To understand the origin of Life Lines, one must go back to the fall of 2013, when phone access was limited to one collect call a year to a person on the prisoner’s approved visitor list. It was ten minutes of degrading circumstance while a guard stared at the clock. No real sense of communication could be established. In September of that year an unusual memo was posted on the bulletin board of every cell block:
Writing from Captivity
The mental health department presents a group discussion of famous prisoners who were known for their writing and how they expressed the circumstances of their captivity. Anyone wanting to participate in this 12-week class should send a letter of interest to Dr. Peter Kuhns. Class size limited to 20 people.
The memo was an anomaly on a board reserved for changes in unit policy, a place meant to constrain life, not grant opportunity. There was also the fact that the only sanctioned gatherings on NC’s death row were religious services for Christian, Buddhists and Muslims. The offer of a “class” generated a lot of discussion.
Three weeks later Dr. Kuhns introduced himself to the capacity class, explaining the purpose of this pilot mental health program. “It is an opportunity to do something different” Kuhns said. “And maybe you’ll learn a few things along the way.” It was also a test to determine if death row prisoners were capable of participating in a therapeutic group. On one side was the administration’s belief that this “experiment” would fail. On the other was Kuhn’s belief that, with the right opportunities and encouragement, anyone could learn.
Writing from Captivity turned out to be successful in part because of the instruction of Issac Villegas, a Mennonite pastor whose passion for teaching found a welcome reception on death row. With him were guest speakers from Duke University—professors Miriam Cook, Anathea Portier-Young, Rebecca Rich and several others. All were eager to give lectures in a place typically forbidden to outsiders. The prisoners were awed by the professional teachers, highly responsive and attentive. The volunteers found the environment “More welcoming than many college classrooms,” said Cook. “These men are hungry to learn.”
This pleased the warden, and warden of programs, who showed up on the final day of Writing from Captivity to congratulate the group. They were cautious about what came next, but an open dialogue began, the first between a group of NC death row prisoners and Central Prison’s wardens that did not involve executions. Warden Carlton Joyner agreed that mental health programs on death row were a good thing and if allowed to continue would produce positive results.
The Department of Public Safety granted Joyner and Kuhns permission to establish other mental health groups in 2014. Yoga, mindfulness and meditation, speech and debate, drama, chess, restorative justice, Houses of Healing, and creative writing were offered. Prisoners who attended the classes began seeing a real change from the monotony of living with a death sentence. They were finally given a chance to express independence from the prison mentality and think creatively—outside the box.
Creative writing focused on the different types of prose, but the most popular were poetry and non-fiction narratives. Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove – noted author, founder of the Rutha House, director of the School for Conversion, and death penalty abolitionist – instructed the group. Hartgrove periodically brought other volunteers with him, but in 2015 he began inviting some Duke Divinity students who became more permanent facilitators of the class while earning credit for their independent studies. Nothing could have prepared them for what they discovered in the circle of condemned writers.
Chris Agoranos was one of the graduate students volunteering his time for the creative writing group. Inspired by the essays, poetry and spoken-word pieces, he inquired aout the administration’s ban on recording equipment inside of the facility. There had to be away for the public to hear what these men had to say. He knew he wanted to do some sort of podcast after speaking with Leroy Mann – a prisoner, who, prior to incarceration, had been a recording artist. Agoranos also knew there were others interested in such a project, especially after several issues of The Lethal Injection, a magazine created on death row, were circulated at the “Criminal (In)Justice Conference” at Duke University. Agoranos took on the role of an outside editor for The Lethal Injection, but more was needed.
The break came in July 2016. North Carolina’s death row was finally given regular access to the phone. It took a great deal of campaigning by prisoners, friends, and family, and even a few prison officials who knew the value of communication. A single phone was installed on each of the eight blocks to serve 24 men. Prisoners could call collect or purchase phone minutes from the canteen. The mental health classes had already improved the demeanor of those who participated, but the phones helped everybody. They provided a universal method of communication that transcended barriers. It was an opportunity to be heard.
Agoranos caught up with his friend and fellow grad student, Lars Akerson, about the creative writing class at Central Prison one day. “We were brainstorming about ways to support The Lethal Injection Magazine , and what that might look like,” said Akerson. The costs of publishing and mailing the magazine were exorbitant. Mann had already suggested audio recordings over the phone and Akerson thought this might be the best way to support writers on death row. “I have a background in web design and this gave me an idea for a recording app. After speaking with a couple of buddies we worked out a prototype to record the initial pieces (on soundcloud.com).”
The prototype worked but the app needed to be refined, and the next crucial step was finding a way to fund Life Lines for the first year. It would not be cheap. Akerson and Agoranos sought help from Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative, local author Shane Claiborne, and the editors of Scalawag Magazine, a local publication that covers a variety of social justice issues. All of the parties were interested in supporting the Life Lines project and donated signed copies of their published works to be given as rewards for donations in a Kickstarter campaign.
The goal? $16,000 in 30 days. “We reached the goal and then some,” says Akerson. “$17,071 from 228 backers. People have been really supportive of the project.” The money will fund the operational expenses of the Life Lines Collective for the first year but there is more work to be done. “We ultimately would like to expand Life Lines to include writing groups from other prisons, but we need more stability first,” said Akerson. “We’re just getting started.”
www.lifelines.is became fully operational on January 8, 2017. For more information and to hear the co-creators Lars Akerson and Chris Agoranos speak, go to: