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!”


“Goddamn, please hurry something!”


“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.


That white boy called Mark

Prison is an ugly place. Its physical structures are designed to reinforce a sense of hopelessness and powerlessness.

Casual cruelty is a fixture in these ugly places. It occurs on a daily basis among the kept and too often between the keeper and the kept.

The medical cage was cruel. It was nothing more than an inmate holding pen located one floor below the basement in the New Orleans Charity Hospital before the hospital was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. It would accommodate about two dozen shackled inmates who had been transported to the hospital from prisons across the state for medical treatment not available in the prison setting. Inmates waited for hours manacled in the cage to “see the doctor.”

The medical cage was filthy, which personified the entire hospital. The sub-basement area reeked from odors of filth, infection, and disease. The floor of the medical cage was seldom, if ever, mopped. Dirt and grime were etched both into the floor and walls – a common characteristic of inmate holding pens. A urinal was located in the common area of the cage while a toilet was encased in a separate screened cage. Inmates needing to use the toilet were locked in the screened cage before their restraints were removed. The smell of human defecation often filled the medical cage, overwhelming all the other odors.

The inmates in the medical cage were the most sick in the state’s prison system. They were infected with cancers that needed chemotherapy and radiation; weakened and debilitated by heart disease; or handicapped with paralysis, severed limbs, or physical deformities. As their vital organs failed, they were assigned to “go to Charity for treatment.” By the time they arrived, most had become “dead men walking.”

Diseased inmates were handled and processed like hazardous waste. Each inmate had a medical horror story that generally began in the prison health care delivery system and was perpetuated by the Charity Hospital system.

It was in these system that I learned about a white boy called Mark.

I was sitting in the medical cage six months before the Katrina destroyed the facility. It was December 2004. I was waiting for an EMT – a test ordered to determine the strength of my muscles. I suffered from a severe case of ptosis – a condition so acute that I was legally blind. I had to tape my eyes open each day so I could see. Preliminary diagnosis at Charity led doctors to believe I suffered from either myasthenia gravis or Kearns Sayre Syndrome. I hoped not. I did not want to die old, weak, and crippled in prison. I would have preferred a knife in the back. There was no dignity dying old and wretched in a prison infirmary.

Sitting a few feet from me was the skeletal of what was once a man – forever bound to a wheel chair. His skinny body, nothing more than flesh over bone, was balled up into a grotesque knot in the chair. He peered at the outside world from under a soiled prison jacket that covered his entire body. His eyes were sunken into darkened holes, but amazingly his brain still functioned with clarity.

“They don’t know what I have,” he said. “I’ve begged them to cut off my right leg. It hurts so bad – the pain never stops, always throbbing, just throbbing pain. The leg’s useless now. Cut it off – stop the pain. I’ve begged them. Instead, they put me in diapers and strapped a bag on me for my piss. Just cut off the leg – give me some relief. I asked them what’s wrong with me. They say, ‘you tell us.’ They don’t even know what’s happening to me. At least they could cut off the leg.”

I was a prison reporter, much like the old “crime beat” reporters. My brain was my recorder. It was always ready to click on; to record and preserve some prison moment that would otherwise go unnoticed.

“A Buick Roadmaster was the finest car ever made,” the skeleton voice said. “My father owned one, a 1955 Roadmaster. That’s when a car really was a car – made of steel and heavy metal. The cars today are fiber glass junk – nothing but fiber glass. You can wreck one with a foot. They are as useless as my legs. But a Roadmaster – that was one fine automobile. It would take you anywhere in this country, without complaint.”

The man’s brain was still alive. It processed information and recalled memories. Now it was trapped in the shell of a body. I could only imagine the fear and pain he must have endured watching the physical body shrivel up, life gradually wasting away from its limb. Many times that brain must have recoiled in utter disbelief, horror, and, finally, hopelessness.

“You know that crazy white boy Mark at WCI,” the skeleton voice said. “You know what he did? He castrated himself! Cut his nuts out with a razor blade. He’s a crazy motherfucker. He tried to hang himself, but it didn’t work. He was in lockdown. He kept asking the freeman for a razor blade. Freeman said, ‘bitch, you ain’t gonna do shit, you just fakin’ yoah ass off.’ So the free man finally gave Mark a razor blade – and, you know, that crazy motherfucker cut his balls out. I mean he cut the whole sack off. Then he cut his throat and then he cut himself all over. There was blood everywhere in that cellblock – it took them hours to clean it all up.”

What would make a man sever his own testicles before cutting his throat?

Prison cellblocks are bastions of human madness. They are designed to punish misbehavior and confine mental health problems. The worst prison guards are assigned to supervise these cellblocks, known in the Louisiana prison system as “extended lockdown.” The guards that supervised the state’s lockdown system when I was there were brutal, ignorant, mean-spirited, sadistic, and quite often homosexual predators. They relished their positions of absolute power that allowed them to torment, harass, and agitate the inmates held captive in those man-made cages.

