit of a procrastinator, but when I get going, I don’t hold back. I don’t see barriers – only hurdles – and I’m always up for a good challenge. What makes me angry is injustice, and I have had to learn to pick my battles.

What made you accept my request for this interview, as I am from Europe and not directly involved in your activities?

Like my friend, Bill Pelke, when I see an open door, if I am able, I will walk through it. Unlike Bill, I did not make a promise to God to walk through every door that opens. To me, your invitation is an opportunity to share with others how easy it is for ordinary people to do extraordinary things, and to make a difference in the world. My hope is to inspire others to also pick an issue or a challenge and pour themselves into it. So, if this is that opportunity, let’s get on with it!

Your suggestion that it is easy for ordinary people to do extraordinary things is very inspiring. I agree with you that life is much more animated if we pour ourselves into something, as you put it. I know that Bill Pelke had a particular moment on a crane when he realized he had to start his journey of forgiveness. Was there a similar moment in your life when everything began?

Two moments come to mind:

The first is the moment I changed my mind about the death penalty. The first time I encountered the issue as an adult was after I had joined Amnesty International to help free prisoners of conscience and stop torture. I did not realize that Amnesty also worked against the death penalty. I went to a meeting on the campus of Ohio State University, and I was surprised when the speaker was talking about the death penalty. I argued with her, saying “an eye for an eye, “and “I’ll pull the switch myself.” I stuck around to do the other work, and I was tolerated when I told others that they didn’t have to do the death penalty work, or maybe just work to stop executions in places like the Soviet Union or South Africa.

In 1990 or 1991, I was at an Amnesty regional training conference in Minnesota, but one of the speakers was talking about the death penalty and using Ohio statistics. I’m from Ohio. Prof. Michael Endres was the speaker, and he said, “If you are going to kill someone in Ohio, just don’t do it in Franklin County (Columbus), Cuyahoga County (Cleveland), or Hamilton County (Cincinnati), because those counties have the tax base to be able to afford a death penalty trial. Kill in a rural county, and they can’t afford a death penalty trial, so you can’t get a death sentence. In that moment, I pictured myself jumping from one side of the fence to the other, because I can’t stomach unfairness. It should be about the severity of the crime that decides the severity of the punishment, not money or politics or geography. However, it turns out that the factors that determine who gets a death sentence and who does not have very little to do with the crime. Of course, race, mental capacity and the quality of representation have a lot to do with it, too.

The second moment was when I was once I was well into the work, in 2003, and struggling to find the support I needed to do this work full time. I had an encounter with a messenger – a spirit traveler – who told me that I would have the resources I need to do this work. That has allowed me to take leaps without knowing how I would land, and in fact, it has been the case that sometimes it has been tricky, but everything always works out. I know that sounds unusual or strange, but it is true. It is a longer story but suffice to say that I was drawn to be in a place that was so out of the way and unplanned by me that when it happened, it was undeniable. That event informs how I live my life and do my work every day.

It sounds as if you found your mission. Yet, I almost can’t believe you once believed in the “an eye for an eye”! But as you said, at the beginning of this interview, you don’t see barriers and therefore could jump “from one side of the fence to the other” as you put it and change your opinion. Is there something you would suggest we do right now in support of the abolition of the death penalty?

The first thing people can do is simply check themselves to make sure they are opposed to the death penalty, and to know what their “why” is so that they can articulate that – at least to themselves. Study the issue a bit so that you can understand current statistics and realities and therefore be able to address parts of the issue that may not be your primary motivating factor. There are many aspects to the death penalty, and it is helpful to understand at least the basics of the various concerns, including wrongful convictions, victim’s issues, issues for the families of the accused, legal issues and realities, costs, deterrence, fairness, concerns about execution methods, etc.

