Most of you would have no way of knowing what I do for a living. (If you think its being committeeman then you probably also do not know that being a Democratic Ward Committeeman is a voluntary position with no salary.) So let me share with you that I am a high level administrator responsible for providing health care to the detainees at a large correctional facility. I have worked in health care for 17 years now; progressively gaining responsibilities in part because of hard work and in part because of the effort I have made to continue to develop my skills. I have a master’s degree in public administration with a concentration in health care. Two years ago I accepted a position in correctional health care. It is a fascinating and yet depressing to work in corrections, but that is a post for another day.
Two weeks ago I had a rare opportunity to visit Angola State Penitentiary, the only maximum-security prison for men in the state of Louisiana. I was in New Orleans for a conference on correctional health care and was offered the opportunity to visit. Some of you may know that Angola has a certain bit of notoriety. Freddy Fender, the famous musician was incarcerated there. Several movies have been filmed there, including two recent ones: “Dead Man Walking” and “Monster’s Ball”. The trip was intended to provide us with an overview of the health care system, but also included a visit to death row and a look at the lethal injection center.
As background, I am not a fan of the death penalty although there is the rare occasion where I feel it might have a place. Here in Illinois we are working on our laws to make the death penalty a more accurately determined sentence since more people have been found innocent after being convicted and sentenced to death than have been executed.
Angola is a two and a half hour trip from New Orleans and the truth be told, the compelling reason for the 5 hour round trip was the opportunity to see Death Row not the clinic. We arrived at Angola, which is in the middle of nowhere, on a Louisiana State Penitentiary bus. We got some fascinating looks on the way there and the way back home. The first thing we did after getting there was to meet our guide and to go to the death row cellblock.
We were taken to a tier and we were walked down the tier to look at the living conditions. The first thing that struck me was that all of the inmates and the guards we watching the Saints game on the 5 TV’s. Most of the inmates were dressed in boxers and t-shirts and sat on the edge of their bed, the only place to sit other than the toilet, watching the game. It was a quite place, eerily quite. We walked down the corridor, no more than 8 to 10 feet wide and looked into the cells which were perhaps 6 to 7 feet wide and no more than 10 feet deep.
Each inmate had a cell of his own equipped with a bunk, a toilet, a sink and a couple of shelves, one for storage and one that could be used as a desk. Each tier had 15 cells and in this tier they had two open. So there were 13 men, all sentenced to death watching the football game.
One from the outside would think, how could you sit and watch football, when you are certain that you are going to be executed some time soon? Even when we know that it takes years, more than 12 for most of the guys at Angola, to be put to death my thought was who cares about football? As I walked the tier looking some men in the face and the eyes while not even glancing at others I was suddenly and unexpectedly greeted by one of the inmates. We were asked not to say any more than hello or whatever short and simple answer we could give, so I said hello.
We were only on the tier for a few minutes but I figured out the name of the person who spoke to me. Having never met anyone who was a murderer let alone someone sentenced to death I had figured that somewhere within these men you would see something different about them. Before entering the tier I thought there would be something I would see that would distinguish them from other people who aren’t killers. I could not have been more wrong. Every one of these guys could have been walking downtown and nothing would be made of it.
My greeter was a 26-year-old white guy from rural Louisiana. He was polite and clean cut and he seemed a little unsure if he could speak. He was not a monster to the eye, but somewhere in him is a convicted killer. His crime was particularly cold blooded, senseless and poorly planned and conceived. There was never a chance he was going to get away with it, but perhaps he never really thought about that part.
I know all of this because through the Internet I was able to look him up with a little effort and ingenuity. I read a synopsis of the trial that outlined the senselessness and cruelty of his murder. I had wondered what he had done and now I knew. There doesn’t seem much doubt of his being guilty as one of his cohorts testified against him.
I thought that this trip to death row would have been a particularly powerful experience, but it wasn’t. It didn’t change my opinions about the death penalty at all. Perhaps it is because when you move beyond the level of being directly involved it becomes a philosophical decision where as being directly involved creates feeling and emotions such as fear, pain, loss, sadness, and hopelessness that bias your thoughts and make them inescapably different than someone not involved.
For most people like me, it is a question of philosophy rather than a need for revenge or closure. This man I meet committed this crime when he was 18 years old. He has spent, and in all likelihood will spend all of his adult life, not only in prison, but living on death row waiting to die.
Angola is the end of the line for most people sentenced there, even those without a death sentence. One stat they shared with us is that 90% of the men admitted have no realistic chance of ever leaving. Another surprising stat is that 39.1% of the inmates are there serving their first felony. If my math is correct that means that in the best case, nearly 30% of the first time felons are never going to get out.
Angola is a huge place, more than 18,000 acres. It has a working farm, livestock, a laundry, food services, a fire department, a hospital, a rodeo 5 weekends a year, membership organizations and a gift shop. Perhaps most amazing is that approximately 200 families live on the complex is penitentiary owned homes. Prisoners in Louisiana are sentenced to hard labor, so the inmates do many of the above tasks. It some ways it sounds like a good rehabilitation program, except for this statistic that 90% of people who are sentenced to serve time at Angola are never going to be eligible for release.
Of course the men on death row don’t have jobs in the prison. In fact taking care of the 86 men on death row is a job for 30 prisoner trustees. The basic life of the death row inmate is to spend 23 hours a day in the cell. Each day, one at a time, the inmate is allowed to walk the tier and interact with the other inmates. Most often they play cards or dominos. Three days per week they are allowed to go outside with their hour and I was told rain or shine 120 or –20 they go outside. It is the only opportunity to go outside. Because of an escape attempt a few years back the prisoners are allowed only one contact visit per year and they are done basically between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
We were not able to tour the injection center because the person who put the trip together had poorly estimated the driving time and we only had an hour to see the facility. They did tell us that the prisoners built about half of the injection center. It was only about half because at that point was when they realized that what they were building was the injection center and they refused to continue.
Overall, it would be an enlightening experience for people to see how we treat inmates, what life and death in a penal institution is about and to better understand the challenges and obstacles correctional institutions presents. A TV show like OZ, formerly on HBO, at best portrays a small portion of prisoner life without regard to the daily routine that makes a prison work. Of course I whole-heartedly suggest you see it as a visitor and not a resident. A few hours is plenty long enough.