Extended lockdown inmates overwhelmingly suffered from a litany of mental health disorders, including retardation. The “block” was a place where they could get lost in the noise, disease, and deprivation imposed by this punitive system. Throwing feces and urine on each other was a natural dispute resolution mechanism. Every aspect of life in extended lockdown was restricted – hygiene, sleep, food, reading, writing, and faith. Something as simple as a roll of toilet tissue or a sharpened pencil became a precious commodity.

The mind and body deteriorates in that lockdown world, consumed by the monotony and the continual activity of punishment. Most lockdown inmates do not have the love of family to keep them alive with hope. They slowly suffocate from human neglect. Madness becomes preferable to reality; suicide a natural choice over life. The brutal realities of daily life in a cell can so depletes one of hope and purpose that it can force the mind to accept the hand severing the testicles.

“His balls were as useless as my legs,” the skeleton voice continued. “God, I wish I could cut off my leg. My right leg hurts so bad – and these white-coat motherfuckers don’t even know what’s wrong with me.”

Silence suddenly stilled the holding pen. Each man was quietly assessing his own life situation.

A prayer formed on my lips: “God, please do not let me die such a death.” The prayer was consumed by the silence of the moment.

“What did they do to the free man who gave Mark that razor blade?” another voice asked.

“Nothing. The bitch is still working the ‘block.’ You know they gonna protect their own. Everybody knows he gave Mark that razor blade. I mean, who really cares?”

The mixture of anger and defeat in that voice explained the kind of hopelessness that provoked Mark’s self-mutilated suicide. Life in a cellblock is so hopeless with utter despair that it can warp rational thought and cripple the heart with primitive rage. Suicide becomes a natural selection, much like choosing the best apple in the bunch.

I can only assume that is what happened to the white boy called Mark. He felt as useless as skeleton’s legs.

These are the stories my prison reporter mind recalls. They visit me every so often, a reminder of what was and a reminder of how lucky life now is.


COVID-19 and Prisons by Jodie and Billy Sinclair

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, there are in the U.S. 1,316,000 inmates in state prisons, 615,000 in state jail facilities, 215,000 in federal prison/jail facilities, and 48,000 in youth detention facilities.

The COVID-19 virus will decimate the nation’s prison populations.

Inmates live in confined quarters, either in cellblocks or dormitories. One infected inmate, who will inevitably be infected by either prison staff or family visitors, will trigger an uncontrollable infection spread much like the Australian fire spread last summer. The infection spread cannot be contained in a particular cellblock or dormitory, regardless of how tight it is locked down.

More often than not, prison health care today is provided to inmates by for-profit private medical delivery systems that have little or no regard for an inmate’s medical well-being or physical safety. Essentially, there are no meaningful medical care delivery systems in the nation’s prisons.

Once the virus infection is either detected or strongly suspected, prison staff will immediately start taking sick leave or simply refusing to show up for work. The warden will be forced to declare a state of emergency. The governor will recognize that declaration. The National Guard will be called out to surround and control the locked down prison.

No movement inside the prison will be allowed. Food will be delivered by people dressed in hazmat suits.

As for medical care, medical personnel will refuse to enter the infection swamp. The prison situation will be deemed too dangerous or unstable. The doctors, physician assistants and nurses value their own lives and the lives of their families more than they do the lives of inmates.

There are significant medical geriatric groups and elderly population groups in every community prison. All of these inmates are in the extreme COVID-19 risk categories. None will survive—not one.

Cell bars will be rattled; screams and curses will piece the night; old scores and grudges will be settled; mini-uprisings will occur; the National Guard will quell disturbances with excessive tear gas, pepper spray and live rounds. It will be a nightmare.

Inmates will die by the thousands. Their contaminated bodies will be incinerated.

On the outside, hysterical inmate families will be unable to help their loved ones, knowing all the while that the inmates will die horrible deaths with no medical attention.

The inmates that manage to survive and return to their loved ones will never quite be the same again.

For the most part, the virus nightmare will go unnoticed by the larger free community paralyzed with its own fears, struggles, and grief.

When COVID-19 has exhausted itself, and all the inmate bodies are burned, there may be an official recrimination or two – but probably not.


Can People Really Change In Prison?

Just ask Spencer Oberg and Vik Chopra.  They’ve been to that “fair” and seen the bear. What suddenly changed them behind bars?  They say it was a “moment of clarity” that overrode the constant barrage of noise and insanity surrounding them in prison. 

They now live successful lives in Washington state as co-founders of “Unincarcerated Productions,” a company dedicated to changing public opinion about prisoners and those who have been released from prison.

