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Anatomy of a Prison Suicide

To Major Norwood and the goon squad, all you pigs everywhere, and the high & mighty dogs everywhere who judge men and allow such institutional madhouses such as Angola to exist. Suck my goddamn nuts and pray to the gods you use as a crutch that I don’t see you bastards in hell. In the unlikely event that such a place exist, you can bet the fat asses that you sat on, I’ll deflate them with the hottest, sharpest pitchfork I find. Incidentally, notice the smile on my face and the pride with which I gladly take my life. It’s something you dogs have never taken from me despite your 14 years of effort. To hell with you all, you cringing cowards.

The time had arrived; a moment I had dreaded so long. My pulse quickened, heating up an already sweating body. The June afternoon was hot. The sun bore through the cellblock windows with a vengeance, adding misery to a pained existence. The four-tiered cellblock, two 15-cell tiers stacked atop each other, was a concrete oven, stifling and baking the inmates caged in their two-man cells. I caught the tail end of a shouted conversation:

“ … next to a fly, the most useless creature on God’s green earth is a dumb whore.”

I folded Billy Ray White’s suicide note, staring at the hand holding it between the fore and middle fingers. I did not want to look at him through the small mirror in my other hand. I just reached my hand out between the bars of my cell and passed the note back to him through the bars of his adjacent cell.

“I wrote it last night,” he said casually. “What do you think about it?”

I lifted my gaze, forced to look deeply into his blue eyes through a broken piece of mirror at a friend I loved like a brother.

Billy Ray White was a deceptively slender man, a Bruce Lee-like physical attribute that always gave him a leg up in a prison fight—especially one involving knives.  A lock of hair dropped across his forehead, accentuating a handsome unlined face that made him look younger than is 31 years. Intelligence sparkled in those eyes and the beginnings of a constant smile expressed a comfortable face. A casual, easy-going man, Billy Ray loved to laugh, and what’s more, he loved to make others laugh. It was a facet of the charisma that made it so easy to like him. Possessed with an uncanny ability to charm, he could have been anything he wanted in life.

Instead he chose to become one of the most dangerous and feared man to ever serve time in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, more commonly known as “Angola.” He did it by developing an ability to turn his normal affable manner in an instant into an intense coldness or fury when faced with potential danger or an aggressive challenge. He had an extraordinary fearlessness that made him a legend in various prisons across the nation. He escaped from the St. Louis police in a hail of gunfire, escaped from the federal reformatory in Texarkana in a daring daylight break as bullets sliced the air about him, and he escaped from a county jail in Kentucky under a fusillade of hot lead.

Before his arrival at Angola, Billy Ray had been a hit-man, carrying out contract killings in Louisiana and New Mexico. An armed robber by trade, he had been involved in a number of wild shootouts, always emerging unharmed. At one point in his criminal career, he had graced the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List for a double-murder he committed in New Mexico and for which he was acquitted by a jury.

As an inmate, Billy Ray had been involved in a litany of assaults, knife-fights and killings while serving time in state and federal prisons, always arriving at the top of the prison food chain. He was a man who could easily laugh at danger and death, much like one would laugh at a standup comedian. Some men had tried to kill him during his brief lifetime. They not only failed but paid a heavy price for the attempt.

Now, on this 8th day of June 1974, the most feared and powerful man in Angola stood before in the next cell wanting to die, wanting to take his own life.

“It says pretty much what you want to say,” I said dryly, pointing to the Norwood suicide note.

I lit a cigarette, not really wanting one but needing a distraction from the moment. I inhaled deeply, as the harsh crescendo of cellblock noises echoed in my brain chased by maddening desire to muffle them all. Prison is a world of constant loud, senseless noises. You learn to either tune them out or let them drive you mad. Inmates fill their uneventful lives with forced laughter, unimportant arguments, or obscene expressions about the most mundane life issues.

The noises of Cellblock C were ritualistic—a chow cart bringing tasteless, unseasoned food; harsh, gagging morning nicotine coughing, and farts that sent noxious gases out of the cells down the hallway, at times invading the other cells. Each day brought angry exclamations:

“Man, get the fuck away from my cell – I don’t want anything to eat!”

Or,

“Goddamn, please hurry something!”

Or,

“Free man, you better bring my medicine on back here, you asshole!”

An overwhelming sense of loss and emptiness would often tear at the very fabric of my existence as I ploughed through those mindless noises and meaningless rituals.

I watched Billy Ray, with cat-like grace, squat on his heels, back against the concrete wall across the cell from me. A somber silence fell between us. Cigarette smoke rising above his forehead, he stared at the peeled concrete bars as those spellbound by their hardness. He turned away from the bars, and with a soft, steady gaze, he looked directly into my reflection in the mirror, leaving no doubt that the hours we had spent talking about his suicide had come to an end.

“It’s time, Billy,” he said. “I’m ready to take myself out. I’ve finally come to terms with it. I must face the inevitable. Like Martin Luther King said, ‘God Almighty, free at last.’ That’s the only thing he ever said I liked. Death is freedom.”

“Let’s talk about it some more,” I replied, knowing our journey had come to an end. “There must be another way.”

Even before the words fell from my lips, overwhelmed by all the other noises, I knew they were pointless, nothing more than expected demands from friendship. Billy Ray had come to the end of the line; the will to take another step lay exhausted at his feet.

“You promised,” he reminded me, his eyes fixed hard on me. “You gave me your word that you would accept it when the time came. The time is here, it’s now, and I’m holding you to your word. You know what this means to me.”

I could no longer meet his gaze. I turned my eyes away, resigned that there were no more life options to discuss. I stared across the hallway that ran down the lower tier where we were housed out into a empty prison yard. I had served nearly nine years on a life sentence. I had either witnessed or experienced virtually everything the corrupt world of prison had to offer: violence, rape, drugs, hate, lies, and despair, enough despair to sink the Titanic.

