The contents of Steve Bradley’s mailbox would chill most people to the bone.
Mixed in amongst the utility bills and junk circulars are letters from some of the darkest places on earth.
Steve, a former IT teacher from Lostock Hall, regularly gets mail from around 15 of America’s most dangerous killers. And all of them are behind bars, waiting to be executed on Death Row.
“I haven’t lost one yet,” says Steve who now lives and works in New York. “One of them has been on Death Row for 24 years. It must be terrifying for anyone living day by day with the prospect that they could be put to death at any time.”
Steve, who moved out to the States in 2011, started writing to convicted killers a year ago because of a deep fascination with psychology and criminology. Now he runs a Facebook group called Letters From Death Row, where he shares the writings and artwork sent to him from inside some of the toughest prisons in the US. They know him only by his first name and he deliberately avoids building relationships with his pen pals.
“I don’t want that friendship with them, but at the same time I want them to know they can trust me,” he explained.
“But it’s something that’s hard distancing yourself from. Some of these people’s crimes would create emotional responses from anyone with any sort of heart.
“When I started sending out the letters I was surprised the response I got. I wasn’t sure I would get any to be fair, but three weeks later my post box was stuffed with letters. Since then it seems my address has been shared around and I’ve got letters from people I haven’t written to.”
Steve admits he has always had a “huge” interest in the psychology of crime from his school days at Lostock Hall High and later Runshaw College at Leyland. He started his Death Row project “to investigate an area of society hidden away from the general public.”
“Death Row is a place that belongs in a scary Halloween story to most people,” he said. “I wanted to find out what life was like for the people living it. Now, over a year into writing to different inmates I’ve found that people frequently protest their innocence or admit that they are there due to drug abuse or some kind of mental torment. Some of the prisoners actually believe that they deserve their punishment, whilst others question whether a prison system can truly call itself a system of ‘reform’ when it willingly puts people to death.
“What I found was the recurring theme of an abusive childhood. Pretty much everyone I spoke to had been either abused in childhood or had not had any support in childhood.
“There was generally drug use or addiction involved. And there were different levels of mental illness as well.
“That may not be a massive surprise, but it brought it home to me how these factors were so common in people who committed the most serious crimes.”
Steve’s letters have always been carefully worded and never judgemental. “They’re not going to open up to me if I say I think they’re a monster,” he explained.
Steve poses the question to inmates: “What’s your opinion of the death penalty?”
“Some people tell me: ‘I took a life and I deserve to die.’ Which is something I find amazing.
“It’s been incredibly fascinating conversing with all these guys on Death Row. It’s an area of life that for most people is the stuff of nightmares.
“But it’s also been great to talk to people about the everyday life on Death Row. Parts of it have really surprised me. The inmates get android tablets to watch movies on and play games. But other parts have been more in line with how we imagine it would be, like solitary confinement.
“Some have been locked away in solitary for months at a time and that’s pretty horrific.”