I met Billy Sinclair on the 17th of March 1981 in the Death House at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. I was a TV news reporter doing a five-part series on the death penalty. In 1981, he was a national award-winning inmate writer for Angola’s uncensored inmate magazine, The Angolite. He had been sentenced to death in 1966 for an accidental shooting after an abandoned robbery attempt in 1965. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned his death sentence in 1972.
We married in June 1982. My privileged background didn’t protect mewhen I became an inmate’s wife. A violated sense of justice was my only compass in his alien world for the 25 years I fought to free him. But I brought with me the ability to chronicle how America’s criminal justice system shreds lives in the name of justice
Over that quarter century, I saw through one of the biggest lies ever perpetrated in America—that an unprecedented era of violent crime in the late 20th and early 21st centuries was afflicting the nation and an unprecedented number of Americans had to be imprisoned to stop it. For decades, the United States has had the highest incarceration rate in the world although it only has 5% of the world’s population, it incarcerates 25% of the world’s prisoners.
What I witnessed as an American prisoner’s wife was a kind of selective slavery based on the public’s insatiable desire for vengeance. At its worst, it’s a throwback to the Dark Ages, the Spanish Inquisition or the witch hunts of 17th Century America—eras that glorified brutal punishments for crime. The first order of government is to protect its citizens; not to torture them in the name of justice.
There is no reward for standing by an incarcerated loved one. Love and loyalty sentence inmate family members to years of contempt and hard time. Revenge, not rehabilitation is the byword at the polls. It moved across my life like a glacier on vulnerable land for the 25 years I fought to free my husband from prison. It was there in the millions of goodbyes over the seemingly endless years and thousands of miles that I drove to see him, in the countless nights in cheap motels waiting to see his morning smile, in haunting nightmares about his safety and the fear I felt on the highway alone at night on 600-mile round trips from Texas to Louisiana and back to see him twice a month.
I was just one of thousands of inmate family members across America enduring the punishment of loving one behind bars. Every weekend, in New York, Houston, Los Angeles and scores of cities and towns in between, across the United States, families board buses before dawn for trips to prisons up to seven hours away. Others cut back on groceries to save money for gas and jerry-rig old cars hoping they won’t break down on the trip.
Corrections departments don’t care. They offer few, if any, programs to ease their plight. They ignore children with parents in prison and how it impacts their lives. No one can calculate the ultimate cost of America’s War on Crime, or how long it will last.
One day, historians will document the rise of the Prison State in 20th Century America, laying bare the distortions of fact and public hysteria that has given modern society its merciless view of the “criminal class.” Until then, the stories of those nailed to its cross will bear witness to a society obsessed beyond all Christian measure with revenge.