Prison is a precarious world in which the ruling clique hates the challenging clique; white inmates hate black inmates and the Hispanic inmates hate them both; and the keeper and the kept roil in an even worse hatred. Hope is not always a readily available commodity—not in this dog-eat-dog jungle where the strong and most violent rule while the weak suffer or perish. The only thing that matters is power; even it is no more than an illusion—and the keeper and kept on a daily basis abuse their power to stifle free will and choice among the most vulnerable.

I squatted down, back to wall, shifting my weight to my right leg, as I faced Billy Ray through the broken mirror inmates call “jiggers.” A roach scurried down the hallway directly in front of our cells. My thoughts stabbed at each other as I tried to find the right words that might extricate Billy Ray from his life-ending decision. None prevailed. They simply cut each other to pieces without a solution.

“I know what this means to you,” I said, “just as I know what it means for me. Fuck man, I need to know beyond any doubt that this is what you really want.”

Relief spread across his face. He knew I had accepted the inevitable.

“You have my word this is what I want,” he said. “Believe me, it is something I must do. My entire life comes down to this final test. I’ve waited years for this moment. Life is but an existence. As Sartre said, it’s all about nothingness. That is the long and short of it. I know deep in my soul that my final breath ends it all. There is nothing more. It’s time to die, and I ready to embrace death. And if there is a Lucifer, I want to meet the bastard, stare him down and walk through his hell unafraid. “

His eyes sparkled at the challenge.

“But I know he is not there anymore than God is here on earth.”

“Billy Ray, you only have five more months before you discharge out this joint,” I replied. “You will be a free man. You will see things differently once you are out there in the free world, even if it’s godless. There’s love, beauty, perhaps even happiness and some meaning to all the chaos that afflicts humanity. You can find something to live for out there – even if it’s another crime or another escape. The challenge of life is better than the defeat of death.”

He vehemently shook his head.

“I don’t believe that,” he whispered. “Life is nothing more than an accident, and all it will ever produce is illusions of what we think we want or have. It’s all bullshit – love, beauty, meaning, purpose. Bullshit—all of it at the end of the day. It comes down to that mangled body with a steering wheel smashed into its chest in a violent car wreck. At any moment it can all be over without any choice. I am making my choice how to end it all, not a car wreck or a bullet in the head or a motherfucking knife in the back.”

Running my thumb through a small sweat puddle formed between my feet, I was still shredded by doubt and uncertainty as I was drawn into my best friend’s death wish. The ordeal forced me to examine my own caged existence. I was 29 years old with a life sentence that did not have a parole date. Two years before I had escaped the death sentence only to face a long term death sentence in the worst of all possible worlds. Perhaps Billy Ray was right, I thought. I was nothing more than bone and flesh wasting away in a caged world with no hope of ever walking away from it. There was no meaning in the life behind me and nothing meaningful stood out in my horizon.

There I was squatting in a hot cell. The used sock in the corner, stiff from last night’s fantasy, represented the closest I would come to love. A brooding sense of despair was etched in every scar and crack in the cell—and no one would ever know the human misery that cell had housed. I could not reasonably refute a single thing Billy Ray had said to me. I was disgusted with the relentless cruelty in the world about me; tired of dealing with it and worn to bone with trying to make sense of it all. Still, I had to believe that the challenge of life was more important than the defeat of death. I could not, would not succumb to the whispers of Billy Ray’s torn logic.

Billy Ray sensed my troubled waters.

“Don’t you realize, Billy, that Nietzsche’s little madman was right. God is really dead.”

“What does that mean to me, Billy Ray?” I asked. “I’ve still got to be part of your death to prove my friendship, my loyalty to you. You’re asking a helluva of a lot when you ask me to understand your death wish, but you expect even more. You insist that I be a part of it. I know I told you I would do it when the time came, but I can’t. Call it cowardice or whatever, I just can’t do it.”

Tears trickled down my cheeks. It marked the second time I had cried in prison. The first time came after I learned my younger brother had died in Vietnam. I simply could not go along with Billy Ray’s last wish to die in my presence, holding my hand in a bond of friendship.

That would have been possible because four cinder blocks had been removed between his cell and mine. It had become a practice in Cellblock C for inmates to remove cinder blocks from the walls of adjoining cells. This allowed inmates to join a friend in a fight in the hallway during one hour shower periods. Prison security knew about the practice but did little, or nothing, to curb it. They just let the fights go until a victor stood alone.

“I understand,” he said solemnly. “I can accept that. It doesn’t change anything between us. You’re still the ace in my life. It’s not cowardice. You simply cannot see this thing as clearly as I do. But if you cannot let me die in your presence, at least let me know you understand why I must do this.”

Anger flashed through me. My stare bore into his.

“You ask me to understand,” I said. “Understand what? You’re my friend – you’re closer to me than a brother. How in the hell do you expect me to understand that you are going to kill yourself. Why do this to me? Why do you have to make me a part of this madness?”

He waited, absorbing the moment before replying.

“It’s something I need to do. There are obligations attached to friendship. I’m just collecting on ours. I’ve given you loyalty and I ask the same in return. It’s important to me that you understand why I must take myself out. Fuck what others think! All I want is for you to understand is that this is something I must do; that I really have no choice but to do it.”

The sound of two studs fighting over a galboy invaded our conversation. We ignored it.

“Billy Ray, I understand a man wanting to take himself out of this hell,” I said. “I’ve had the same thoughts in darker moments. But suicide is not the answer, and the thing that bothers me is that I have no way of knowing if this really what you want.”

“I give you my word it is,” he replied. “You have my solemn word on everything I hold sacred that this is what I want—to die and do so by my own hand. This is an absolute promise I give you.”

I knew I was trapped in Billy Ray’s death wish. There was no way out of it.

