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MY TAKE ON “LOVE BEHIND BARS” BY RICHARD HAND

It was 1971.  I was a young lawyer living in Baton Rouge who was appointed to represent a man on death row at Angola, the Louisiana State Penitentiary.  The prisoner’s name was Billy Wayne Sinclair.  He had commenced an action on behalf of himself and other death row inmates to gain exercise rights and access to medical care.  Thereafter, I made many trips up to Angola, driving 25 miles or so north to St. Francisville and then another 15 miles west on a winding road through the Tunica Hills to the prison. 

I always had to steel myself for those trips.  For one thing, it always seemed to rain, and not just rain, but driving, bucketsful of water falling on the car, making the drive perilous. The guards were at best dismissive; at worst rude and coarse.  The noise, smells, clamor and cursing on the cellblock assaulted my senses.  The stories I heard assaulted my sensibilities.  I was always glad to get home to see and be with my young wife.

In her autobiography, “Love Behind Bars: The True Story of an American Prisoner’s Wife,” ” Jodie Sinclair tells of the myriad journeys, much longer and more arduous than mine ever were, that she made for 25 years to see Billy Sinclair, the former death row inmate that I represented 49 years ago.  

 She left her home in Houston every other weekend, without fail, to be with him, often for just an hour or two – wherever the arbitrary and punitive transfers engaged in by the Louisiana prison system landed Billy – first to Angola,  then to the State Police Barracks in Baton Rouge, then to the far northern reaches of the state to a prison just outside Homer, and finally to a prison just north of Lake Charles.

After reading Jodie’s book, you will hardly know what to think.  Could there possibly be a prison administration as venal, corrupt, and downright cruel as the one Jodie Sinclair found herself up against?  Could an East Baton Rouge family possibly have such deep political roots and connections as to be able to exact a measure of punishment (and revenge) so disproportionately extreme and punitive compared to other similarly situated prisoners?  Could the political machinations, hidden agendas, and blind alleys Jodie always seemed to encounter from every corner of Louisiana’s criminal justice system ever be exposed and brought to account?

Rather than providing answers, Jodie Sinclair’s book details the challenging and mind-numbing realities she faced and what she brought to the fight – endurance, courage, stubbornness, a razor sharp intelligence and a faith in her husband that refused to be shaken or denied. 

In his autobiography, a “Life in the Balance: The Billy Sinclair Story,”  published in 2000, Billy tells the improbable story of his  journey through an otherworldly harsh, unforgiving landscape, detailing the manner in which this country chooses to impose its punishments. 

Jodie’s autobiography “Love Behind Bars” tells a different story – one of a system, pockmarked with evil and an abiding disregard for the humanity of people who pass through it, that was ultimately defeated by the power and promise of two people in love. 

In the end, it is a singularly riveting love story, pure and simple.   And I urge you to pick it up and read it.  After you’ve finished, nothing will seem to exist beyond the power of your own abilities.     

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Jodie’s Interview

Jodie’s May 20, 2020 interview with The Crime Report about her memoir, “Love Behind Bars: The True Story of an American Prisoner’s Wife,” is a great read. Being biased and all, it is a penetrating interview that touches on many issues about the criminal justice system; most importantly about the death penalty.

Please feel free to share the attached link. These are rough times for criminal justice with so much misinformation being thrown about. Jodie does speak “truth to power.”

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Sister Helen Prejean

She is one of the most courageous and honorable individuals I have ever met. I first talked to her at the Louisiana State Penitentiary where she was visiting an inmate. And I saw her again following my release from prison in 2006 at a lecture in Houston. She wrote the Preface to a book about the death penalty co-authored with my wife, Jodie, published in 2009.

She also wrote the Preface to Jodie’s memoir, “Love Behind Bars: The True Story of an American Prisoner’s Wife,” officially released today. The links below are from Sister Helen’s twitter account supporting the book. In one twitter post, she writes:

“I wrote the preface for Jodie Sinclair’s new book—Love Behind Bars—because it’s an extraordinary story of love that endures. The writing is excellent and the story is gripping. Please order it from your local bookstore or on Amazon. You won’t be able to put this book down!

“Jodie’s book is gripping on two levels: (1) It’s a story about her husband, Billy Sinclair, having the courage to blow the whistle on prison corruption; and (2) It’s a story about the love between two people, a prisoner and a woman on the outside.”

Sister Helen says I am her inspiration—a success story that proves no one is beyond the “pale of human salvation.” She is my inspiration because she, and so many others along the way, gave me the courage to change—as she has with so many other inmates.

God bless her.

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The True Stories of Inmate Suffering Finally Emerging

Every day, there’s a story in the news about the brutal treatment of an inmate or prosecutorial misconduct in a case that has kept an innocent man behind bars for decades.

For me, the stories are a dream come true. For too long, the truth about America’s criminal justice system has been hidden from the public. Outrage is unlocking its secrets. It’s a blessing for advocates of prison reform, because these days, “crime” is getting great ratings. 

According to Variety, “primetime programming at Fox News Channel, MSNBC and CNN rose 8% in 2018…while total revenue rose 4% to $5.3 billion.”  

Prime time crime shows are raking in big bucks from advertisers, including Chicago PD, FBI and FBI Most Wanted, NCIS, Law & Order Special Victims Unit, Blue Bloods, How To Get Away With Murder, SWAT and Hawaii Five-O, among other hugely popular crime programs currently on TV.

It’s prompting news networks and newspapers to cover the real stories behind the bars. NBC Nightly News is a prime example.

In September 2019, NBC anchor Lester Holt went to Angola, Louisiana’s maximum security prison, to talk to inmates and spend 2 nights in a cell.  A few days later, he held a town hall with prisoners at Sing-Sing, a New York State maximum security prison. NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt was “the #1-most watched newscast in the key A25-54 and A18-49 demos for the week of September 2, 2019,” according to the ratings giant, Nielsen Media Research.

Am I grateful that big time journalism is getting the message? You bet.  Because I’m not a lone voice in an abyss anymore. 

After a 25-year battle to free my husband, publishing two books with him  – one while he was still in prison and writing my memoir – “Love Behind Bars:  The True Story of an American Prisoner’s Wife,” I am so glad others’ stories are getting the attention they deserve.

Because America’s prison system is an inhumane mess.

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Love Blossoms in the Death House

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

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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.