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Life Sentences: Rage and Survival Behind Bars.

Life Sentences: Rage and Survival Behind Bars. Wilbert Rideau, Ron Wikberg. Times, $15. Earlier this summer, I lived in the Tutwiler Women's Prison in Alabama, not for murder or drug possession, but for an assignment for "Nightline." I was there for only 11 days. But I will never forget what it's like to be a prisoner--disconnected from the outside world, without control over my surroundings or contact with the people I care about.

America now incarcerates more of its population than any other country in the world: 1 in 25 men and 1 in 173 women. But the inmates that we hear about are usually the few high-profile cases, the next to be executed, the celebrities. What are "average" prisoners going through? What is it like to live behind bars? My experience was, of course, limited. But still I found myself on an emotional roller-coaster ride that threw my preconceptions up in the air.

Reading Life Sentences, a collection of articles published from behind prison walls over a 13-year period, has roughly the same effect. The clear, powerful prose in these 24 articles--mostly written, not by "experts" or free-world journalists or movie directors, but by one former and one current inmate in the Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana--will give anyone without a rap sheet as vivid an experience of prison life as he's ever likely to have. Rideau, as eighth-grade dropout who taught himself to write on death row and is now serving his 31st year of a life sentence, is editor-in-chief of the prison's award-winning magazine, The Angolite,


Wikberg, his coauthor, was paroled last June after serving 23 years for murder.

The book provides several sensitive profiles of life behind bars. In "Conversations with the Dead," Rideau introduces us to "lifers" like Earl Goines, who, after 30 years, is "still a prisoner and, once planted in prison soil, forever a prisoner," and Frank "Cocky" Moore, the inmate with the oldest active prison number in the state. These men have been locked up so long that they no longer have family or friends, nor anyone, for that matter, to represent them in the outside world. No mechanism is set up for their cases to be reviewed. Unless an inmate possesses the wherewithal and zeal necessary to pursue his freedom, the system simply forgets him. Profiler Rideau describes Moore's pain--and his own--acutely:

We cut the interview short. I had to get away. Sitting in that little shanty--the old man's world--stirred the painfully chained need for some normalcy in my life: the need to ride a bike, take a swim, watch children playing; the need to hold a woman, to talk to normal people. . . . I knew I was looking at the face of a far more obscene and ominous kind of death than the physical--a living death. The face of tomorrow? My insides shuddered, my teeth clenched, as a quiet desperation began stealing through my veins. No . . . not like this . . . never. . . .

In my case, it didn't take the 33 years served by Moore to feel forgotten; it took all of two days, and it started with what seemed at first to be minor inconveniences. Twice I tried to make my daily call-in to "Nightline," and twice an automated voice came back saying my collect calls were not accepted. Only after losing my phone link to the rest of the world did I realize how much I depended on it. Just retrieving messages on my own answering machine--now out of the question--had always been a way to keep a mental tab on who was thinking about me.

Losing touch with the people in your life, giving up the clothes that define your personality, being warehoused in overcrowded double-bunk rooms, sticking to a jarring schedule (beginning at 3:30 every morning)--it all seems to be part of a constant barrage of conditions sucking away your individuality from the moment you walk in the gate.

Life Sentences could have made prison more palpable had the authors included more of their own emotions and experiences. They have a lot to say, however, and much of it is purposefully objective. Rideau and Wikberg have read prison records and academic studies and conducted interviews with current and past institutional employees, state officials, and outside sources. They take us through an extensive history of Angola, from its philosophical roots based on a belief in mercy and a second chance for each prisoner to multiple periods of torture and inmate despair. It's easy to believe Wikberg and Rideau when they call Angola the most dangerous prison in America.

The history is chilling. In the last 30 years of the 19th century, they tell us, an estimated 3,000 male, female, and child convicts, mostly black, died from overwork and brutality as "state slaves" leased to private enterprise. In 1951, 37 white inmates cut their Achilles tendons protesting their living and working conditions. In 1989, a federal judge declared a "state of emergency" following a rash of suicides, escapes, and murders.