“Let me say this to you,” he added. “I’ve told you that I would never leave you in a lurch, and I wouldn’t. I will hang in there and fade this bullshit until you are a free man. But I give you my word that the very moment you are free from prison I will blow my brains out. If you force me to live and remain a part of your struggle, the obligation of our friendship ends the moment you walk out those prison gates. But I’m asking you as a friend, as one man to another, to free me of our friendship obligation, to let me do this thing without any doubts or reservations. The only obligation I have in life at this moment is our friendship, and I’m begging you to let me be free from it. Will you?”

I said nothing. I just stared past him at the wall his back lay against. He got up and walked over to his galboy who had been sitting quietly on the lower bunk. He affectionately called the galboy by the moniker “Monkey.” He sat next to him and wrapped an arm around Monkey’s neck.

“Don’t worry little man,” he said. “You will be taken care of.”

An hour or more passed. I was just about ready to escape the heat with a nap when Billy Ray passed a note to me.

“My beloved brother,” it began. “It’s not wrong for you to deny me the privilege of dying in your company as I stand on the threshold of freedom from this madhouse into the illusion of freedom anywhere on this mad planet because your will is mine. In the name of our cherished friendship, I will be a coward. My loyalty to you is such I would be dishonorable to you and myself if I took my life without your consent. However due to my selfishness I am asking you to reconsider and give me your consent. It would be the greatest favor you could ever possibly give me. It has occurred to me that maybe I am wrong to ask this favor of you. Billy try to place everything in as proper perspective as you can and let me know. My Brother I would proudly die for you and if it is really what you want I will even live for you. Is it wrong for me to ask you to let me go now? Is it greedy? Help me understand. You’re not heavy, you’re my Brother, my only Brother and I love you, and my death will not separate us.”

I was tired, too emotionally exhausted to care anymore. My decision was swift and certain. I stood in the corner of my cell by the bars. Night had fallen. The senseless cell arguments had given way to the loud mixture of different television programs blaring from the three television set placed along the tiers in the hallway. I called Billy Ray to the bars.

“Do whatever you feel is right, Billy Ray,” I whispered. “I will understand.”

A brief silence passed between. I couldn’t see his face at the moment, so I wondered what he was thinking, what he was feeling.

“Thank you, my friend,” he said, finally. “I’m free now. There’s nothing to hold me to this madness any longer. But there is one last thing.”

I was almost afraid to ask what the final request would be.

“What is it?”

“I want you to give me your word that once I’m dying,” he paused, “you won’t call for the Man or let anyone else call for him. I don’t want any last minute second thoughts stopping this thing. I’m in it all the way, and you must give me your word that you will cover for me.”

“You have my word.”

I lay back down on my bunk. The early evening heat was settling in all the nooks and crannies of the cellblock. It suddenly struck me that I didn’t even know how Billy Ray planned to kill himself. We had not discussed a method. It never seemed important, or perhaps real. I didn’t think it would ever reach a point of no return. It was 9:30 p.m., close to the ten o’clock count. I realized Billy Ray would ever see 9:30 again, that he would be dead by morning. I no longer held out any hope. He had dealt himself a hand he could not fold, even if he wanted to. He was that kind of man.

Time dragged, like a tired mule pulling a plough. Occasionally the voices of Billy Ray and Monkey filtered into my cell, although I could not make out what they were saying. I wondered how Monkey would react. He would have to watch the actual suicide play out.

Billy Ray called me to the bars.

“Me and the Monkey been talking this thing out,” he said, “and I’ve decided to take him with me. The boy wants to go – he wants to die with me.”

It was borderline insane. I smelled the marijuana before I heard them taking deep drags off the cigarettes.

“Don’t do this, Billy Ray,” I said angrily. “That kid has the mind of a twelve-year-old. He’s not responsible. He worships you and will say anything he thinks will please you.”

“But it’s for his own good,” he replied, his voice sternly serious. “The Monkey is not ever getting out of this place – not with two life sentences. If I leave him behind, who’s gonna take care of him? Some asshole like Blackjack or Monster will get him and mess over him. They will make him a slave, making his life miserable. I can’t leave this helpless little man behind to face all that.”

Billy Ray was right. Monkey could not survive in Angola on his own. He could survive only by serving the predatory needs of some asshole with his ass. And, like Billy Ray said, he had no hope of ever getting out of prison. He had raped a sixteen year old girl and robbed and killed her boyfriend. He had similar charges pending in other states. He was a pathetic little wretched destined for the rest of his life to be someone else’s property.

“That may be true,” Billy Ray,” I said, choosing my words carefully, “But you don’t have the right to decide whether he should live or die. He will agree to anything you ask of him, only because you asked him to do it. That’s not a free decision by him; it’s your decision. If dying is so important to you, if you truly feel this death wish must be carried to an end, then do it alone. Don’t kill that kid before you go. Give him a break – if nothing else, give him the right to chooe, on his own, whether he wants to live or die.”

There was an extended pause. I could hear them talking.

“Okay – Monkey says it doesn’t make any difference to him. If I want him to go, he will; and if I want him to stay behind, he will do that too. I’m not going to kill him. It wouldn’t be right. But you have to promise me one thing.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Take care of Monkey for me,” Billy requested. “I know you are not going to be shackled down with some galboy, but you can take him under your wing until you find him an ole man who will treat him right, take care of him. Promise me you will find someone who will be good to him.”

“I will do that,” I said. “I’ll find the right dude to take care of him.”

“Good. Now I’m gonna fuck him one last time.”

I sat down on the floor, back to the wall, staring across the hallway into the night through a barred window. It seemed so peaceful. Time slipped through my hands like sand in an hour glass. I was so removed from the rest of the world. I was sick of death; sick of seeing it, hearing it, and talking about it. Limits must be placed on everything, including love and friendship. Every fiber of my rational being screamed, “I’m finished with this friendship” and urged me to step away from it. But I didn’t, perhaps I couldn’t. I was trapped in Billy Ray’s death pact.

Billy Ray did not speak again until after midnight.

“I want to get Monkey out of this cell,” he whispered through the bars. “I can’t be sure he won’t panic and call out for the Man. He’s been crying and I think he’s too screwed up to handle this. I want him out of here.”

