Friends on death row

 
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D Keine—Getty Images

Don’t be fooled by the horses grazing lazily in a field in front of the prison, or the corrections officers sporting hokey western hats. This is about as bleak as it gets: the Polunsky Unit is home to Texas’ death-row wing. Its population currently stands at 241 men. On the day of an execution the condemned are driven to a separate prison in Huntsville where they are given a lethal injection.

This morning there’s a solitary figure waiting outside the security gates: a woman in her late 60s wearing a red cardigan, a streak of pink in her short blonde hair. Ann Stevens’ accent sets her apart from the other visitors to the prison; the guards all know the Englishwoman who has been coming to Polunsky twice a year for the past decade. Stevens, from Northampton, once worked at a supermarket checkout. She now runs a death-row ministry.

Twice a year she relies on donations to pay for flights to the US, where she visits men and women awaiting the death penalty around the country. Like Sister Helen Prejean, the nun played by Susan Sarandon in the movie Dead Man Walking, Stevens is the religious conscience of the condemned, consoling them as they face the ultimate penalty.

Once you’ve gone through a security check, you walk along a path beyond the razor wire and into the prison. Ivan Cantu, the 44-year-old prisoner Stevens has come to see, is led, handcuffed, behind a row of booths by three officers. Once the door to his pod is locked, he sits on a chair and pushes his cuffed hands through a slot in the door so a guard can remove them.

Cantu, a small-framed man with thick, swept-back black hair, smiles as Stevens sits opposite him and places the phone to her ear. “Hello, love,” she says. “How have you been?”

The state holds that Cantu killed his cousin, James Mosqueda, and his cousin’s fiancée, Amy Kitchen, at their Dallas home in November 2000, because his relative failed to pay a drug debt. He’s been on death row for 16 years. He was given an execution date in 2011 but it was withdrawn for legal reasons.

Although clothes in Cantu’s apartment were found to have the victims’ blood on them, Cantu has always maintained his innocence. Unless they volunteer the information, Stevens doesn’t ask what crimes the men and women she visits have committed. She tells me she made that mistake once. A friend who also visits prison inmates asked her if she could send $20 to a particular man on death row. Stevens found out he had beheaded his two children. “I really struggled,” she said. “I didn’t want to send him the money, but I always told myself whatever they’d done they’re paying the ultimate price.”

She sent him the money, but now she doesn’t look up their crimes. “I’d rather not sit there and think: ‘This is a monster.’ Most people wouldn’t normally love these people because of what they’ve done, but God doesn’t do it like that. And because I’m there as an envoy of God, giving some sort of comfort, I’m not going to judge them.”

Cantu asks Stevens to read Psalm 139 from her Bible. She pulls her chair closer to the glass and thumbs the pages. “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made. . .” she reads. Cantu, elbows on his ledge, shuts his eyes. “. . . test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”

Cantu tells me he wasn’t a Christian when Stevens first visited him. But slowly, perhaps because of the comfort it offered him, alone in his cell 23 hours a day, he began to find faith. Earlier, Stevens told me she ministered to another inmate who didn’t want to know about God. “Then he had an execution date—after 23 years on death row,” she said. “And he told me that after all the years I’d talked to him, drip, drip, dripping stories from the Bible, he swears he heard a voice say, ‘I’m not finished with you yet.’ He looked around and there was no one there. And then they took him off death row. He believes it happened because he found the Lord, and he’s been faithful ever since.”

I first met Stevens last summer at her small, terraced house in Semilong, Northampton. She never envisaged becoming involved with her church, let alone one day running a death-row ministry. She had a child at 16, after which she was disowned by some of her family. She was married for 27 years, but at the age of 48 she left her husband and became more involved with her local church. But it was a documentary, Fourteen Days in May, that changed her life.

First broadcast by the BBC in 1987, the film follows Mississippi inmate Edward Earl Johnson in the two weeks leading up to his execution. After seeing that, Stevens contacted LifeLines, a charity that organises pen pals for death-row prisoners in the States.

There came a time when writing letters wasn’t enough. Stevens wanted to do more, and some of her pen pals had begun asking when she was going to see them. “My first visit to Polunsky was so surreal,” she tells me across the dining table in her front room. “I’d never been in a prison before and the way the guards were looking at me, I felt judged, I suppose.