Next, communicate with your elected officials and policymakers who control how government responds to violent crime where you live. If you live in a country with the death penalty, that will be public and elected officials from where you live and on up to the whole country. For example, if you live in the United States, that’s going to be your county, your state, and/or the national government. If you live in a country without the death penalty, then focus on a country that does. I have been encouraging everyone who does not live in the United States to write a personal letter to the US Ambassador in your country, asking them to convey your opposition to state governors and to our president.

Next, at www.DeathPenaltyAction.org, you can always sign petitions in support of various campaigns and in individual cases of prisoners who are facing executions.

The only actions that people outside the US can’t sign are those where we are writing to elected officials about policy proposals. This is because if you don’t live in a place where you can vote for them, they don’t really care what you think, and in some cases, they may even wonder why you are bothering them.

Execution protests are one thing, and that’s not a problem, but when we are talking about legislation, it can damage our efforts to send messages to legislators who are not yet aligned with us, and who don’t represent you. That might shift a bit if you are a business leader who works or owns a business that employs people and pays taxes in a policymaker’s district. Then, your voice is louder than mine and I beg you to use it!

Beyond that, if you are able, help people and organizations who are doing the work. Volunteer. Send money. Tell others that there is a need and invite them to take these actions, too. It’s a curious thing that many people will ignore opportunities to help until someone they know asks them directly.

Finally, if you really want to understand the issue, read the writings of prisoners, or even create a supportive relationship by offering to be a pen pal. But don’t do that if you cannot stick with it and be forthright about how much time you have to be engaged in such correspondence and what your limitations are. Some people have created deep friendships and relationships.

I truly like that you ask us to find our position and sophisticated arguments to verbalize that based on facts and realities.

Well, and based not only on what speaks to you, but also on what speaks to the person you are talking to.

And I think we should take your plea seriously that we should not contact legislators who don’t represent us.

Legislators, yes, unless they are allies and you are thanking them.  Governors, presidents, ambassadors are fair game!

I assume you launched DeathPenaltyAction to bundle these efforts. Is there a way to determine what your contribution to or impact on a success has been? What do you consider a success?

Most of our real successes in stopping executions we cannot discuss because they have been behind the scenes working in collaboration with legal teams. That’s true for me personally as well as for the organization. Suffice it to say we engage in strategic organizing and strategic communications, which boils down to getting the right message delivered to the right decisionmaker by the person or persons that decisionmaker can best hear the message from. The best such moments are when a prisoner’s lawyer credits our work with helping to stop an execution. That’s happened twice in the past six months, and it is very unusual when lawyers will say that out loud.

Our work is a combination of behind the scenes work and exerting public pressure through protests and petitions. Those absolutely have an impact, even if it does not stop executions. When more people are actively signing petitions and supporting the work of those of who are acting in the streets, it sends a message. Most of the time, decisionmakers never know about a protest in front of their office, and they never see the petitions. But the fact that people are involved in these actions gives hope to prisoners, encourages their legal teams (sometimes it annoys their legal teams!), and gives the media a vehicle by which to tell the story. Prisoners know when we are outside while a fellow prisoner is being killed. I’m told that gives them hope and a feeling that they are not alone. If nothing else comes of it, in my opinion that alone makes it worth doing.

Google “Death Penalty Action” including the quotation marks, and then choose “news”, and there you can see our impact. Images of our protests and with our carefully crafted messages on signs that are highly visible and highly readable have become stock images which are repeatedly used as accompanying images to news articles unrelated to our protests. And you know, most people don’t read more than the first few paragraphs, or even the headline. But they always look at the picture. Editors have a choice: a mug shot of a murderer or accused murderer, a picture of a gurney or an electric chair, or a picture with one or more of our signs in it. When they use a photo with one of our signs, that’s our impact. This is “earned media” and free advertising for our movement, and it often appears in places where you can’t buy advertising!

By Jeremy Hogan, The Intercept

What are the organizations or offices you collaborate with most? 

We collaborate with anyone who will work with us, but we are very close with the Journey of Hope, From Violence to Healing, Red Letter Christians, and various state organizations with which we are collaborating.

