They say it's not about redemption—that providing North Carolina's 150 death row inmates with a voice is an opportunity to both restore a sense of humanity among the condemned and give those outside the walls of Central Prison a chance to "look within" and, perhaps, contribute to the national debate over the death penalty.
But Life Lines, an audio journal for the 147 men and three women living on the row created by Duke University Divinity School graduates Chris Agoranos and Lars Åkerson—not to be confused with LifeLines, a British group that writes letters to condemned inmates all over the U.S.—isn't about taking a political stand.
"I think the voices speak for themselves, so we don't really need to take a firm position," Åkerson says. "And it's been amazing to hear the guys' reflections on it and to hear how enthusiastic they are just to be heard. Something as simple as a telephone or hearing someone else's voice. It's been revolutionary for them."
- Illustration by Steve Oliva
With a recent change in phone-access policy—until June, inmates were only authorized to make one ten-minute call a year, but now they can make calls more frequently—they saw a chance to let the inmates' stories be heard. And the inmates embraced the Life Lines concept. To date, more than a dozen clips have been recorded.
In one, George Wilkerson—a Randolph County man convicted in 2006 of murdering an eighteen-year-old over a $30 drug theft—recites a poem he wrote called "Who Am I?" "I come from the broken playground, littered with crack pipes, bullet shells, and busted beer bottles, my mom's walk and stale nicotine," he says on the recording, which can be heard on the Life Lines SoundCloud page (soundcloud.com/lifelinesjournal). "I belong to my dad's hard, heavy leather belt, our dingy apartment in the projects, and crispy, spicy, sour-smelling kimchi."
But in order to fully realize their dream—an ongoing project that includes voices from death rows all over the country—Agoranos and Åkerson are asking for the public's help. Life Lines is currently an active project on Kickstarter. With less than a week remaining, it's raised just over $6,000 of its $16,000 goal. That money would go toward paying for prisoners' phone calls, which aren't cheap.
"We say that this is about recovering humanity on the inside and outside the walls," Agoranos says. "It causes us to look within. I would want this to help someone think about how they have been taught to see people that are incarcerated as like these irredeemable criminals worthy of death. And I think, you know, maybe as the lights go off, you begin to see, 'I've made mistakes, too.'"