That brutal history helps explain why, in one anecdote, a lifer with an exemplary 20-year record suddenly ran away from guards, almost certain to be shot before escaping. As one inmate puts it, "Louisiana has taken away all the hope and closed all the avenues of possible release. . . . That was nothing more than a kamikaze move."

Unfortunately, this book is firmer on sensibility than statistics. With so much emphasis placed on the plight of Angola's lifers, it's disconcerting to read at least four different figures for their number, ranging from 715 in the state (cited in a 1978 piece) to 2,260 (1991). With all the effort the authors have put into amassing concrete data, it seems a shame not to update the information within the text (not just in chapter postscripts), especially when the latest figures support the points so dramatically. In a 1981 piece, for

example, "the Soviet Union" is corrected to read "the [former] Soviet Union," but the next sentence reads, "The U.S. prison population has risen 42 percent since January 1, 1975." Actually, since the original publication of this article in 1981, the number of incarcerated has grown a whopping 149 percent.

The crowds only deepen a prisoner's despair, as I learned when searching for a private place to record the day's impressions onto my videocamera. After spending an hour and a half looking for a corner of a dorm or a hallway with some semblance of privacy, I gave up and sat on a toilet holding the camera. But people still moved in and out. Flushing wiped out my audio track. And with no separate stalls for the toilets, I couldn't bring myself to further invade the privacy of these women.

It was tempting to give up taping altogether. By the first weekend, when I found myself actually jealous of the women who received visitors (second in importance only to getting mail), all I wanted to do was lie in bed and feel sorry for myself--even though I knew I was getting out the following week.

One inmate finally told me, "You don't act very much like a reporter." And she was right: Being a reporter means being curious, forward, and in people's faces, which is fine in the real world. But that goes against everything it takes to survive in prison. Countless inmates and officers alike described having to change their personalities in order to survive. I quickly learned that being friendly left me vulnerable to taunts, challenges, even sexual advances.

Of course, while sex is common-place in both men's and women's prisons, rape is a rarity among female inmates. As "Juice," a lesbian at Tutwiler, explained, "These women are not really that hard up to take [sex], because there's so many willing to give it to them. It's just like in the free world. A man will rape more than a woman. . . . If a woman rapes, she's really got a problem."

Unlike the women who engage in homosexuality for affection, the men profiled by Rideau and Wikberg treat sex as an act of power and violence, a way to affirm their manhood and individuality by "turning out," or emasculating, a victim to the point that he becomes a "galboy," a willing slave. The authors also relate how officers used to engage in trade-offs, allowing and even promoting homosexuality to keep troublemaking "stud" at peace, although they point out that this would not be allowed today.

The writers' well-balanced reporting consistently includes viewpoints of prison officials and staff, commending their efforts when due. A full chapter is devoted to C. Paul Phelps, former state secretary of corrections, who in the seventies turned what may have been the bloodiest prison in the nation into one of the safest. Another chapter focuses on the retirement of warden Ross Maggio: "He had come a long way--from the get-tough warden who would not request release for any prisoner to the single most powerful voice speaking out on prisoners' behalf."

Prison's subtle hardening effects make Rideau and Wikberg's fair and sensitive reportage especially impressive. While they possessed the advantage of internal access, the reporting was hardly easy. "In this environment," they say, "the pursuit of aggressive, realistic journalism requires the finesse of a diplomat and the courage of a soldier, assessing risks, then taking calculated gambles."

The effort was worth it. The articles published in this book have already encouraged Louisiana to replace the defective, inconsistent electric chair with lethal injection; exposed a diversion of funds intended for parole and probation operations to the state's general fund; and got names placed on every tombstone in the prison's cemetery. It would be nice to think that the words and images that changed minds within the prison system can now do the same for those outside of it.
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Author:Lee, Deanna
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1992
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