I loved to hear that you mention writing a prisoner as one way to become active. Are you in contact with death row prisoners, too?

I am a terrible pen pal. You know how long it took for us to get going on this interview. I get cursed out every time I talk to my first pen pal, Anthony Apanovitch, who has been on Ohio’s death row for over 30 years. He wrote a letter to Amnesty International, and I was an Amnesty volunteer in Ohio. Amnesty sent the letter to Rick Halperin, and Rick sent it to me. I wrote to Tony and then started visiting him. This was way back when Ohio’s death row was still in Lucasville in the early 1990’s, before the Lucasville uprising.

I lost touch with Tony and the others when my son was born, which is also the time I was becoming very busy organizing to abolish the death penalty in New Jersey. I recently reconnected with him. He calls me every so often, and now we also share e-mails.

I had a pen pal on Florida’s Death Row in the early 1990’s, as well. He had a heart attack and died before they could execute him. There’s another guy on Florida’s death row who I am sure I have disappointed by losing touch after I left the area. I’m ashamed about that, but I had come to know the reality that there is only so much time in the day. As far as I know, he’s still kicking. I’ve known and spoken with a couple of dozen prisoners on Death Rows and I have visited prisoners on Death Row in Alabama, California, Florida, Ohio and Texas. I was on the prison farm in Angola while they were filming “Dead Man Walking”. I have been to many prisons, protesting outside.

I want to say two more things regarding this topic: 

First, my experiences visiting and corresponding with prisoners has shaped my approach to this work significantly. I’ve also been a prisoner myself a few times, for very short periods, thank God! I have a huge respect for anyone who can maintain hope in such conditions, year after year. I don’t understand it and I don’t think I could do it myself.

The other thing is that I have purposely made it a point to NOT get deeply engaged with many prisoners. The first “round number” execution at which I protested was the 400th, Flynt Gregory Hunt, in Maryland. I was arrested for protesting at the 500th execution and again at the 1000th. For the 1500th, I was in Paris on a family vacation, but I still managed a small demonstration with folks from the French Coalition. Now we’re at 1534. None of the people with whom I have been a pen pal with have been executed, but I have met a few who have been killed, and if I had had a personal relationship with many who had been executed, I don’t know if I could still be doing this work. I know many who have burned out seeing their friends continuously being executed.

I connect with prisoners who have execution dates through friends who make that their focus, as well as through their families.

You are an amazing person. In your first answer you wrote: “I am a loving, authentic and powerful leader. I am a bit of a procrastinator, but when I get going, I don’t hold back.” I must say, I can confirm the latter: procrastination, then full attention. From your answers, I clearly see the “loving” and “authentic”, and have no doubt that you are a powerful leader.

Thank you for your full attention to this interview, and I wish you all the best with your Death Penalty Action and all your other projects.

www.deathpenaltyaction.org

Download this article

Interview with Ursula Corbin

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
in 1993?

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.

Download this article

Interview with Ruedi Szabo, one who knows direct victim-offender dialogue first-hand from the viewpoint of the offender

The questions were asked by Ines Aubert, November 2017

You have your own personal story about Restorative Justice. Can you explain what this is all about?

23 years ago, I committed seven robberies and almost beat my ex-wife’s lover to death. I was sentenced to nine years in prison for attempted manslaughter and qualified serious robbery, for which I served six years.

Crimes were processed in a conversation group, and the prison chaplain talked to me about the themes of remorse and atonement. This then led to my personal victim-offender dialogue. I initiated practically all conversations alone, first near the end of my prison sentence with correspondence through letters, then by telephone and afterwards with meeting, mainly in a restaurant.

You know restorative justice first-hand from the viewpoint of the offender. Can you tell us something about these conversations?