“Send him through the hole,” I said.

I removed the cinder blocks from the wall separating our cells. Four cells on the tier housing white inmates had cinder blocks loosened so they could be quickly removed. One cell had two bars cut out. It allowed the white inmates to all get out of their cells and on the tier in the event of a racial brawl—a constant threat. Monkey crawled through the hole into my cell. Billy Ray reached through the hole and grasped my hand.

“I love you,” he said.

“I love you too, Billy Ray.”

“I’ll let you know when the final moments get close.”

“How are you going to do it?”

“Razor blades.”

“The jugular?”

Billy Ray shook his head.

“No, that’s too quick. I’m going with the wrists. I want to have time to fully experience this thing.”

I put the cinder blocks back in place and pushed a cardboard box against the wall to conceal the obvious gaps. I gave Monkey six Valiums and told him to go to sleep. I did not want him awake when Billy Ray started cutting. I felt a twinge of pity for him. He was caught up in something he couldn’t possibly understand. He did not even realize how close he came to having his throat slit. I patted his head gently as he lay in the top bunk.

At 1:00 a.m. Billy Ray called me.

“It’s time,” he said. “Get your mirror and watch this.”

With my left hand, I stuck the mirror through the bars and held where I could see most everything in Billy Ray’s cell. He had packed Monkey’s personal belongings and stacked them neatly on the top bunk. He walked to the back of the cell and sat on the edge of the lower bunk facing the toilet. He rested his left arm across his left leg and, with a stainless steel razor blade, he slashed open his wrist with two deep gashes. Blood gushed out, flowing down his hand onto the floor. He then slashed his right arm in the same manner, although he had difficulty with that arm because the razor blade kept slipping in his bloody left hand. Then, putting his bleeding right arm to his mouth, he chewed the veins out of the arm, spitting a mass of bloody tissue into the toilet. He did it without flinching. He turned his head, looking back toward the front of his cell to make sure I was watching. Blood covered his mouth and chin. It was a fiendish, repulsive sight.

I pulled the mirror back into my cell and slid down the wall. The cellblock was quiet – not even a whispered conversation could be heard as was often the case late at night.

Billy Ray whispered my name.

“I’m here,” I said, not moving.

“It’s done.”

“How long will it take?”

“I don’t know. I’ll keep pumping my fist to keep the blood from clotting. I’ve got a bucket of warm water to stick my wrist in now and then.”

Silence as moments passed between us.

“I hope you find something on the other side that is better than what you found on this one,” I said, voice trembling.

“I won’t,” he replied, “but if there is anything and if there’s any way to get word back to you, you can believe I will do it. So if you don’t hear from me, don’t invest too much in the life-after-death stock. I know there is nothing over there.”

It was virtually impossible for me to think of Billy Ray dead. He was too strong, too vibrant to be thought of as dead. I felt that, somehow, he would defy even death.

“Read this,” he said, passing two bloody notes through the bars. “It’s something I wrote several years ago.

He had a towel wrapped around his arm to keep the blood from dripping on the hallway floor.

The note read:

“The most important pressing goal is to make the most of my capabilities. I’ve laid around too long. I must employ strict self-discipline, gather new and stronger determination and concentrate more on strengthening my motivations. I believe self-discipline is the most important key, the master key that fits the door to any goal.”

The second note, titled “Excuses for my Greed,” read:

“The main reason, I think, for my anxiousness to gain material security is that I feel I must be financially independent if I’m ever going to be able to devote the depth and amount of time I feel would be necessary for me to satisfactorily explore the whys, wheres, and whos, and hows of my existence. Then once I’ve compromised with the limits of my understanding and found out how I want to live in relation to the big what. I can whistle along until unconsciousness, maybe? In the meantime I must keep struggling to put better substance in the throw-away container that I am; without blowing my mind over ways and means, at the same time becoming as financially independent as I want to be as fast as possible so as to hasten the day I can really explore which at present is the highest rung of my pursuit of happiness ladder. I firmly believe I can accomplish this goal. It all depends on how the ‘bludgeoning of chance’ affect me. In the meantime I gotta tighten up and figure out better and faster ways to go under, over, around, or through the obstacles that are blocking or may block the path to my goal.”

I read the bloody notes several times, trying to find in them some understanding of the contradictions that roiled my friend. It seemed tragic that the sum of a man’s life could be reduced to nothing more than a few rambling words on pieces of blood paper. “Pursuit of happiness” was the key phrase. Billy Ray often laughed but I can’t remember a time when he was truly happy. He never once said his life was happy. Death seemed his only happiness.

He whispered my name again; this time considerably weakened.

“I don’t have much time left, but I need to tell you something.”

“What is it?” I asked.

He paused, gasping for more life.

“I want you to think about me – my life of crime and the failure it has made of my life. I want you to reject the ‘convict-code,’ the criminal values it promotes. This is really not your world. You have too much potential for it. If you remain loyal to the code, it will do to you what it has done to me – it will destroy you.”

“I have to survive in this life, Billy Ray, and the code makes survival easier.”

“Survive you will, but at some point you must make a conscious decision to reject that code, to walk away from the criminal ethic. It won’t be easy. You will be scorned, rejected and even threatened because of it. Don’t worry about the friends you will surely lose. Believe me, you don’t need those kind of friends – don’t waste the rest of your life believing in those jive motherfuckers who make prison their world. Turn your back on them. You’re better than they are – remember that.”

I said nothing.

He moaned.

I heard his feet shuffling as he stood up.

“I’m gonna lay down a few minutes,” he said in a low hoarse voice. “I feel weak and dizzy – it’s almost over, my friend.”

There was nothing for me to do but pace the floor of my cell like a fresh-caged animal. At times I could hear Billy Ray rambling – cursing life, praising friendship, and talking about the need for real love. I tried to make sense of what was happening that night. A friend was bleeding to death not more than six feet from me and there was nothing I could do about it.  A call for help would have been considered by Billy Ray as an act of betrayal, but silence amounted to the same thing. That conflict ripped at my thoughts, like the bloody beaks of the vultures tore at Prometheus’ liver.

