A Gated Community
I've been to the Angola prison gift shop, museum, rodeo...Why?
“Can we take a picture of the bunnies on the way out?” I look where Kris is pointing, and sure enough, there are bunnies. Two of them, not real ones but painted ply-board cutouts, smartly dressed in painted sweater jackets with painted buttons. They stand on their hind legs and peer primly over painted ply-board eggs. One of the eggs is cracked and a painted yellow chick bursts free, raising tiny yellow wings in jubilation. Behind the chick are iron gates and a sign: Louisiana State Penitentiary. It is five days before Easter, 2008.
“Sure,” I say. Kris is on spring break from graduate school, and because it’s me she’s visiting — the woman who wooed her right before packing the heck up and moving here to Louisiana — Kris is spending part of it at a prison. For this, I think, she should be able to take a picture of anything she wants. I woke her before dawn to make the long drive from New Orleans, over Lake Pontchartrain and out into the country. We drove for an hour before we saw the sky’s first light and found, mercifully, coffee. McDonalds’ signs gave way to signs for anonymous hamburger joints, and then to nothing but miles of straggly swamp grass. Kris and I are both graduate students in Boston, but I’ve taken a leave of absence to spend six months living in New Orleans. I’m still not sure why, exactly. I think I want to write about Angola, the penitentiary. I think I want to write about the three months I once spent working with capital defendants, when I was in law school, and the one case that, five years later, I still can’t get out of my mind. But every time I try, the words seem to overwhelm the task. I get overwhelmed, too, when I try to tell Kris what I’m doing. And so I’ve brought her here, to the Angola Prison Museum and Gift Shop that lies just outside the prison gates. To the heart of what I’ve not been able to forget. Maybe here, I think, it will be clear to her. Maybe here it will be clear to me.
“Look,” I say to her, and point out a long building not 10 yards away from where we stand. Only a chain link fence separates it from us. “That’s death row.” Kris lifts her hand to shield her eyes and squints into the sunlight, giving the building a good long stare, but she doesn’t say anything. I worry that I’ve offended her, that to point it out so plainly is crass. But that’s what we’re here for, isn’t it? To look?
Inside, the museum is nearly empty. We are its only visitors. Two elderly people, a man and a woman, sit behind a glass case. They are volunteers, I know, like the retiree volunteers who sit in small town museums all across America, offering up tidbits of a town’s pride, of a town’s past. And Highway 66, which dead-ends at the prison gates, is a town itself, with an elementary school, a post office, and five Baptist churches. There’s even a shack with a hand-painted sign, “Beauty Parlor,” and briefly I wonder if that’s where the woman had her hair died crayon yellow and teased into its bouffant meringue. I say hello, and the two pause in their talking long enough to nod at us.
There’s another person in the room, a lanky man pushing a broom. I know, immediately, that he is a prisoner. He is in his middle years while they are old; he nods at us but does not speak; he wears a pressed white shirt and pressed white pants and both are bright, immaculate. Such spotlessness belongs only to those who must obey. He is black and they — we — are white. His presence in this room tells me things, too. It means he is one of the trusted few, a “trusty,” as they are called, the spelling of the word a tradition that suggests, perhaps, that they are not ones primarily entrusted with, not the ones given that august “-ee” ending that signifies those who sit on the boards of charitable institutions. No, theirs is a trust primarily from, primarily a trust that they will not do what others — the less trusty — might. Once the word meant an inmate had power to physically punish another; now that system is illegal, struck down by the U.S. courts, but the label remains. Only a trusty would be given a job that would take him even a few yards past the prison gates. Only a trusty would be given a job that would bring him into contact with members of the public. Like us. To earn these rights takes time. A long time. Which means he has been on the inside a long time. Which means — and as I stand in the same room as him I cannot stop my mind from following this path — that he likely did something: a crime, violent.
The first room in the museum is disappointing. It contains only glass cases with framed portraits of prison luminaries, the occasional framed newspaper clipping. Nothing with the frisson of realness that attaches to objects that have actually been used, that carries with it a kind of danger here where everything used was once dangerous. This is a place so dangerous the federal government took it over from the state for 27 years. Dissatisfied, I pull Kris further into the museum. The prisoner follows. “Sometimes, when I don’t have something else to do and folks are interested, I give tours,” he says. An opening. I look at Kris and she nods. “We’d love that,” I say to him.
His name is Edrick, and he’s full of stories, eager to show off his world, knowing right away what will impress. Practiced at this, he leads us right to the cases full of makeshift weapons confiscated from inmates. The ingenuity on display is astounding, if singular in its focus. A knife made from a bone, a knife made from a whittled-down toothbrush handle, a knife made from a plastic picnic knife sharpened until it surpasses what it was originally meant to be. “Plastic’s popular; it won’t set off the metal detectors,” Edrick explains. “So,” he continues, “have you been to Angola before?” His casualness strikes me; such a strange question to ask about a prison, as though it were a place you would just decide to spend an afternoon. And then I realize, of course, that that’s exactly what we’ve done.
“I have, but she hasn’t,” I say, gesturing to Kris. “I was here in October, for the rodeo.”
He grins a little at this. An eyebrow goes up, bemused. “Well, that I know,” he says. “I remember you.” He grins harder.
And then it comes to me. A skinny man in a white jumpsuit with “Trusty” stamped across the back, selling his wares at the hobbycraft fair before the rodeo, smiling and anxious to talk, spelling out his name three times so I get it right in my notebook. He was disappointed when I told him I wasn’t there on assignment for any magazine, but he was still willing to talk to me. “Aww, you’ll still find some way to write about me when you leave here, right?” he said back then. “You’ll remember?”