One of the first conversations was with a man who was the branch manager of a post office and bank (Zurich cantonal bank) in H. His wife picked him up at closing time and waited with their small children (at that time, a 3-year old boy and a 7-year-old girl) in the package room of the post office. I entered the premises through the rear entrance and held a weapon on the mother and her two children, as well as another employee present. The mother had a panic attack and crying fits and feared terribly for both of her children. The branch manager saw both of us masked robbers through the glass security door to the counter room. He opened the door from his side. My accomplice went into the counter room, and, according to my memory, I forced the five employees and the mother with both children into a corner with a table and a kitchenette and guarded them there. Due to my excellent military training, the robbery was perfectly timed, and we were outside again within minutes.

After my release from prison in 2001, I contacted the branch manager and father of the two children and set an appointment to meet in a restaurant in W. In therapy, I learned to allow the victim to express themselves however they want. I learned from this family how traumatic the hold-up was for the mother and the children, from which they suffered for years. The mother could never enter her husband’s workplace again because she suffered from panic attacks. The boy, likewise, suffered from fear of the dark, large, black men and became a bed wetter. He could not sleep in his own bed anymore because he was afraid that the black men would come to get him. He felt protected and secure with his parents in their bed. It took about two years for him to stop wetting the bed.

The girl was in the first grade at that time, and a very good pupil. After the hold-up, she suffered from attention deficit disorder and experienced great difficulty concentrating. She was in psychiatric treatment and received private lessons. After about four years, she could reintegrate in a normal class.

The parents suffered for years from the psychiatric aftereffects and their marriage almost fell apart because of this. Through counseling, they were able to save their marriage. I was deeply impacted by how much and for how long a four-minute hold-up affected this family.

I appeared twice on television with the father, during which he as the victim could describe the dramatic encounter and its effects. I stood for reparation as the perpetrator of my crimes. The victim not only had the psychiatric suffering to bear, but also unbelievably many financial problems to handle. 

I must say that I find it very shocking to hear your report. This family experienced unspeakable suffering due to a four-minute robbery which you timed so well. It is good that you have taken accountability for it. Were there reactions to the television appearance?

In February of 2016, I was invited by a journalist K., to a radio interview. The theme was religion and violence. One of my earlier victims, an employee of the post office in G., heard the interview and became very upset that a media platform had been given to me as a perpetrator, and that I was allowed to present myself as a “good person”. She herself was affected by panic attacks and nightmares at the post office for more than twenty years after the robbery. Ms G. could only go out at night when accompanied by her husband or her now-grown children. She wrote me a letter which I received through Ms. K. We met each other two months later, accompanied by her husband. This conversation was also for both of us very liberating.

You have had other media appearances, even with Ms. G. Would you like to tell us about that?

When I received an invitation from the Swiss Congress of Criminologists to give a presentation on 9 March 2017, I asked Ms. G. to join me. I was expected to give a 20-minute presentation about how I, as an offender, had experienced my trial and six-year-long imprisonment. I wanted to promote Restorative Justice and my goal was to present the results of my victim-offender discussions. As the victim, Ms. G. stated how it was for her during and after the hold-up and about the years-long anguish up until the moment that we met for our first discussion last year. It was impressive for all the listeners.

Ms. G. has already said that she is willing to support our organization Swissrjforum in victim-offender discussions in Swiss prisons.

Were all your victim-offender discussions successful as well as healing for the victims?

For such a challenging discussion with a victim of my robbery, I asked for the support of St. Gallen Victim Assistance. Ms. B. was the president of Victim Assistance, and in the scope of reparation, she was engaged in the Saxerriet prison, where I was serving my sentence and arranged the discussion with the victim.

This woman suffered a stroke after the hold-up and has been partially paralyzed ever since. It was only upon meeting her that I became aware of her severe disability with spastic movements.

This disability is a result of the bank robbery? That’s horrible!

At that time, this woman was the manager of the E. post office. As I guarded the people and my accomplices cleaned out the safe and cash drawers, she consistently walked with me about 1.5 meters in front of my pistol. As I then ordered her not to do that, she said rationally: “I fear for my co-workers and I am helpless, but if you shoot, then you have to shoot me first”. Her courage truly impressed me.

