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Welcome To Hell: Letters and Writings from Death Row written by Jan Arriens


Welcome To Hell: Letters and Writings from Death Row written by Jan Arriens


Consisting of letters and other writings from inmates to members of LifeLines, an organization of pen friends based in the United Kingdom, Welcome to Hell vividly conveys daily life on death row. Ranging from simple descriptions of cockroach races and a typewriter repaired with rubber bands and a toothbrush, to profoundly affecting glimpses into horrific abusive childhoods, to eloquent, emotionally powerful statements about facing execution, these remarkable letters reveal the human side of capital punishment.

The second edition includes new chapters that focus in particular on how inmates, knowing that the only realistic alternative to death is a life sentence without parole, cope with long periods of imprisonment in a hostile system that remorselessly seeks to take their lives. The additional material also gives insight into the ways in which death row prisoners flower as human beings despite their harsh, isolated, and traumatic environment.

As Sister Helen Prejean writes in her foreword, "Take this guided tour through Hell-guided by those who should know: the prisoners themselves. This is a book that speaks from the heart to the heart. Hopes, fears, anguish, desolation, anger -- they're all here. There isn't a page that doesn't make us laugh, cry, or shout. This book is their story -- the story of those cast aside by society. Not human like we are? Come and see for yourself."


Now in a new edition, condemned men and women speak for themselves about the reality behind bars on death row.


Welcome to Hell

Letters & Writings from Death Row

Northeastern University Press

Copyright 2005 Jan Arriens
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1-55553-636-0

Chapter One


What an extraordinary role chance plays in our lives. One evening in November 1987 I had nothing in particular to do and idly switched on the television. It was a program about a young black man executed in Mississippi-a program that earlier I had decided not to watch because I thought it would be altogether too depressing.

Within minutes I was riveted. Fourteen Days in May remains the most compelling television documentary I have ever seen.

For reasons that remain obscure, the BBC had been permitted to take its cameras into the maximum security unit of Parchman Penitentiary in Mississippi in May 1987 and film the last fourteen days in the life of Edward Earl Johnson. As the documentary proceeded, the viewer felt a terrible sense of impotence at what was happening, which was so manifestly wrong-whatever one's views on the death penalty. Edward Earl Johnson radiated a very special quality: a quiet charm and honesty, a simplicity, a guilelessness. Guards, the chaplain, the attorneys-all expressed their liking for Edward Earl and clearly did not want the execution to proceed.

The voice of humanity, however, came from the least-expected quarter: the other prisoners. Three other prisoners were interviewed in the film.The words of one in particular affected me profoundly. At ten minutes past 10 P.M., less than two hours before the scheduled execution, one of the prisoners said quietly but with great feeling: "Everyone here is dying tonight-a part of them. I can never be the same after this. We're supposed to be vicious and cruel, but this goes beyond anything that anyone could ever do."

Those words were to change my life. My overwhelming reaction was one of astonishment that a prisoner was able to say exactly what I was feeling but was unable to express. I remember breaking down at that point, engulfed with grief as the legal machine rolled on inexorably to execute a human being who was so obviously liked and respected and who had so much to offer.

I knew then that I would have to write to the man who had spoken those words.

After finding out their names from the BBC, I wrote to all three prisoners. At that stage I did not know which was which, and I sent each of them the same letter. Their names were Leo Edwards, John Irving, and Sam Johnson. In my letter I said:

I am writing this letter to you after having seen the television film Fourteen Days in May about Edward Johnson, in which you were interviewed.

What I want to say is that I was deeply moved by the film, not just by Mr. Johnson's extraordinary dignity and composure, but also by the humanity, insight and sensitivity you each displayed. When one of you said that part of you was dying with Mr. Johnson, that was exactly what we as viewers felt: part of us, too, was dying. And in the same way, part of Edward Johnson lives on, through you and through those of us reached on television by his personality.

The terrible execution of Edward Johnson and the reaction of others to it, notably yourselves, is an outstanding example of how something deeply worthwhile and important can come out of darkness. It is almost as though we human beings only really discover the depths of our humanity and spirituality when life is most against us.

A few days before the film was shown here, the bomb went off in Enniskillen in Northern Ireland, killing many people at a war remembrance ceremony. One of the lasting impressions of that terrible incident has been the dignity of the father of a 22-year-old nurse who was killed, who said he bore no one any bitterness, and that he could only accept that it was somehow part of a greater plan. Because of his words, which moved the nation, his daughter certainly did not die in vain, but may well have helped bring about reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland.