As the minutes passed, I literally sensed death’s malignant presence, almost as though I could touch it. My chest was tight; the place where my soul rested was cramped and smothered. My heart ached under the crushing weight despair and regret. Tired of walking, I stood at the bars, staring into the lost night as tears rolled down my cheeks about what could have been had it not been for one less bad choice or wrong decision.

Around four in the morning Billy was at death’s door. His words slurred from a terribly weakened voice. He spoke in spurts, saying things that had only meaning to him. I was paralyzed with guilt as I wished for the final moment. The emotional strain was all-consuming. A guard passed Billy Ray’s cell on a routine count. He did not look directly into the cell. All he wanted to see was something remotely resembling a human body.

“Wha’cha doin’, White?” he asked as he passed Billy Ray’s cell.

“Nothing, chief – just dying,” Billy Ray answered, barely audible.

The guard didn’t give Billy Ray’s comment a second thought. He then passed my cell. It was my last opportunity to save Billy Ray’s life. My mouth opened. I wanted to speak, to cry out, but no words came. The silence was the cell was deafening. The guard disappeared and I knew beyond any doubt that Billy Ray was going to die. At that moment I hated the world of prison more than anything I had ever known in life.

It was 5:45 A.M., June 9, 1974, when word finally came.

“I’m ready now,” Billy Ray said. “Get the man.”

I awakened the two inmates in the cell next to me. I told them Billy Ray was dying and we needed to get the man on the tier. We started shaking our cell doors—a signal to the man that he was needed on the tier. The entire cellblock came to life.

“What’s going on down there?” a voice called out from the upper tier.

“I don’t know,” a bottom tier voice replied.

A disgruntled shift lieutenant walked down the tier. He knew trouble was brewing.

“Alright, what’s all the goddamn racket about,” he shouted over the noise.

“Billy Ray’s dying,” I said.

The lieutenant slowly walked to Billy Ray’s cell. He aimed his flashlight into the cell. With a jolt, he recoiled from the sight of death, face bleached with shock.

“My God,” he said, horror-stricken. “He’s … Lord, get a stretcher – get a goddamn stretcher back here.”

One hallboy ran to get a stretcher. Two others carried Billy Ray out of his cell and lay him on the floor in front of my cell. He only had on a pair of blood-soaked underwear. His hair was matted with blood and his arms were a bluish swollen mass of mutilated veins and dry blood. His feet were turned outward, his underwear grotesquely pulled down below one cheek of his ass, and his left arm was sprawled across the concrete floor. His eyes were closed. His lips trembled, but no words came. His right forefinger twitched slightly and went still.

“How long has he been like this?” the lieutenant asked.

“I don’t know, chief,” I answered, staring at Billy Ray’s body that seem so sunken, so weak. “Probably all his life.

The hallboy returned with a folded canvass stretcher. He quickly unfolded it and the other two hallboys struggled to life Billy Ray’s blood slippery body onto it. One of the hallboys dropped one of Billy Ray’s legs – part of his body waste fell on the floor. I knew then for sure he was dead. All the hell, pain and violence of his life had come to a brutal end. I watched as they carried him away. I pulled a cellophane package from under my mattress and took four Valiums from it. I swallowed them with a cup of water and laid down on my bunk. I lit a cigarette.

In the horizon, the first rays a dawn appeared, softening the darkened world—a softening that did not touch my darkened world as tears freely rolled down my cheeks. It was over for Billy Ray, but I knew it would never be over for me.

“I’m ready – get the man.”

What did Billy Ray mean?

Was he ready to be saved or had he actually realized the moment of his death?

I will never know.

He is free, but I will always be a prisoner of doubt his death produced.

Rest, my friend, there is no end to pain.

0

Life’s paradoxes.

In 1968, C. Murray Henderson became warden at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, more commonly known as “Angola” or “the Alcatraz of the South.” The Tennessee native was hailed as a “reformer” who would bring Angola into the 20th century. He failed miserably at the task.

Henderson was tagged to be Angola’s warden by former Gov. John “Big John“ McKeithen.

An 18,000-acre prison plantation, Angola at the time was the largest prison in the nation, and like most other southern prisons was steeped in political corruption. McKeithen was the only governor in Louisiana history to campaign for votes inside the prison.

In 1964, Big John walked up and down the prison’s Big Yard passing out campaign buttons, telling the inmates, “tell your mommas and daddies to vote for Big John.”

During Big John’s two tenures in office (1964-1972), he rewarded the inmates with more than 2,500 pardons (most at a price of $1500) and “special paroles” (most at a price of $500). Big John never met a dollar he didn’t like.

Angola was not receptive to Henderson’s notions about “prison penology.” The prison was ruled by an entrenched all-white security force—most of who were either in the KKK or affiliated with the group. Security, and most inmate discipline, at the prison was maintained by “convict guards”—shotgun toting inmates, most of whom were lifers convicted of murder or rape, who enjoyed any opportunity to brutalize and kill inmates.

The hatred between convicts and convict guards made Lake Michigan look like a Petri dish.

A combination of Henderson’s professional incompetence, personal corruption, and alcoholism managed to transform Angola from a human sewage pit into “the bloodiest prison in America.”

A 1975 federal court ruling that declared the entire prison unconstitutionally “cruel and unusual” ultimately forced the 55-year-old warden to resign and return to Tennessee where he was tagged by Gov. Ray Blanton to be the “commissioner” of that state’s notoriously brutal prison system.

That gig lasted only several years before Blanton was convicted in a “parole-selling” scheme that landed him in a federal prison and Henderson without a job. Henderson did earn the penal distinction of letting James Earl Ray escape from the Tennessee Brushy Mountain Prison in June 1977 under his watch.