Because of her courage, I wanted to apologize to her after I was released from prison. I was informed that she was not in good health. After the robbery, the police and forensics team came and took statements. The woman had to find new personnel for the following day so that the post office could remain in operation. On the following Saturday evening she was expecting guests and was cooking with her husband. While they were cooking, she told him all the details of the robbery. While doing so, she had a dizzy spell and fainted. Her husband called an ambulance. In the hospital, it was discovered that she had suffered a stroke which paralyzed two-thirds of her body. Perhaps there were some predisposing medical factors, but for me there was a causal connection: she had described the robbery while cooking, and the entire stress of what had happened during this explanation led to the stroke. I was very shocked about the fact that I was the cause thereof and that I had destroyed a person’s life, although I left the scene of the crime thinking that I had not caused anyone any physical harm. This woman is severely handicapped for the rest of her life, can no longer work, cannot make long vacations, and is dependent upon equipment and medication.

The best part was that she forgave me during the conversation, which I felt bitterly. Before that, it had been difficult for me to forgive other people. 

I can understand that the processing of your crime must be profound for you. The consequential damage to these people is extraordinarily severe. What have you concretely learned from these encounters with victims of the robbery?

As I was more and more preoccupied with the victim-offender difficulty and completed my education as a social worker, l learned to better understand the victim through psychological and pedagogical approaches. In therapy we spoke in detail about the difficulty of psychological injuries which I experienced as a child due to physical abuse by my father. The therapist showed me how the feeling of inferiority resulted therefrom and was occurring within me, as well as how people build up protection around themselves and seek refuge through violence. During my education, I learned through theoretical approaches how criticism can be felt as rejection and how it can lead to feelings of shame and rejection. 

It appears that for you the victim-offender dialogues have had a crucial influence on your future life. Do you know if your fellow prisoners have gone along the same path?

I have to answer in the negative. I don’t know any other prisoner who, in this stretch of time, participated in such talks. In Switzerland, victim-offender dialogues are rarely supported because among the circle of experts, a persistent perception exists: that this confrontation can be re-traumatizing for the victim and stigmatizing for the offender.

When such dialogues are led unprofessionally without background knowledge in addressing vulnerability, shame, feelings of inferiority and rejection, one can make things much worse. One must be proficient in questioning techniques: Where does the person stand? Is the person stable? How does the person avoid statements which he/she senses as provocative? Is he/she capable of inquiring when he/she has the feeling that he/she has misunderstood something? 

In Restorative Justice, the victim and the offender are prepared in a professional manner prior to confronting each other. In the event of psychological instability on the part of the victim or the offender, then there is no meeting. The offender is asked particularly about his/her motives. These must arise out of genuine remorse. As a former jailbird, I notice quickly whether a person’s remorse is genuine, or if he/she only wants to have a few hours of release from their prison cell.

There are programs which deal with the victim-offender dialogues on several evenings. It is important that where possible and desired the victim and offender can meet eye-to-eye. It was sensational how after these eight evenings, the victim and offender were often able to approach each other sensitively; there were some very moving scenes. The wonderful thing is that it is a win-win situation for both involved.

Can you describe such a moving situation?

A woman over 70 was robbed in her automobile and her purse was snatched away. Because her keys and identification were in her purse, she had dread fear that the thief would be able to break into her house. The juvenile criminal with whom she had a dialogue was not the one who committed the crime against her, but one who had committed the exact same crime. Throughout the entire resolution process, the young man said that she could be his grandmother whom he loves above all else. At the end, they hugged each other.

I still have contact with some of my victims and together we give presentations or appear in the media. In so doing, it is important to me to ensure that the victim always takes center stage, and that I as the offender thank the victim that he/she has the courage to conduct these dialogues with me.

About four or five years ago, I became a member of Prison Fellowship Switzerland with the goal of establishing victim-offender dialogues in Switzerland. Unfortunately, it was extremely difficult to get this idea through to the prisons.

