Twenty-one-year-old Lorna Fitzpatrick has been writing to her American penfriend since she was 11. There’s nothing particularly unusual in that – except he’s a convicted murderer awaiting execution in Louisiana.
Casual references to visiting a pen pal on death row can bring conversations to a grinding halt. One time, when she was working at a children’s camp, Lorna spotted a shop selling the kind of American sweets a prison bus driver had shared with her. “Does anyone want a Now and Later?” she had asked the other staff. “I had them on the bus to death row.”
“You had them on the WHAT to WHAT?” they replied, astonished.
Lorna knows her situation is eyebrow-raising. But, sitting in her mother’s kitchen, with one foot pulled up on the chair, arms around her knee, she seems kind and sensible – not someone likely to make friends with a man on death row out of a sense of rebellion or the desire to shock.
“I’m not saying it’s not weird,” says Lorna, who is from Newcastle in the north east of England. “It is weird – but really nice.” It was awkward, though, when her penfriend sent a note to her boyfriend saying: “You better look after her – I’m on death row, so I know people.”
“He didn’t mean it. I thought it was really funny,” she says. “My boyfriend didn’t find it that funny.”
The writer of this note, Bobby Lee Hampton, grew up in Louisiana in America’s Deep South, one of six children. His mother was only just pregnant when his father was shot dead.
By the age of 12 Hampton was in trouble.
Shoplifting came first, followed quickly by battery. Then, in his 20s, aggravated assault, armed robbery, inciting riot. He was 25 when in 1995 he and two cousins robbed a liquor store in his home city of Shreveport, in the state’s north west. Hampton was convicted of the first-degree murder of a member of staff called Russell Coleman and sentenced to death.
Mr Coleman’s sister later revealed that the family’s distress was, for her, complicated by a firm opposition to the death penalty.
Conflicting witness statements, and the absence of one witness at trial, led to an appeal. It was rejected, but a problem facing the state authorities had the effect of putting Hampton’s execution on hold anyway: the required cocktail of lethal drugs was proving almost impossible to obtain.
Increasingly reluctant to allow their products to be used to carry out the death penalty, pharmaceutical companies were taking legal action to stop this from happening. Hampton is part of a class-action lawsuit claiming the state’s method of execution is unconstitutional.
Meanwhile, he writes.
That he writes to Lorna is thanks to a church event in the English cathedral city of Durham.
Her mother, Brid, took the family to hear Sister Helen Prejean, a noted opponent of the death penalty and the author of Dead Man Walking. Her message: all humans are capable of redemption.
“We are all better than the worst thing we have ever done,” says Brid, a committed Catholic. “Obviously that’s quite a complex message to get across to a child who’s 11 or 12.”
But she felt it was an important lesson which, if you believe in, you should be prepared to put into practice. So Brid signed up with the charity LifeLines, which arranges penfriends for people on death row, and started writing to Hampton. Little notes added by Lorna gradually grew into letters of her own.
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“When he wrote back she shared the letters with me – I don’t know what I would have done if she hadn’t,” Brid says. “I would probably have asked to see them but I didn’t have to. I’m not minimising the fact that it’s a serious thing to do, but I didn’t think it was dangerous.”
According to Lorna, the only thing her mother was worried about was people thinking Lorna had romance in mind. The 21-year-old says she’s “very quick” to make it clear she doesn’t.
Lorna is busier now, having just finished a degree in computer science but, in the early years, she would write a letter a week, a little nervous of upsetting Hampton with tales of freedom. Now they write about anything and everything – what’s going in their lives, what has made them happy or sad, their families, the future.
Hampton keeps the letters. “I reread them to remind myself someone cares about me,” he says. “That strengthens my faith and hope; the thought of knowing that they care about me and that they are not judgemental toward me. Their visits mean the world to me.”
He will also phone – which can be something of a communal experience. “He calls me Missy Moo and he’d be like, ‘Oh, Missy Moo’s on the phone’,” she says. “All the other guys in the row would be like, ‘Hey Missy Moo’, screaming from their cells.”
Hampton has now been in prison for nearly a quarter of a century. Over the past decade Lorna has taught him about emojis and hashtags – “he doesn’t really get them” – and explained cultural innovations like Netflix and Spotify.
“He’s like a time-warp of a man,” she says.
Tucked in a bend in the Mississippi River, Louisiana State Penitentiary is the largest maximum-security prison in the US. It houses more than 6,000 prisoners and nearly 2,000 staff and, covering 28 sq miles (73 sq km), it is bigger than Durham and Newcastle city centres put together.
Known by the name of the old slave plantation on which it sits – Angola – it’s like its own town. There’s a farm, staff housing, a post office, a church, cemetery and golf course. For children born to prison warden parents living on site, there used to be a school. The prison even has its own museum and a gift shop selling “Angola Gated Community” mugs and “Been to the Pen!” pencils.
Lorna’s first visit to the prison in 2012 was her idea. Her family had a holiday planned to Philadelphia and she suggested the 1,300-mile detour. The prison authorities thought it was “really lovely” they had come all the way from England.
She is complimentary about the “really nice” staff but surprised it did not seem to cross their minds her family might be opposed to the death penalty.
Brid remembers the automatic entrance gates that trap you, briefly, between two chain-link fences as one swings shut before the other one opens – an experience she describes as “seriously freaky”.
They were searched and X-rayed and inspected by a sniffer dog the 14-year-old Lorna was disappointed not to be allowed to stroke. Then it was on to a prison bus for the half-hour ride to Hampton’s block.
“We were the only white people on the bus – and the only people to get off at death row,” Lorna says. “Even amongst all these people who’re going to visit their family who were in prison, we could feel the judgement.”
The first visit was non-contact – “like you see in the films” – with a glass partition and phones on either side. In a few weeks, on what will be their third trip, Lorna’s family will be allowed three contact visits, all of them together in the same room with Hampton, eating, playing cards, talking.
Hugging is permitted at the beginning and the end.
Neither Lorna nor her mother has looked up Hampton on the internet. Nor has Lorna read his case file. But, she sighs, the first thing everyone asks is: “What did he do?”
“It’s the whole opposite of the point,” she says. “The reason we write to Bobby is because he’s much more than whatever he’s in prison for. Bobby doesn’t deny being in that convenience store. Bobby had a gun and he was robbing someone. But I think actually prison’s been a really reformative experience.
“I wouldn’t have old Bobby come to stay in my house. Old Bobby wouldn’t be my friend.
“But new, current Bobby?