Spencer served 8 years for selling and using drugs.  Vik served five years for identity theft and possession of a controlled substance. Both shared the “moment of clarity” that changed them.

  • Spencer:  “I was in a red jump suit in a King County jail after a full on SWAT assault team raid on my house, facing decades in prison at 22 shortly after nearly being kill while being robbed at gunpoint (and accidentally shot at) for the oxycontin I was selling… I wanted to be happy, confident and free, positively impacting people and the world around me…I had a choice: Keep doing the same stupid shit and get the same results or figure out a better way to live.”
  • Vik: “The spark of transformation comes at different times for those of us who were incarcerated…For me, it was getting sober, then realizing as I gazed around my unit in Snohomish County jail, that this was not how my story was going to end. The tale of my life would not be a tragedy.  It would be a triumphant saga of hope, redemption and success. I took my power back as the author of my own story that day…”

My husband – Billy Wayne Sinclair – changed in prison for the same reason after a stunning moment of clarity.  He spent years behind bars after being convicted of trying to rob a convenience store and shooting the clerk chasing him in the dark across the parking lot. The man died.  Then a close prison buddy slit his wrists and committed suicide in the cell next to Billy. As his body was being removed the next morning, Billy had his moment of clarity.

How can we ensure there are more” moments of clarity?”

We need more rehabilitative programs in prisons across the nation that can inspire these moments in all prisoners. A visit to “Unincarcerated Productions,” describes programs it offers inmates to help them change their lives. A Tulane University English professor and acclaimed writer, Zachary Lazar, is making changes in Louisiana inmates with a writing program at one of the state’s prisons.

In mid-2019, Prison Legal News reported that two studies of recidivism rates among prisoners showed very high re-arrest rates. Without more effective rehabilitation programs in prison, society will go on paying the price in lives lost and millions of public dollars spent to keep inmates behind bars.

There could be many more of these “turnarounds” if we had decent treatment for the incarcerated, and perhaps more importantly if we had more programs like Unincarcerated Productions to keep their lives turned around once they reenter the free community.


“For Life”

A new ABC drama about an inmate wrongfully convicted on a drug charge and given a life sentence. While imprisoned, the inmate character, Aaron Wallace, secures a law degree, works both as a “jailhouse lawyer” and “inmate rep” for other inmates, and is determined to bring down the corrupt prosecutor who sent him to prison by working on behalf of other inmates also wrongfully convicted by this prosecutor.

The prison and courtroom scenes are rather sophomoric but the quality acting by all the characters involved in the show allow you to get past these minor details.

That Wallace has “anger issues” is an understatement. He roils in the stuff. Light a match around him and he would probably wake up St. Louis.

But “For Life” is both timely and needed.

Political corruption, misconduct, and cheating are woven into the nation’s prosecutorial system. There are scores of prosecutors who, despite having a strong case of guilt, will use perjured testimony, manufacture evidence, and conceal mitigating case to secure a conviction for a higher grade of offense. For example, prosecutors turning a non-death penalty case into a death penalty case because it enhances their “conviction resume.”

“For Life” serves an additional benefit besides exposing this kind of official wrongdoing.

The show speaks to the issue of  “jailhouse lawyering.”

The practice of “jailhouse law” received constitutional blessing from the U.S. Supreme Court in 1968. Virtually every prison, even jails, now have “law libraries” staffed by inmates (often referred to as “ inmate counsel-substitutes”) who assist inmates with post-conviction pleadings, lawsuits against prison conditions, and before prison disciplinary proceedings.

Jailhouse lawyers keep the hope machine ginning in the prison community. They work long hours (often under official duress), constantly face official harassment or retaliation, and try to keep under control clients who have little experience or training in control.

I won the first “prisoner rights” lawsuit in Louisiana in 1971 and one of the first in the nation. That lawsuit opened the door to many “reforms” in the prison system and legitimized the practice of jailhouse lawyering in the state’s prison system.

But former Louisiana Corrections Secretary C. Paul Phelps once told me: “You’ve done more to change the prison system with the lawsuits you didn’t win than with those you did win. Good prison administrators pay attention to all inmate lawsuits – they often tell us what we are not doing right.”

That said, Aaron Wallace needs to get his anger issues under control, although there is not much chance he will do that in the coming episodes. He is a man on a mission. Having a mission and the determination to fulfill that mission has made many inmates achieve incredible accomplishments behind bars, not just for themselves but for others as well.

Give “For Life” a view. At least it will make you think about criminal justice. There are enough pro-prosecution/cops shows on T.V. to add another thousand people to the prison system each week. Give, and, yes, share of little equal opportunity with Aaron Wallace as he fights to change a corrupt criminal justice system—one that favors wealth, privilege, and social status over poverty, deprivation and social disenfranchisement.

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