Henderson returned to Louisiana where he was placed in charge of the state’s hospital for the criminally insane – a St. Francisville facility that also came under intense Federal court scrutiny. He then met, and married, a local journalist and freelance writer named Ann Butler.

Together, the couple wrote and published several books about Angola, its famous characters and events. Butler would later state a creative claim to all the “writing” in the books, crediting Henderson with only being a source of information in those literary endeavors.

C. Murray Henderson was tortured by two insatiable human appetites: a need for professional recognition of his penal accomplishments and an abiding personal need for alcohol that begged 12-step intervention. These needs did not mix well.

The limited regional interest in Henderson’s “books” quickly faded. Time slowly chewed him up and spat out the ugly human remains. When the grandeur of being a great “book” author did not materialize, he was left with a troubled marriage, a sense of failure, and an unlimited supply of booze. It was a recipe for a human tragedy.

In 1998, that human tragedy exploded when Henderson, in a drunken state, shot Ann Butler five times with a .38 caliber pistol following a domestic dispute.

He then sat and watched the blood flow from her serious wounds. Although she survived the murder attempt, a series of painful operations and physical therapy wiped out her personal savings.

Henderson was convicted and sent to the Wade Correctional Center with a 50-year sentence. He was placed in the same unit where I was housed. He arrived at the prison facility just like any other inmate. Obviously disoriented, the former warden was humble, polite, and eager to please his new “inmate friends.” He regaled them with embellished stories about the inmates he had saved or whose releases he had secured through pardons or paroles.

The Angola he remembered, and spoke so fondly about with both inmates and guards, was not the same prison I knew. He recalled it as a place of love, respect, and honor among keeper and kept; a place of good food, clean living conditions, and a safe environment in which all the inmates’ personal needs were met.

The ex-warden became known as “Mr. Henderson” to Wade inmates and guards. He was accorded official deference with a litany of special favors and privileges. He had his own valet, an inmate who shined his shoes, cleaned his cell, and carried his meals to his cell. Henderson would buy the valet large “canteen orders” in exchange for the special services.

He had been in the unit only several weeks before he became crippled with gout and had to be put in a wheel chair. He could only be bathed in the prison infirmary. No one wanted that task, not even the valet. I volunteered to do it. Each day I pushed his wheel chair to the infirmary, undressed him in a large bath area, and bathed him.

I had never bathed another man in my life – and there I was bathing a former warden of Angola who had once been my bitter enemy; the man I had filed so many lawsuits against I couldn’t remember the number.

Life is indeed filled with paradoxes.

And there we were—two paradoxes. One of Louisiana’s most “rehabilitated inmates” bathing one of the state’s most “disgraced wardens.”

I listened to his Angola stories as I lathered his shriveled body with soap knowing they were lies—embellished recollections of an old alcoholic who had long ago lost contact with reality.

Still, I treated him with the utmost respect. I called him “Mr. Henderson.” I didn’t even call the Warden “Mister.” My wife, who had met Henderson on several occasions, thought the world of the old man. She was always extremely kind and affectionate toward him.

Gradually the old warden’s social standing began to erode – his quick temper, a sense of class arrogance, and constant “complaining” gnawed away at his popularity among fellow inmates.

But it was his perverse penchant for the Jerry Springer show – a program he watched religiously – and his prurient interest in hardcore pornography that did not sit well with those inmates who had placed him on a higher intellectual plain.

“Why that ole sonuvabitch ain’t nothin’ but another ‘dirty ole man’,” some exclaimed.

Then came the release of my memoir, “A Life In the Balance.” The book offered a markedly different view of Angola than the one Henderson had presented. While the former warden never said a word to me about the book, he made it clear to others that he was “furious” about the way he was portrayed in it.

Henderson conveyed his anger about “Balance” to Warden Kelly Ward who was not pleased with memoir either because it cast the state prison system in a bad light.

Ward’s anger was not surprising. He felt an allegiance to Henderson who had introduced him to the corrections field as a classification officer at Angola in the early 1970s.

So I was not surprised when Ward summoned me to the prison’s “security office” where he made it clear that he was not pleased with the way Henderson had been portrayed in the memoir.

 “You got your ‘facts’ wrong, Sinclair,” the warden charged, sitting behind the desk in the security office. “There was nothing in the public record that Warden Henderson was ‘drunk’ when he shot his wife.”

I was not intimidated by Ward. He was a pseudo-intellectual who had wormed his way through the corrections system to become a warden of his own prison.

“Jodie and I got our ‘facts’ right, Warden,” I replied. “Jodie got that information from Henderson’s own daughter. You want to fact-check that?”

We stared at each other across a chasm that could never be breached. Ward casually dismissed me with a wave of the hand toward the office door.

On the heels of “Balance,” Henderson’s conviction and sentence were upheld on appeal. He became more sullen, withdrawn.

Then he faced the publication of yet another book. This one titled “Weep for the Living” written by Ann Butler. It recounted her life with Henderson, including fresh and graphic details about how he tried to kill her. “Weep for the Living” shredded whatever remnants that were left of Henderson’s good name. He was truly crushed.

I still spoke to the ex-warden but only when necessary. My wife had a kindly sentiments for him. I did not share those sentiments. I could not forget the wasted blood, the official corruption, and brutality under his watch at Angola.

In 2003 the former warden sought, and was denied, clemency from the outgoing pardon board under the administration of former Gov. Mike Foster. He could not recover from that devastating denial. He accepted a prison death – and it came in 2004 in a prison infirmary at the Hunt Correctional Center near Baton Rouge. He was 84 years of age.

He died a beaten, and bitter, old man.

Two years after Henderson’s death I walked out of prison a free man. I survived the likes of him for 40 years.

Life’s paradoxes.

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The Angola Two

They started out as the “Angola Four.”

The year was 1972. The Spring. The March breeze had given way to April’s swamp like humidity at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, more commonly known as “Angola.”

