The Road to Redemption

A prisoner on death row finds that social change comes in small, painful increments, starting with the self.


This essay was written for The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A
Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, edited by Paul Rogat Loeb.

Seven of my 40 years in Louisiana’s prison system were spent on Angola’s
death row, doing time for murder. In 1965, as a 20-year old punk looking for
fast money, I ordered a convenience store clerk to open the cash register.
He refused and chased me out of the store. Running toward my car, I fired
over my shoulder to frighten him. The last time I saw the clerk, he was
sitting on the sidewalk yelling for the police. He bled to death.
In 1972 the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the death penalty nationwide in
the case of Furman v. Georgia. I was re-sentenced to life without parole.
Apart from the time on death row, I spent two years in one of Angola’s
maximum-security tiers in lockdown, an unspeakably violent environment. One
year was spent working in Angola’s fields under slave labor conditions,
another in the office as a clerk. Nine were spent as a prison journalist,
working on The Angolite, the prison magazine. As a result of my testimony in
a bribery case, the rest of my years in the prison system have been spent in
protective custody away from Angola.

Battles against Louisiana’s prison system are hard won. But they show that
the system is vulnerable. And small victories can fuel larger ones. Change
is a potent force behind bars that inspires desperate acts.

In February 1951, 31 inmates slashed their heel tendons to protest their
brutal treatment at Angola. Newspapers across the state headlined the story.
The public reeled in shock. The heel stringers succeeded in improving
conditions for a few years. But old ways died hard. It would take repeated
assaults to tame Angola.

While I was on the “row,” I won the first prisoner rights lawsuit in the
history of Louisiana in 1971 with the help of a young VISTA attorney from
New York. Sinclair v. Henderson dramatically improved conditions on death
row. It was the first in a long string of jailhouse lawsuits I have
successfully filed against Louisiana’s callous prison system.
Other prisoners followed my legal assault. In 1973, four black inmates filed
suit against Angola alleging discrimination. The suit charged that
conditions at the prison were “cruel and unusual punishment.” The court
found that Angola “would shock the conscience of any right thinking person.”
“Life,” a militant black inmate from New Orleans, was my best friend. He
was a crusader against homosexual rape who was not afraid to take on the
criminal subculture. No brother, Life said, should take another brother for
a woman. A few years after the U.S. Supreme Court decision that released me
from death row, the U.S. Justice Department demanded that the prison be
integrated. Together Life and I went into the most dangerous dormitories and
cellblocks at Angola to argue for integration. It came without violence. But
Life was knifed to death for his stand against sexual predators.
In 1976, in an effort to quell violence at the prison, the administration
unshackled The Angolite, the prison magazine, written by inmates for
inmates. The Angolite was little more than a newsletter when it was set
free. A hard-nosed reformer, Warden Ross Maggio, appointed me to the staff.
My expertise as a jailhouse lawyer won me the spot. Administrators felt that
uncensored inmate voices would help decrease the level of violence. The
warden’s gamble worked. But it had an unintended consequence. The Angolite
rose to national prominence. Stories that my co-editor Wilbert Rideau wrote,
and others that I wrote, won national awards-the Robert F. Kennedy Award for
Special Interest Journalism, the Sidney Hillman Award and the George Polk
Award, among others.

With the breeze of success in its sails, The Angolite journeyed into
uncharted waters for prison journalism. Rideau and I covered stories on
sexual violence, prison suicides, inmate killings and a host of other
issues. We were a black/white writing team in a southern prison, rife with
repressed racism and potential violence. Along with our awards, we became
the subjects of stories on television networks, in national magazines and in
the foreign press.

The Angolite‘s success lifted me out of a pit of despair in Angola’s fields
and cellblocks. Rideau and I traveled the state on overnight speaking trips
to schools and civic groups. We could pick up the telephone in The Angolite
office and arrange for calls to journalists all over the country. We had
influence with the administration and the free world. We were the envy of
other prisoners.

I lost it all in 1986 when I turned down a ranking prison official’s offer
to sell me a pardon. It was a ticket to freedom I felt that I had earned
after 20 years at Angola. I yearned to be free with every breath I took. I
was a lifer without benefit of parole. I would never leave Angola unless a
governor commuted my sentence. In 1986, the governor’s mercy was in short
supply as the nation escalated its war on crime. Most lifers in Angola’s
clutches knew they would die there.