In the German juvenile detention center Seehaus, I was invited again and again, as an ex-jailbird, as a “cart horse”, where I explained unsparingly and in all detail about my own crimes. Because my victim-offender dialogues were very successful, I could take away the juveniles’ fear of dialogue. 

Ruedi, you speak much about you as the offender and your victims. You are not only an offender. Can you tell us a bit about Ruedi as a person?

I am the father of five children. Contact with them has always been very important to me. It was they who made me realize in prison that I need to act as a role model now.

Today I work in the “Falkennest” in L. with some juvenile criminals and some violent young adults who can no longer find their way. In so doing, there is crime rehabilitation and, if possible, organization of dialogue with some of their earlier victims.

Thank you, Ruedi, for your openness. You gave us a very interesting insight into your life and into your past. I wish you all the best on your future journey.

Download this article

Interview with Claudia Christen, president of the Swiss Restorative Justice Forum

The questions were asked by Ines Aubert, September 2017

Claudia, you were the animating spirit for the launching and became President of the Swiss Restorative Justice Forum in January 2017. Can you explain what Restorative Justice is?

Restorative Justice (RJ) is a philosophy of justice based on core values and a variety of practices.

RJ recognizes that crime primarily harms people and their relationships, and that the duty of justice is to repair the harm done and restore the lives and relationships of the ones affected by the crime.

Thus, RJ seeks “to involve, to the extent possible, those who have a stake in a specific offense and to collectively identify and address harms, needs, and obligations, in order to heal and put things as right as possible” (Zehr, 2002, p. 37).

To achieve this, RJ creates opportunities for victims, offenders and community members to meet and to discuss the crime and its aftermath, if they desire to do so. This encounter allows victims to tell their story, which is an important step in healing from the harm suffered.

Offenders are encouraged and supported in making amends to help repair the harm caused, insofar as possible. Solutions are sought together with the victims in order to meet the real needs and address the harm adequately. The goal is the restoration and reintegration of victims and offenders.

Many of the offenders also have been victims of severe abuse and violence and, in addressing their needs and trauma, they become less likely to reoffend, as unhealed trauma is considered a major risk factor for offending behavior. It is, thus, an inclusive process that seeks to heal what has been broken, promote in offenders awareness for and empathy with victims, and help them become accountable for their behavior and the resulting consequences. This process also allows many offenders to realize for the first time what suffering their acts have caused and how the consequences may be long-lasting for the victims.

In essence, RJ considers that the traditional legal system does not respond adequately to the needs of victims, offenders, and society in general, and that all parties should actively participate in the achievement of a healing form of justice, the way many ethnic, cultures and religions around the world still practice it.

Can you tell me a little about your history with Restorative Justice?

I have worked for years in different prisons in Santiago de Chile in the area of conflict resolution and peacemaking as a mediator and instructor.

One day I was asked to implement a program in restorative justice, based on the methodology of restorative dialogues. This triggered my interest in RJ and I applied to Simon Fraser University in Canada to study RJ for one year. These studies impacted me deeply and changed my worldview in significant ways.

From there on, my main focus in work has been on restorative justice and restorative practices. Although we left Chile in 2014, I knew that RJ would continue to be my main focus, even in Switzerland where RJ is still very little known and hardly put into practice.

Currently, I am writing my MSc dissertation in criminology and criminal justice on RJ and trauma-informed work. Right now I am also preparing the start of an RJ in-prison program and am very excited about this opportunity to start something like this in Switzerland. Additionally, I’m involved in a working group of the European Forum for Restorative Justice. The goal is to define the values and standards for RJ practice in Europe. This collaboration provides many insights into how other European countries are including restorative justice not only into their criminal justice systems but also into education and social affairs. I have learned a lot and appreciate all the suggestions and new ideas, as well as the mutual support.

What are the first goals you have for RJ in Switzerland?

