Art on Death Row

Mary Vaughan
8th November 2018, 7:00pm

The link between prison and artistic endeavour is long standing with evidence in this country found in carvings in the Tower of London which date back at least to Tudor times. Indeed, if we include poetry and other writing as art we can include Boethius, Cervantes and Bunyan. However it is the pictorial art that is most often chosen by prisoners to express themselves that is the subject of this lecture.


Mary Vaughan has been in contact with death row prisoners in the USA for many years as a correspondent through ‘Human Writes’, a long-established British organisation founded for the purpose of befriending prisoners on Death Row in the USA. Although based in the UK, there are members from many countries.


The organisation does not campaign against the death penalty as such as its main remit is friendship through letter writing. ‘Human Writes’ is not linked to any particular political or religious groups and is accepted by the US prison authorities as a reputable organisation, working within the parameters of their systems.


More than 3,000 people are condemned to death in the United States, facing many years on Death Row before they are executed. Many of them have been there for ten years or more and may be given several execution dates, sometimes coming within hours or even minutes of execution before the final one.

Many living under sentence of death have severe learning disabilities or are mentally ill; some have had an abusive childhood and a high proportion have had very poor legal representation.


Living conditions on Death Row in many states are harsh. It is not unusual for people to be locked up for 23 hours a day or to suffer sensory deprivation. Many of the prisoners are abandoned by their families and friends and some have no contact whatsoever with the outside world.


Mary's lecture will concern art work done by death row prisoners in the USA. It will cover the source of their inspiration and their difficulties in obtaining suitable materials and outlets for their artwork

About the Speaker

Mary Vaughan is an ex-ballet dancer and teacher. She was brought up mainly in Germany and Singapore as her father was an officer in the British Army. At the age of 15 she went to the Arts Educational School in Tring, Hertfordshire, to study all the arts with dance as the main subject.


Since her retirement, she has become involved in various activities including becoming a Samaritan, visiting a maximum security prisoner in Wormwood Scrubs and working for ‘Human Writes’. As well as writing to prisoners herself, Mary is also a coordinator for three states.


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