Postcards from Death Row

The artist Anja Pentrop cooperates with US prisoners who ware awaiting execution. She creates delicate images of an inhuman place
Like a whisper they hang on the wall, the screams of despair. White lettering on white canvases, nearly invisible: "The isolation makes me insane", or "I know love only from books". This are quotes from death row inmates, waiting for their execution far away from Potsdam in U.S. prisons. Some eight years, some more than 20 years. It has not been clear whether they are really guilty or not. "Since the death penalty was reintroduced in the 1970s, 150 prisoners have been released, the number of unreported cases of innocents is probably higher," says Anja Pentrop.

The Potsdam artist works in the Studio 'Panzerhalle', there just arises her exhibition "death penalty vs. human rights", which opens this Sunday for visitors. They will probably ask themselves first why the heck a Potsdam artist deals with this topic. Is there nothing close? It came actually out one day for Anja Pentrop: "2009 there was traffic chaos on 'Hegelallee', nothing went anymore and I had to stare on the sticker of my front man for one and a half hour - a NPD-sticker with the claim after a death penalty for child molesters." So the death penalty is not that far away. People were executed in the GDR and after the attacks on the satirical magazine "Charlie Hebdo" also the French politician Marine le Pen called again after the death penalty.

Anja Pentrop began to investigate, there are numerous blogs on the Web, some friends, who are artists as well, have pen pals with death row inmates for a long time. "You have to think about that really good whether you yourself are emotionally resilient enough, you never know what response you get." By now she is in contact with inmates from almost all US prisons, even if it's legally not always easy. Some jails do not allow the condemned to search online for a pen pal or publish a pen pal request. They don't have access to the Internet anyway to maintain pen pals, that only works via supporters from the outside. Many prisons also charge large fees for the use of corresponding pages. They can, because most prisons in the United States are privatized.

Reading the quotes from the letters, which Anja Pentrop uses and to which she manufactures small drawings, you understand, why the prisons are so strict against contact from the outside world: One writes of his severe cancer, the pain he causes from his now open ulcer - and that he is receiving yet no medical care. Or the permanent isolation, "except being handcuffed prisoners never experience some form of physical contact", so Pentrop. Who then sees the work of prisoners, in addition to her own images, who reads the words that they respond to their questions, is all the more dismayed. During a post card action Pentrop asked about eight bullet points, a recipe for life. "Sharing sunsets" you can find there as well as "solidarity", "love", "ambition". Ambitions in the face of death? "In Death Row many inmates are starting to read philosophers, Sartre, Nitzsche," says Pentrop. Some of them have learned to read in the prison.

The original text was written in german by Ariane Lemme for the newspaper "PNN". This version is shorted and translated to english.