Our first goals for Switzerland were mainly related to informing people in key positions about RJ. We have had many interesting opportunities, so far, and are still working on this, as this goal will certainly accompany us for another while. It is also our goal to help develop, implement and evaluate the practice of RJ in a variety of contexts, mainly though in the criminal justice system. Supporting others and offering training in RJ is another goal, and we enjoy every opportunity we have in doing so. Research into RJ in Switzerland is important to us too, as it is essential to be able to present Swiss results of the application of RJ.

More information about our work and contact details can be found on: www.swissrjforum.ch

On the Swiss Restorative Justice Forum homepage, there are four main practices that “are meant to put into practice the theory and philosophy of Restorative Justice”. Let me quote a few paragraphs and sentences from your homepage:

1. Victim-Offender Mediation: Victim-Offender-Mediation is one of the oldest and most broadly used forms of restorative practices throughout the world. Qualified mediators facilitate a voluntary meeting between victim and offender. Both can share their experience, express their feelings and seek their own way to find solutions, repair the harm done and work towards achieving justice. The process emphasizes the active participation of both stakeholders.

2. Conferencing: Family Group Conferences are intended to provide a personal encounter between offenders, victims, their families, and supporters, including any other representatives, who need to be involved. The aim is to support offenders as they take responsibility and change their behavior; empower their families to take an active role; and address the needs of victims. It should be a culturally sensitive process, empowering families in their respective roles, and aiming at achieving goals, such as: accountability, involving the victims, strengthening the offender’s family, and consensus decision-making, besides others. To achieve these goals, specific guiding principles, sensitive to the stakeholders’ situations and needs, are to be practiced.

3. Circles: Circles cannot only be used reactively but serve proactive purposes too, promoting healthy and restorative relationships. They are often used in prisons for working with groups of inmates and sometimes involve participants from the community. They have proved to be a valuable tool to address many issues such as conflicts, harm, trauma, and relationship building. Circles are also being used successfully in schools, communities, corporations, different kinds of organizations and work places to strengthen relationships, work on teambuilding, share visions and create plans, solve conflicts, build stronger communities, and improve mutual understanding.

4. Restorative Dialogues: Restorative Dialogues between victims, offenders and community members may have profound effects on the participants. In some programs, direct stakeholders are involved in other programs in which unrelated victims and offenders meet to discuss the effect crime has on individuals and the community, the harm resulting from it, what it means to accept responsibility, and how to make things right. Such facilitated dialogues may help to start a healing process in victims and help offenders confront the harm their actions have had on others. It can even help offenders start healing from their own traumas they may have suffered in the past, especially during their childhood.

I personally was mainly aware of the Sycamore Tree Project by Prison Fellowship which belongs to the Restorative Dialogues. I admit that I even mistook it to be Restorative Justice, but it’s only one of many programs and approaches. It was Dan Van Ness who started the program wherein which victims of crime meet with unrelated serving prisoners. This means it’s an “Indirect Restorative Dialogue”. Can you give us an example of your work with one of the four practices?

I have worked with Restorative Dialogues, in particular the Sycamore Tree Project in Chile. It is very interesting to see the impact such a program can have, even when offenders and victims are not directly related. We choose the participants in a way that the crimes committed by the prisoners are as closely as possible related to the victims’ experiences. This provides a basis for mutual understanding and heightens the impact the victims’ stories have on the prisoners. But it also allows the victims to ask questions about such crimes, why they are committed, how offenders choose their victims or targets, if there is, for example, a big chance of offenders coming back to a house they have broken into to take out more things, if they are likely to take revenge in certain cases, etc. All of this can help victims find meaning from their experiences and somehow process the past in order to take steps into the future. Not having answers to their questions often keeps them trapped in the past and makes healing from their trauma difficult.

This kind of approach also helps offenders to see the “person” that has been harmed and develop victim-empathy, as there is a tendency to deny the fact that people like them have been hurt and are suffering – often much longer than the prisoners would ever assume and often also much more than they would ever imagine.