“I was visiting Duane Buck, my first penfriend, who was known on the row as “Brother Buck” because of his conversion to Christianity. He’d obviously told some of the other inmates I was coming because as I approached his pod in the meeting room some of them were banging on the glass: ‘Are you a Christian, ma’am?’ ‘Will you visit me, ma’am?’ Just seeing them sitting there behind glass—they looked so desperate. And they had nothing. They couldn’t even go to church.”

More and more, Stevens felt compelled to write or talk to inmates about her faith, and in 2013 she was ordained as a minister and awarded a certificate by a church in Texas. This meant she’d be given greater flexibility when visiting inmates, but it would also enshrine her visits in meaning and purpose. She started spending her time in England raising money so she could take two lengthy trips a year to Texas.

During her visits with inmates, Stevens buys them something from the vending machine, asks about their well-being, and talks to them about God. But, she said, she is never pushy. “I don’t want to sit there preaching at them. I just want to show there is somebody out there who gives a damn about them; who prays for them.” And she doesn’t mind if they don’t share her faith. “They eat, shower and die when they’re told. They need choices, and if they choose not to believe in Jesus, that’s up to them.”

One inmate always asks her to buy him a packet of chips and herself a bag of cashews when she visits. They eat them and drink a can of soda at the same time and have what Stevens calls a mock communion. Another, who’s been on death row for 30 years, tells her he doesn’t believe in God. “He’s never done anything for him so he doesn’t see why he should,” Stevens says. “But at that last minute he might accept God. Or he might never accept God. The only thing I can do is to show them I care about them, and God cares about them.”

Stevens had previously told me over the phone that this could be her last trip to the US. She’s been visiting American prisons for more than a decade and running her ministry for the past four. But she turns 70 next year. “Flights and insurance are expensive,” she said. “I have diabetes, arthritis. It’s difficult.” But she seems to have had a change of heart. “I’ve always said when I can’t raise the money that’s the end of the road for me, but I don’t feel like it is yet.”

The darkest, most difficult part of her work comes at the end. Stevens has now witnessed two executions. The first was in 2012, that of Keith Thurmond, convicted of killing his estranged wife and her boyfriend after losing custody of his son. “Keith was very mentally vulnerable: he was a bit of a Walter Mitty—believed he was a helicopter pilot and the FBI had set him up.”

At the prison in Huntsville, Stevens was told to remove her shoes to go through security before being searched. “I remember my foot made a sweat mark on the floor and I apologised.  I was a nervous wreck.” Outside, it was raining and she remembers walking up a set of metal stairs at the prison and hearing the noise of the rain on the steps. She was led into a small room and told to stand facing the execution chamber. “They pulled back the curtain—I was only a few feet from Keith, who was behind glass, strapped to a hospital bed. It made me feel claustrophobic, panicked. I wanted him to be able to lift his hands. I saw a tear roll down his face. I managed to give him a thumbs-up and smiled. What else do you do?”

She says the warden stood behind Thurmond and a prison chaplain held his ankle. “We all just stood there, rooted to the spot. No one moved. You’re not prepared to see a man who, apart from the effect prison had on him, was fit and healthy, die before your eyes. I thought: how does this change anything for anybody? Then they pronounced him dead and I went outside and it was still raining.”

Later, in the prison chapel, she was able to hug Thurmond for the first time. He was covered with a maroon blanket. She had dreams of that day for a while afterwards—as though a camera was zooming in on Thurmond’s hands, bandaged to the gurney. At his funeral the next day in the prison cemetery, she laid white roses on his coffin. “He had said that they would somehow make him pure and help him get into heaven,” she says.

At the Polunsky Unit, Ivan Cantu is talking to Stevens about other inmates; those who rarely have visitors, never get letters and who almost never leave their cells. He’s concerned about their mental health. He tries to urge them to take the one hour of recreation offered each day. He asks Stevens if she’ll help; if she’ll start writing to them or pay them a visit.

Later, Cantu will write to tell me that Ann’s positivity is contagious; that the happier she is during her visits with the condemned, the happier they become. “It blows me away that a single, retired woman on a very limited budget is willing to travel across the Atlantic for people considered unworthy of society—to bring hope and dignity to us,” he’ll say. “It’s kind of a saintly move, don’t you think?”

The corrections officer who’s been sitting by the door gets up. Stevens’ two hours are up. Cantu shifts in his seat and his eyes well up. “Will you pray for me before you go?” he asks. “Of course,” Stevens replies. She stands and places a hand on the glass. Cantu puts his palm up to hers and they close their eyes.

 

Alex Hannaford is a journalist with 20 years’ experience. Article adapted with from The Telegraph, courtesy of The Interview People