In the same way, Edward Johnson's death, and your plight, have moved many people deeply and been a source of great inspiration and, somehow, hope. If there are times when you wonder how on earth your life could have taken such a turn, please know that there are many people who wept at your wonderful words and whose lives have been touched by yours. I shall never forget the extraordinary qualities you displayed.

Yours sincerely, (Mr.) Jan Arriens

All three replied. The first letter I received was from Leo Edwards. I had never received a letter that moved me more. It read as follows:

Hello Mr. Arriens 12.12.87

I sincerely pray that this letter finds you and all your loved ones in God's complete grace and care.

I received your most uplifting letter a day ago (I wasn't sure if you wanted to here back from any of us or not?) and was very happy to hear about the effect the film "14 Days in May" had on you and hopefully others, and that it was beneficial in some way.

When I decided to be interviewed for the film my prayers and hope's were that it (the film) would open everyone's eyes to this useless and deceiving taking of life.

There was a time when I thought that there should be a Death Penalty for certain crimes, such as rape and murder and child abuse and murder, but (I am not sure who said this, but, I do think he was right) "If any man should die, then no man should live."

But the Death Penalty in this country and many others is politically and economically motivated, there is also the fact that the vast majority of the population just doesn't care, until it's their loved ones in this (having a death sentence) situation.

But there are many of us here who don't have family or anyone to help us with our struggles with the courts or in our mere survival, such as hygienic materials, warm clothing, a proper law research library and food that I wouldn't give to my dog! The problems we face here are many but as you're probably saying to yourself, "The biggest problem we face is staying alive."

Please forgive me Mr. Arriens for expressing my frustrations and problems to you in this letter because that was not my intention.

I wrote you this letter to let you know that your letter and feeling's were of great importance and highly appreciated by myself and the others here.

I also wanted to let you know that if there is anything you need to know, or would like, to continue to write (or someone you know who would like to write) me or anyone else here. Your/their letters will be warmly excepted, and all questions will be answered.

So once again "Thank You!" for your letter and concern.

If you would like to write back I will be more than happy to hear from you.

May God be between you and harm and all the empty places you walk.

Sincerely Leo Edwards M.S.U. Co.P. Parchman, Ms. 38738

How was it possible for someone in his position to display so much concern about me, as though he were investing me with strength, instead of leaning on me ? Above all, how could someone in the bleakest and darkest of situations worry about the "empty places" in which I walked?

A few days later a second letter arrived. It was from Sam Johnson. I quote it in full because of the impact it made on me and all who read it.

Dear Jan, 7 December 1987

In oneness of heart, mind, and spirit I greet you while praying that this will find you, your family and everyone fine and in the very best of health and all else that's good and of God.

Thank you for your letter that I received today and, even more than this, thank you for caring enough to write.

I cannot say that I am doing fine but I am coping with my situation as best as I possibly can and, with the help of God, I feel certain that I will be able to endure this and overcome it eventually.

I hope that you have no objections to my addressing you by your first name and please, if you respond to my letter, call me "Sam." Last names sound so "formal" and "impersonal." I would enjoy corresponding with you and will enjoy even more developing a friendship with you.

Jan, I am from New York and am here without family or friends. I am innocent of the crime I've been convicted of and struggle daily to prove my innocence. This New Year's Eve will mark six (6) years that I have been here. I came here with three other individuals. Two of them are cousins and are from the town that this tragedy occurred. The other individual I met while I was in New Orleans. I met the guy that killed the Officer on the same day that we came here. Jan, I won't try to portray myself to you as an Angel or as a person with a lily white character. I am not a person of violence and have never in my life seriously hurt anyone.

We were stopped by a Highway Patrolman for no other reason than that there were four Blacks in a car together. I was driving but was not speeding or violating any other rules of the highway. After stopping us the Officer searched me and asked that I stand at this car while he searched my car. The front seat passenger (Charlie) was searched by the Officer and then told to stand at the Officer's car where I was already standing. Charlie did this. The Officer then searched the front seat of my car. He found nothing illegal in my car at that time. Finishing with his search of the front seat, he then told the other two individuals (Otis and Anthony) to exit the car and stand where Charlie and I were standing at his (the Officer's) car. Otis was sitting on the rear passenger's side of the car and got out and came back to where Charlie and I were standing. Anthony, who was sitting in the rear behind the driver, got out of my car. Instead of coming to where the three of us were standing, Anthony walked between the cars to where the Officer was bent over in the back seat and stabbed him in the back. I had never seen the knife that he had and it was several months afterwards that I found out that he (Anthony) had known the Officer and that he knew that the Officer had killed a Black man 10 months before we were stopped. Anthony told Otis, his cousin, that he killed the Officer because he was scared that after the Officer found the checks he was going to kill us.