On the other hand, it also allows victims to see the person behind the “offender”. Many offenders have been victims of crime too, particularly in their childhood and/or youth. They often have suffered from severe trauma, too, and victims can somehow see how their life story has affected their life’s journey. This is not to excuse or justify what they have done, but it still can help victims on their path to healing.

I have also used circles a lot in different contexts, and what amazes me again and again is to see how restorative practices not only apply to the criminal justice system, but also provide us with a useful framework for working with society in general.

Can you give me an example how restorative practices could be applied in ways other than in criminal justice systems?

There are many possibilities J. Restorative practices have already been used for many years to build restorative schools – and this with great success and growing interest in an increasing number of countries. Restorative practices in schools can help to integrate children from other cultures, support mutual understanding, promote community building, help children to communicate respectfully, and resolve their conflicts peacefully.

Restorative practices are also an effective tool for trauma work and this is an area of growing interest for us as so many people – and in particular also children – arrive from countries where they have suffered severe trauma. As unhealed trauma is one of the main risk factors for the development of offending behavior, it is an area that definitely requires our attention, as prevention should be our main focus, wherever and whenever possible.

Circles, a restorative method, provide a wonderful tool for supporting children and adults in sharing their story and start healing from their painful experiences. For many teachers, this is an area of great concern, as they realize how traumatized some of their students are and they often feel helpless in knowing how to address their needs. They see, however, what consequences these life experiences have upon the children. In circles, painful life experiences can be addressed in a way that supports all students, no matter if they have been traumatized or not. The beauty of it is that restorative practices are not difficult to learn, but very effective. Teachers report that by implementing them, they ultimately find more time to concentrate on teaching, as students learn to address so many issues and conflicts among themselves, and the improved classroom climate provides a productive environment where students learn more easily and support each other. The approach can also help teachers in working with parents. School principals also find tools to address more severe issues, like bullying and violence in schools, etc., through other methods such as family group conferences.

Is there something an interested person can do to support Restorative Justice in Switzerland?

An important contribution is to inform oneself well about restorative justice and then spread the word in different contexts. It is important that many more people get to hear about restorative justice in general, and that they are provided with details about where they can receive more information or training, i.e. our Forum but also many international agencies that do fantastic work.

As we are also starting to implement restorative dialogues in Swiss prisons, we are open to include people who have been victims of crime into our programs. Former victims of crime are welcome to get in touch with us and check if there might be a possibility for them to participate in a dialogue with prisoners.

Another option is to ask for specific training in restorative practices and then apply these to whatever context the person is involved in. Restorative practices can be applied in so many contexts, and the methods are usually quite simple to learn and to adapt them. As aforementioned, there is the possibility to apply restorative practices not only in a school context, but also in community building in neighborhoods, businesses, working teams, mediation work with groups, etc., and for working with migrants in helping them heal from trauma, create cultural awareness, help integrate, build community with locals, prevent violence, etc. Circles are currently being applied in some refugee camps in Europe and have proven very helpful and effective. There are many opportunities, and we love to help wherever we can support people in implementing restorative practices!

Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions, Claudia. I wish Swiss Restorative Justice Form and its work all the best!

Download this article

What pen friends mean to me

“You ask me what my pen friends mean to me? Family, connection, love and the knowing we are all in this adventure together. Everyone I write to I love as family. This extended family is a chance for me to share and to give to. It’s a chance to be connected even though we are not even on the same side of this beautiful gorgeous sexy globe, we can touch and be touched in a deep profound spiritual way. Letter writing is an opportunity to spread encouragement, hope, humor and a crazy wisdom that possibly opens eyes to the wonders of this life and inspiration for readers to see that if a person on death row can be free then no matter what the situation anyone else experiences they too can be free! That each and every one is special and valued! So, as I say family, connection and love. WE ARE ALL IN THIS JOURNEY TOGETHER!”

An inmate on death row