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Befriending People Around the World
on Death Row and in the Third World

by Flash Wilson, August 17th 2003

Click here to hear Flash read this article.

When you meet someone for the first time, you hope that they won't turn out to be some kind of murderer and that you will be safe around them, as well as hoping you will have something in common.

My situation's a bit different; I knew from the outset that my new friend had killed someone. I also knew that I'd be safe, as my correspondent is on Death Row. So now that was out of the way, I hoped that we'd get along well, as you do with anyone you meet.

I also write to two families in the third world, who I sponsor for a small amount every month. However little I have, they have even less.

It's not just about money and circumstance.

It's about extending friendship to people, whatever their situation.

For sure, I am in a more fortunate situation. I have a home, clothes, food, an education, and my liberty. But I have a lot to learn from corresponding with people who live in different circumstances.

Learning about the people behind the story is fascinating and makes the situation more real. There is always more than I have imagined. In Africa, my sponsor child's father has been forced to emigrate to find work, yet the people are resilient, and prayed for me when I lost my job. THEY prayed for ME, isn't that fantastic? It's not just about who has money, it's about helping your fellow human beings.

Every prisoner on Death Row is still a person. Everyone has a story. In "my" prisoner's case, he says he was led into the crime by another and the person who died was actually someone he cared for. A jury sentenced him to life imprisonment, but the judge overruled this and sentenced him to death. So yes, everyone has a story, and you can disbelieve them if you want, but you cannot ignore the statistics, which say that this is not a fair or humane punishment. While in the USA 25% of the population is non-white, a much higher percentage of those on the Row are from ethnic minorities. Many are not from priveliged backgrounds and it is estimated that several are educationally subnormal and should never have been sentenced to death - usually by a white judge from a very different background. More of these facts can be found on Amnesty USA's website.

All the men and women spend so long on the Row that they can be there for half their life, locked up 23 hours a day, before finally being executed. Each one a human being, growing older, waiting for death.

Lets examine the death penalty for a minute. There have been cases of innocent men being executed, and although many men on death row will tell you they are innocent, how can anyone be sure of the truth once these men have been killed? The methods of execution are also harsh. Amnesty International is campaigning against the death penalty in all of the countries that use it, not just the USA, on the grounds that human rights entitle everyone to the right to life. I wrote to a prisoner merely to offer friendship and to push my own understanding of human nature, but the more I learn the more I believe the death penalty is wrong. Imagine spending all or most of your adult life, the time when you develop as a person and learn who you are, knowing you are restricted in all you do, and waiting all the time to hear a date for your death?

Whatever my views I am slightly troubled by the idea of people forcing their opinions on other cultures. It's not just the Death Penalty; for example in some areas of Africa female circumcision is common. Women who have undergone this painful procedure still willingly force their daughters to endure it, as it is part of their belief. Who are we to say that they are wrong? It is a dangerous and unhealthy practise, but what makes my belief system morally better than theirs? Why should I tell people to consult medical doctors when they are used to black magic potions? Who gives me the right to change people?

We forget about the third world when images of famine have slipped from the media, but sporadic fundraisers in times of drought can only provide immediate aid. Sponsoring a child is about providing permanent change. A whole community benefits, and by the time the charity is able to withdraw from the area, the people will have had vaccinations, will have a school, adequate toileting facilities, and have learnt to use the land to the best extent, so they can be self-sufficient. Writing to a child and his family strengthens the bond and can also be instrumental in encouraging people to accept change, for example that girls can benefit from being allowed to go to school. We can help bring about change for the better, but this must be long-term change coupled with education, and will therefore be a gradual process. Although it's a sad time when a sponsorship comes to an end, it's a great thing because it means that particular community is now self-sufficient and no longer needs the guiding help of a charity. You can know that your small change has made a real difference to the life of a community. You can even visit them if you wish.

We all can make a difference - just extending the arm of friendship or being a person behind the money in cases where we wish to make a donation. It must hurt people's pride to take handouts, whereas forging a bond with people in different circumstances to ourselves can be rewarding. True, it is challenging to hear of the difficulties people face in their day to day life, but it is important to stand up and make a difference. Be their friend. Affect other people's lives - even if the rest of the world doesn't know about it.

For more information on sponsoring a child, see Plan International's website.
For more information on writing to someone on Death Row, see Lifelines' website.

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