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. Letters advocating his release may be sent to: Louisiana Parole Board, 504 Mayflower Street, Baton Rouge, LA 70802.