Teen’s 118-year sentence ‘cruel’
THE letter Kim Carter found in her letterbox on February 24, 2016, confirmed she was doing the right thing.
Inside the envelope from a correctional facility in Virginia, on the US east coast, a young man serving 118 years wrote one simple paragraph.
Travion Blount, who was sentenced as a teen to six life terms for stealing cash and a few phones, told Ms Carter he "hopes all is well" and "thank you for reaching out".
It was reassurance that she was on the right path. Since then, between jobs as a cashier at a cafeteria and an assistant in an insurance office, Ms Carter has been writing to and receiving letters from America's prison population, including those on death row.
"This is more right than anything I've ever done in my life," she told news.com.au.
She hears from inmates like Troy Clark, a Texan who wrote a poem about his innocence before he was executed last Wednesday.
But few cases touched the passionate anti-death penalty campaigner like Blount's case. It was the first time she realised there was something very wrong with the way America's justice system operates.
"I first read about Travion Blount in a three-by-five-inch article, including title, on page five of the Metro section of my local paper," she said.
"It was the smallest article on the page, as if it were a filler. I'm surprised I even read it. Once I did, I wanted to know more."
What she discovered was alarming. Blount, according to local reports, took a gun to a party in 2006 and demanded cash, drugs and anything else. He was there with two other teens and the trio got away with $65, some phones and marijuana.
Nobody was seriously injured and no shots were fired.
His co-defendants took guilty pleas but Blount tried to fight his charges.
"This is an incredible gamble," Judge Charles Griffith told Blount's lawyers out of earshot. It was a gamble Blount lost.
At 17, he was convicted of 49 separate offences and what would have been a 14-year jail term became 118 years.
"In my opinion, that sentence is criminal. In my opinion, that sentence is cruel and unusual punishment. There are no words to adequately describe what I think of that sentence," Ms Carter said.
Blount was pardoned in January this year, aged 27, but must meet good behaviour conditions before he is released. It's one win for advocates who don't see too many wins.
Ms Carter can do little to change the system, but she can give those suffering in it a voice. On her website, Walk In Those Shoes, she offers the otherwise voiceless a platform. What they send her are often poignant, illuminating stories about their circumstances.
From the Polunsky Unit that houses Texans on death row, Charles Mamou wrote at length. He described what it was like on day one when he first realised his life was "over".
"No more clothes, parties, women, vacations," Mamou, who was convicted of the 1998 kidnapping and murder of Mary Carmouche, wrote.
"No more freedom and all that joyously came with it. As we drove (to death row), I noticed beer trucks zoom past."
He recalled his blunt initiation - being told by a prison official that "you act like a man and we treat you like one" and the alternative was too unpleasant to publish.
"I was placed in a bullpen that smelled of bleach," he wrote.
"The floor shined from being freshly buffed. Again, I was ordered to strip nude, hand over the county's orange uniform that I had worn, and given an off-white jumpsuit with 'DR' painted on it.
"Then I was quickly ushered to an awaiting barber's chair where the baby afro I was beginning to admire was cut into an uneven buzz cut. 'Standard prison haircut, sorry,' the inmate barber explained."
In July, the US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Mamou's appeal. He will remain on death row for an indefinite period - there is currently no timetable for his execution.
Quintin Jones, who was sentenced to death over a double murder, wrote about what it's like in solitary confinement.
"I am confined to a space designed to erase the last traces of humanity that remain after the war over my sanity.
"The dark walls stare at me - reeking of the past torture inflicted upon the minds of men before me, men who fought to succumb to the dangers of losing self.
"It's cold in this steel and concrete jungle, and I'm not talking about the temperature. I'm speaking of the temperament of those overseeing my existence … I refuse to let you master me."
Ms Carter says she was "naive" about the justice system when she first began her project in 2015, despite being married to a man who worked in the corrections industry.
Helping them, and reaching out to them, helps her in return, she says.
"Words can't adequately describe how much I get back from helping someone realise they can achieve anything," she told news.com.au.
"A lot of the people I work with have never experienced that before. The first person I ever contacted on death row shared a childhood memory with me. He was five, and his dad asked him to go get a hammer. Once he did, his dad used it to hit his mother in the head. He remembers the blood and pulling on his dad's leg to get him to stop.
"We all aren't dealt the same hand in this life. Some people didn't get any cards - I want to share the ones I have with them."