The sprawling 18,000-acre prison plantation’s two main crops, cotton and sugarcane, did not sit well with the increasing “black militancy” fomenting among the prison’s African-American inmates—most of whom had graduated out of New Orleans “housing projects” to the city’s notorious Parish Prison in the first leg of their journey to Angola. The prison had the well-deserved reputation of being “the bloodiest prison in America.”

A militant political stew had come to a quick boil in the nation’s prison system after the Attica Prison Riot that occurred the previous September—an uprising that left 33 inmates and 10 prison personnel dead in its wake. The riot found its seeds in the death of “black militant” writer/activist George Jackson who was killed during a bloody escape attempt from San Quentin Prison on August 21, 1971.

Attica was emblematic of prisons across the nation that had become cauldrons of violent political unrest as African-American inmates—interchangeably referred to as “black militants” or “Black Panthers”—began to demand better living conditions and more humane personal treatment.

That spring of ’72, I was a 27-year-old inmate housed on Louisiana death row waiting for an almost certain trip to the state’s electric chair. I kept up with the black militancy at a distance: television, books, magazines, and underground information channels. There were 46 of us on death row living in anticipation of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Furman v. Georgia—a decision that in June 1972 declared the death penalty nationwide to be unconstitutional as it was then being applied. Louisiana death row inmates were eventually resentenced to life imprisonment.

Twelve days after the start of the Attica riot, a U.S. District Court in Baton Rouge decided Sinclair v. Henderson—the first prisoners’ rights legal decision in Louisiana. Under the legal direction of a young civil rights attorney, Richard Hand, the lawsuit got the federal court to declare long term solitary cell confinement, such as death row, cruel and unusual punishment. The federal court decision also afforded procedural due process requirements in the prison’s disciplinary process: right to a rule book, right to a written disciplinary report, right to a disciplinary hearing, and right to appeal any adverse decision.

In 1971 that was landmark litigation. The “Sinclair Decision,” as it became known, would ultimately open the door to other “reforms” at Angola cementing my jailhouse lawyer reputation both in the prison community and the state’s judicial system. The decision also played a role in one of Angola’s most infamous incidents—the April 1972 killing of Angola prison guard Brent Miller.

In the months after the Attica riot, New Orleans Rep. Dorothy Mae Taylor, the first African-American elected to the Louisiana Legislature since Reconstruction, had become a “radical” voice in the state’s political system. The outspoken lawmaker set her reform sights on Angola. Her interest in Angola ignited the budding, though spirited “black militancy” at the prison. The prison white redneck security regime reacted by locking up scores of African-American inmates in a brutal maximum security unit known as “CCR” [Close Custody Restriction]. One of the three tiers in the unit was designated the “Panther Tier.”

That tier was located directly above death row. In compliance with the Sinclair Decision, prison officials had constructed an “exercise yard” outside the death row cellblocks. The yard was below the Panther Tier allowing communications between the militants and death row inmates.

Several of the militants wanted a copy of the 52-page legal memorandum Richard Hand had prepared in connection with my lawsuit. That memorandum had been declared “contraband” by prison officials because they believed the legal information in it posed a “threat to prison security.” They would only allow it in my possession because it was “legal mail.” I was warned not to share it with other inmates.

Nonetheless, I got a mimeograph copy made of the memorandum and smuggled it into the Panther Tier. Several of the militants used the memorandum as a guide to craft their own lawsuit challenging the conditions on the Panther Tier.

Fearing a second Sinclair Decision and continued prison involvement by Rep. Taylor, Warden C. Murray Henderson instructed his Deputy Warden Lloyd W. Hoyle to release all the militants off the Panther Tier. This action infuriated the prison’s white security staff.

I was hailed a hero by some of the released militants who sent me a lot of “right on, comrade” messages. Henderson and Hoyle, however, saw me in a different light. I was the “trouble-making motherfucker” who had backed them into a corner by distributing the “contraband” memorandum.

Then it happened.

A young white prison guard named Brent Miller was stabbed to death on April 17, 1972 in Pine One, an all-black dormitory on the prison’s Big Yard.

The prison’s redneck regime went crazy. They deputized dozens of local Ku Klux Klan farmers and brought them into the prison. Hundreds of African-American inmates, all designated with the “black militant” label, were locked up in various maximum security cellblocks with as many as five inmates to a cell. There were wholesale beatings and torture inflicted on the “militants” in an effort to find out who killed Miller, and why.

Within weeks four African-American inmates were named the killers: Herman “Hooks” Wallace, Albert Woodfox, Gilbert Montegut, and Charles “Noxzema Black” Jackson.

They quickly became known as “The Angola Four.” 

The prison’s security staff believed Miller’s killing happened for several reasons: Hoyle’s release of the militants from the Panther Tier, the Sinclair Decision, and Rep. Taylor’s activism. Several days after Miller’s killing, one of his brothers, who was also employed at the prison, threw Hoyle through an office plate glass window in the prison’s administration building disfiguring him for life. He would later win a large civil judgment against the state for the attack.

The “Angola Four” quickly dwindled.

Noxzema Black became a state witness against the others. Gilbert Montegut, who was mentally challenged, was found guilty of manslaughter and eventually released from Angola. Woodfox and Wallace were convicted and received life sentences. They would ultimately become “The Angola Two.”

In October 2013, a federal judge freed the 71-year-old terminally ill Wallace into hospice care in New Orleans where he died less than a week later. He had spent the previous 41 years in solitary confinement.  Woodfox was released nearly three years later in February 2016 after having his conviction reversed and ordered released by a federal court. He had spent nearly 44 years in solitary confinement.

In 2001, after the publication of my prison memoir, “A Life in the Balance,” I was contacted by a New York supporter of The Angola Two. After reading the memoir, the supporter had a “gut feeling,” as he described it to me, that I had information about the Brent Miller killing.  I told him that I did have some information about the case (namely, the name of an African American inmate who told me in 1973 that he stabbed Miller to death and chronicled to me all the events leading up to the killing) but I did not know how valuable it would be to the Angola Two case.

