Two recent Divinity School graduates have found a unique way to share the stories and creative works of North Carolina’s condemned inmates—an online audio journal that prisoners contribute to by reading their works over the phone from death row.

“We hope that this can be a storytelling project that voices a different narrative, that it helps us hear people we otherwise would have no opportunity to hear from,” said Lars Åkerson, co-creator of the project and Divinity '15.

Prior to this May, prisoners on death row in North Carolina were allowed a single 10-minute phone call per year. When a policy change allowed for increased access to phones, inmates who had been producing written works for over a decade saw a new outlet for sharing their narratives. Life Lines—as Åkerson and co-creator Chris Agoranos, Divinity '16, call their effort— is the result.

The project is still in its initial phases. Their Kickstarter campaign ends Tuesday and, as of Monday night, is less than $1,500 short of the goal of $16,000. If they reach the fundraising goal, Agoranos said that the next steps will be applying for non-profit status and establishing advisory and editorial boards. The funds would allow the pair to create a website to house the project and pay the minutes-based fee the prisoners face for each call.

“They learn not to be hopeful or get too excited. They’ve faced a lot of disappointment, but when they were able to contact their families and talk to them regularly, [that] was revolutionary,” Agoranos said. “Those connections inspired us to make more connections possible, to connect their voices to more folks.”

It was out of this need for connection that Agoranos and Åkerson began formalizing plans for Life Lines in June. To date, six of the 147 men on North Carolina’s death row are contributing content, the published portion of which is currently accessible on the project’s SoundCloud page.

“Death has a way of reminding people of the things and relationships we take for granted,” said inmate Lyle May in his piece “All That Matters,” which was posted to the project’s page Aug. 24.

By sharing prisoners’ narratives, Life Lines aims to inform a greater number of people about their condition.

“That is why we are called Life Lines—this is not a one-way street,” Åkerson said. “There is mutuality in this, and it is a life line for all of us. Words and writing are ways that these folks on the row hang on to their humanity in the midst of a very inhuman system—a system that wants them dead, literally.”

The topic of capital punishment has been recently addressed on campus. This year's summer reading book, Bryan Stevenson's novel "Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption," focused on biases within the criminal justice system.

Freshman Kaelah Brauher found that being exposed to the personal stories of condemned men through Stevenson’s book changed her convictions.

“It made me feel so much more strongly. Looking at all these situations, there’s so much more than just what happened in the one moment that put them in prison,” she said. “There’s their background situations that led to this.”

Life Lines' creators hope to facilitate a link between listeners and inmates, and a tangible link for Duke students. Raleigh's Central Prison, where North Carolina houses its death row inmates, is only 26 miles from Duke’s campus.

“There is definitely a need for incarcerated persons to share their creative works, narratives and experiences," wrote Matt Whitt, a Thompson Writing Program lecturing fellow, in an email. "For all inmates, regardless of whether they will be released, this is a crucial way to retain connections to communities outside. But this sharing is also important for those of us—including Duke professors and students—who are not currently incarcerated."

Like Whitt, Agoranos noted that there is much to be learned from the narratives of incarcerated persons.

“I think a lot of people have their minds made up about who is inside of these prisons and that they all deserve to be there, and that they should be there forever and be killed,” said Agoronas. “For me, meeting them and hearing their stories from their own mouths have shaken up those narratives that had formed for me. It has transformed my own life and given me new eyes to see the world."