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.