Anyway, after I saw Anthony stab the Officer I tried to stop him. I ran to my car where Anthony and the Officer were, at this time, struggling and tried to take the knife from Anthony. He cut me with the knife in two places in my right hand. (I'll trace a picture of the cuts on the back of this page.) I screamed at him that he had cut me. He then dropped the knife and continued to struggle with the Officer. Charlie and Otis had ran back to my car while this was happening. Anthony and the Officer struggled by me and I ran to my car with intentions of leaving Anthony. I got to my car but couldn't get it started because my hand was so bloody and kept slipping off the key. Charlie reached over me and started the car. By the time that this happened we heard a gunshot and then Anthony got back into my car and told me to "drive." Jan, I was so panic filled at this time I couldn't do anything but what he told me. I drove. None of us at this time knew whether he still had the knife or the gun and all of us were panic filled.

I drove to a deserted area that Anthony told me to and then jumped out of my car and tried to run away from Anthony and all that had happened. We all tried to run away from him. He told us not to run and we stopped. Anthony was wearing a white sweater that was filled with blood and he told Charlie and myself to help him take it off. We did this and Charlie threw the sweater in some bushes near the railroad tracks that were close by. "Fear" isn't the correct word for what I was that day but it's the only word that I know that can come close to describing the feelings that were within me then. After helping him take off the sweater, Charlie and I ran aimlessly away from him. He stole another car, picked Otis up in it and then drove to where Charlie and myself were and picked us up in it. We knew nothing else to do but get in and we got in the car. Anthony drove for about a half a block and then pulled over and told me to drive the car because he was "too nervous" to drive. I didn't want to but I drove the car and followed his directions on where to go. Roadblocks had already been set up and we were caught a short while later. It was God's Grace that we weren't killed at the roadblock because the Officers there shot the car we were in into total destruction. Anthony knew several Officers who were at the roadblock and told them that Charlie and I killed the Officer. We were almost beaten to death. As I've said, Anthony and Otis were from the town that this happened in and all of their family lived in this town. I didn't find this out until after my trial but Anthony's family were pretty influential in this town and used their influence to buy him out of this trouble. He was allowed to be the State's witness against us and testified that I stabbed the Officer and then ordered Charlie to shoot him.

Here are some facts that weren't allowed to be brought out at my trial. Anthony testified that I was wearing the sweater and that in stabbing the Officer, my hand slipped down onto the knife and that's how I got the cuts in my hand. He also said that, after stabbing the Officer, I changed hands with the knife and tried to get the Officer's gun away from the Officer with my bloody hand. Jan, the knife was a butcher's knife and had one cutting edge to it. If I had used the knife and cut myself while using it there is NO WAY that I could have two cuts in my hand in the positions that these cuts are in my hand. If I had worn the sweater, as he said I did, there is NO WAY that my blood wouldn't have been on it SOMEWHERE. If I had struggled with the Officer and tried to take his gun away from him with my bloody hand, as he said I did, there is NO WAY that my blood wouldn't have been on the Officer or on his clothes or that his blood wouldn't have been on me or my clothes.

Jan, none of my blood was on the Officer or on his clothes nor was any of his blood on me or on my clothes. My fingerprints weren't found on the knife or on the gun (no fingerprints were found on either of these items). Jan, three people (white) who had no involvement in this tragedy and knew none of us identified Anthony as the man they saw struggling with and perhaps stabbing the Officer. They testified to this at my trial but yet and still I was found guilty solely upon Anthony's testimony and sentenced to die.

Jan, God knows that I didn't kill the Officer or anyone else but I sit here on death row and this State is doing all in its power to execute-murder me. My case is before the United States Supreme Court at this time and we are waiting for them to make a decision on whether to overturn my death sentence.


Excerpted from Welcome to Hell Copyright 2005 by Jan Arriens. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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