In 1982, I had married Jodie Bell, a television reporter I met when she came
to the prison to do a series on the death penalty for the CBS affiliate in
Baton Rouge. The need to be with her shredded my days. Angola did not allow
conjugal visits. I lived and breathed sexual desire Craving to be at home
with my wife haunted me. I knew, as she knew, that turning down the
opportunity to buy a pardon in 1986 might leave me at Angola forever.
When I left death row in 1972, I carried its stigma with me. I came to
understand that the free world would always see me as a “convicted
murderer.” But I could not accept that label. Seeds of decency waited to
sprout inside my soul, sowed by Sundays in fire-and-brimstone Southern
Baptist churches. But I never matured. Parental abuse, neglect and cruelty
crippled me as I grew up. Prison was the only place left in which I could
save my soul.

Change did not come with a glorious, religious awakening. It came in painful
increments, from education and the self-awareness that education fosters. As
I looked in the mirror every day, I began to see a killer. The familiar
contours of my flesh covered an animal’s bones. I had to accept
responsibility for an undeserved death. But I could not accept a label that
placed me beyond the pale of human salvation.

I am not the only prisoner who has ever chosen that road. But each and every
one who takes it knows that it tempts a shank in the gut. The rehabilitated
inmate steps away from social acceptance and stands in apposition to the
natural order in his prison environment. He becomes a target of inmate
scorn-“riding the religious pony” or “sucking up to the man” to get out of
prison. Scorn easily escalates into violence. I walked a fine line for two
years before I was moved from a Big Yard dormitory, where I lived with some
of the most dangerous prisoners in Angola, to a safer dormitory.
The offer to sell a pardon confirmed rumors that I had been hearing for
months in 1986 about corruption in Governor Edwin Edwards’ third
administration. (The four-time governor of Louisiana is now doing 10 years
in a federal penitentiary for selling state licenses to build casinos.) In
the late 1980s, his pardon board chairman sold pardons for a golf cart,
cash, gold jewelry, and sex with inmates’ wives. He and the prison official
who offered to help me buy a pardon were convicted of public bribery.
The offer of an illegal pardon ignited a firestorm in my brain. I had spent
years changing myself. Now, I could reap the full reward only if I
dismantled the moral framework I had struggled to erect. I could only be
released if I committed the crime of bribery.

Whispers from my criminal past urged me to do it. The hard, practical side
of my nature agreed. But I could not. I was a prisoner of the moral man I
had become. The striving to see more than a “convicted murderer” in the
mirror drove me to reject the offer.

Neither could I betray my wife. My rehabilitation was the foundation of our
marriage. She is a Catholic who believes in forgiveness and redemption. Her
moral heritage – instilled by the nuns who taught her in parochial schools –
put her on a plane I revered. “My child,” the nuns would say, “Virtue is its
own reward.”

I could not involve my wife in an illegal act that would destroy her faith
in me and make her liable for a criminal charge. Jodie had the price of a
pardon-$15,000 in a bank account in Texas. She wrestled with her own demons
in rejecting the offer. She was a woman in her forties married to a lifer.
She ached to have me at home and knew how unlikely it was. Buying a pardon
might be the only way we would ever be together.

Had she decided to pay the bribe without telling me, I might not have known
until I was set free or we were charged with public bribery. But she would
not betray me. Instead, she contacted the FBI for me. Jodie understood my
struggle for self-respect.

Cooperation with the federal government doomed me to a life in protective
custody-one of the most restrictive environments in prison. Otherwise, I
would be killed as the “snitch” who slammed the door on freedom. Inmates who
bought pardons were released. Governor Edwards claimed he knew nothing of
the scheme.

In 1992, Louisiana Governor Buddy Roemer commuted my life sentence to 90
years, making me eligible for parole.

On Sunday, June 8, 2003, my wife and I celebrated our 21st wedding
anniversary in the cellblock lobby with a cup of coffee that I was allowed
to bring to the table where we visit. I have nearly a decade left to serve
in prison. I have been denied parole eight times since 1992. I will not be
discharged until 2011, after I have served half of a 90-year sentence. My
wife will be 72 years old when I finally go home, and I will be 66.
God knows how much life will be left to us. But I will leave prison knowing
that I am more than a “convicted murderer.” I did not fail my wife or
myself. Striving for change saved my soul and left its marks on a prison
system without one.

From The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a
Time of Fear, edited by Paul Rogat Loeb www.theimpossible.org.

Billy Wayne Sinclair is the author of A Life in the Balance: The Billy Wayne
Sinclair Story
(Arcade Books, 2002), a book he wrote with his wife, Jodie.