The supporter arranged a meeting between me and Scott Fleming, an Oakland-based attorney representing The Angola Two. I described to Fleming the 1973 conversation I had with the close friend who gave me a detailed account of how and why the Brent Miller killing took place. The information exonerated Wallace and Woodfox. I had no way of verifying the veracity of the account. It was simply prison information I stored away in the recesses of my brain for 30 years.

Certain aspects of the information intrigued Fleming because it either corroborated or fit into a chronology of other information he had developed about the case. I provided him with a sworn affidavit to use as he saw fit in his effort to free “The Angola Two.”

There are times when each of us, including those in prison, must make choices that are not in our best interests. Our moral compass demands that we make those choices. I had no allegiance with The Angola Two. I had several conversations with Wallace in 1974 but nothing that made us “comrades.”

In 2001, with Scott Fleming at my doorstep, I was embroiled in an all out war with the Louisiana prison system—the impact of my memoir was sending backlash ripples throughout the system. The memoir war came on the heels of my exposure to an investigative, Peabody awarding winning journalist/friend about the relationship between the chief judge of a federal appeals court, a serial pedophile priest, and the corrections secretary of the Louisiana prison system. Those revelations had spawned two criminal investigations, a state legislative investigation, and a judicial ethics investigation—not to mention the national and international media attention it generated in other venues.

The last thing I needed at that juncture was to become involved in the political war the state’s prison system was waging against The Angola Two. Fleming recognized the inherent danger of my position and assured me he would provide me with as much protection as he could. But he wanted the information I had. I gave it to him.

That’s the thing about choices. Make them and be prepared to accept their consequences. In that context, the two black lives of The Angola Two mattered more than my own self-interests.

Two months later I was denied parole for the fifth time. The politics of my case, the official hostility generated by my memoir, and the fallout from the judge/priest pedophilia disclosure all factored into the denial. Then a few weeks later an assistant warden whispered to me, “you should have stayed out of The Angola Two case.”

You don’t always get a chance to pick your battles in prison. Sometimes they get right up in your face and slap the fuck out of you, forcing you to respond back twice as hard.

But the battles leave indelible scars on the spirit, deep within the basin of the soul. There’s no denying it.

Two years before my 2006 release from the Louisiana prison system, my wife saw and knew what battle scar tissue had done to my soul.

“It’s time for you to get on the back of the wagon and let me drive it the rest of the way home,’ she said to me one day as she held my hand during a visit.

And she did – like a warrior giant.

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Systemic racism.

It is a term we have heard a lot since the killing of George Floyd by four Minneapolis police officers last month.

But what does the term actually mean in real time?

Here is a real time personal experience I had with systemic racism.

In 1973, the Louisiana State Penitentiary, more commonly known as “Angola,” was under immense pressure from the U.S. Justice Department to integrate the prison. At the time Angola was known as “the bloodiest prison in America.” 

Irvin “Life” Breaux, a New Orleans African American inmate serving a life sentence, and myself were chosen by fellow inmates—and accepted by Justice Department and prison officials—to lead the integration of the prison, beginning with the “Big Yard” complex where most of the violence was taking place. We were given one week to integrate the Big Yard on a voluntary basis or face the forced integration of the prison by an armed National Guard if necessary.

 Life and I picked four other inmates, two white and two black, to help us with the one week grace period we had to complete the integration.

Although the overwhelming white, redneck guard staff opposed the integration process, the prison warden, at the encouragement of DOJ attorneys, gave me and Life unrestricted access to all the 60-man dormitories on the Big Yard. We met with the inmate population, cajoling, convincing, pressuring, negotiating with them, and even bribing white and black inmate power brokers to accept the integration deal we were proposing.

Life and I spent 18 to 20 hours a day in this negotiation process, sometimes in heated, near-violent confrontations. We had to quell rumors, allay paranoia, and constantly appeal to the power brokers’ vested interests. It was no easy task.

But our efforts paid off. We successfully integrated the Big Yard without a single fist fight, without one drop of blood being shed, and even with black and white power brokers coming together to make it work. It was one of the greatest achievements in my life.

But then systemic racism reared its ugly head.

The redneck guard staff, enraged by the unprecedented way we had integrated the prison, set me up by planting three tabs of LSD in my personal property. A redneck disciplinary tribunal placed me in solitary confinement where I spent the next two years. It was the only major disciplinary infraction I would receive during my 40-year confinement.

Several days after I was placed in solitary, Life was brutally stabbed to death by two brothers in a knife fight engineered and orchestrated by the same redneck staff that framed me.

Systemic racism led to the two setups.

I was placed in lockdown and Life was murdered. Life was killed because the redneck guards wanted to send a racist, violent message to the black inmate population: “you live only if we let you live.”

Years later as an award-winning co-editor of the prison newsmagazine, The Angolite, I was the recipient of the 1980 American Bar Association’s Silver Gavel Award, the ABA’s highest honor, for an article I wrote about Life’s killing.

In real time, Life gave me one of the best friendships I’ve ever had; and in death he gave me the honor of being able to write about the horrible wrong done to him and for both of us to be nationally recognized for it.

Together, Life and I bridged systemic racism under the worst of conditions for a brief period and paid dearly for it—he so much more than I. Life to this day, with his indomitable will and incredible courage, remains a hero from the darkest period of my life.

I am alive and well in the Texas Hill Country because I am white while Life is buried in a lonely New Orleans cemetery because he was black.

That is systemic racism in real time.

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Expressions Of Love From Prison

Prison is a world of caged humanity, removed and isolated from normal life. But this enclosed wasteland, with all its conscious and unconscious brutalities, cannot trap love in the heart.

In September 1981, I opened a letter to the woman of my life (now my wife of 37 years) as a prisoner with these words from behind the fenced world of a prison called Angola—a sprawling 18,000-acre plantation where thousands of inmates and former slaves were killed and buried beneath the soil of its rich Tunica Hills:

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