“You made the frames!” I say now. “And the baby booties! The ones from, what was it… cigarette cartons?” He nods. I turn to Kris. “You should’ve seen these things, they were amazing!” And they were. Tiny squares of folded paper, the stiff cardboard of cartons, with all the colors of logos and designs. Folded and folded and folded again into tiny squares that fit together, no glue. Perfect baby booties, the product of, he’d told me then, 15 hours of work, maybe 20. And frames in the shape of giant hearts that stood on end, gaudy but also touching in their attempt at grandeur. They looked like something a honeymoon couple might have bought at Niagara, something that would be propped up next to a heart-shaped bed with a heart-shaped hot tub nearby. That chintzy. That hopeful. Each frame, he’d told me then, took upwards of 60 hours.
“See, that’s why I remember.” Edrick nods, satisfied. “I always remember the ones who take an interest. She must have told you about me,” he says to Kris. In response she nods silently, noncommittal. But I didn’t. There was too much to tell about: the kids who played in bouncy moonwalks pressed up against guard towers; the way prisoners had wood-burned Dora the Explorer and Harry Potter’s faces into just about everything, so that the prison grounds looked like a strange, homemade Toys“R”Us; the man selling tiny wooden replicas of Angola’s retired electric chair, with little wooden Bibles stuck to the seats. I forgot about the man with the honeymoon frames. Now Edrick turns and looks me in the eyes. “You,” he says, “keep coming back.”
And it’s true, I do keep coming back, but in the moment I want to protest. It seems unseemly, suddenly, to keep coming back to this place that so many can’t leave. “Yeah, I came to this museum in 2003,” I say, uncomfortable with our eye contact. Longterm prisoners, I have learned, are accustomed to being distrusted, and so they make a point of looking you in the eyes. I am shy; I rarely meet strangers’ gazes. But it would be awful to look away, so I don’t. His eyes are dark, calm, steady. “I haven’t been back since, until now.” The lie just comes out. I was here last July. As we’ve been walking around I’ve quietly pointed out to Kris what’s new in these short months, as the prison expands the museum. I look at her now. If she’s noticed the lie, her face doesn’t reveal it. July seems indecently recent.
“She must have told you about the rodeo,” Edrick says to Kris, who nods with more vigor this time. I did.
“About the rodeo,” I say, “I keep wondering: Do people ever get hurt?”
He looks at me like he’s wondering what I’m smoking, like how stupid can I be. “Do people ever get hurt! You were here — you didn’t notice them carrying guys out on stretchers?”
“I noticed. But the announcer never commented on it, never even paused. So I wasn’t sure what to think.” I don’t mention the one time he did pause: to announce when a woman, a visiting barrel racer competing in the one event for non-prisoners, hit her head against a pole and fell, crumpled, to the ground. The crowd gasped, the same gasp it didn’t make when prisoners fell unconscious. For this girl there was fear, horror, concern, all repeated by the announcer in updates every few minutes — everything that was not there when a prisoner fell. I’d wanted to believe the difference was something other than what I saw.
“Do people ever get hurt,” he repeats, and shakes his head. “Heck yeah. People get hurt.” He keeps shaking his head. “Do people ever get hurt. Man. Come here, I want you to see this.”
He takes us over to where a video made of the rodeo plays on a continuous loop. Prisoners tossed in the air by the bull fly so weightlessly, looking like ragdolls, that it seems a ballet, nothing dangerous. I remember this view from the rodeo: that from far away, you could almost believe you weren’t watching what you knew you were, could almost forget about gravity and about the hardness of the ground, how a fall could hurt, could harm. Above our heads was the stuffed and mounted bust of a bull. It had a red chip tied between its horns, the way the bull does for Guts & Glory, the game that’s made the Angola rodeo famous. For the game, all the inmate contestants are released into the arena on foot. Then the bull is let loose with the chip tied on between its horns. Grab the chip and you win money, glory, some distinction in a place that doesn’t offer the chance for much. But to grab the chip you have to reach between those horns. It’s a good way to get hurt.
“I think I’ll be back for the rodeo this spring,” I say, hoping this time I’ll be ready to write about it, ready to wrap my mind around this place. “We should stay in touch,” I add, knowing he must have a prison mailbox number I can write to. He smiles and disappears into a side room. When he comes back he’s holding a pen, and before I can ask for his address he’s thrust the pen at me, wanting mine. Refusing would be too awkward, so I take the pen and block print out my New Orleans address, careful to keep it more legible than my usual scrawl. “Is there an address I can use to write to you?” I ask. But he just shakes his head. “I’ll tell you what,” he says. “I’ll write you and I’ll put it on the envelope.”
And then there isn’t anything else to say, so we don’t. I shake his hand and Kris shakes his hand and then I, feeling awkward, shake his hand again. He walks off and Kris and I head back past the “Angola: A Gated Community” T-shirts and the embroidered prison dog collars and the golf tees imprinted with the warden’s name, tokens of the golf course he used prison labor to build. We step out into the sun. Seconds later, we’re in my car, Kris rolling down the window to stick her long black camera lens out and snap a photo of the bunnies. And that’s it. It’s so easy to leave a prison.
That night, back in my apartment, I can’t sleep. Like most of the apartments in New Orleans, mine is shotgun-style, one long straight shot from the front door and through the living room, the bedroom where I am lying awake, the kitchen. The front door has large frosted glass panels in it that glow with sunlight during the day and the light of the streetlamp at night. Sometimes the frosty glow keeps me up at night, but mostly it makes me feel safer in this strange city. If danger arrives at my door, at least I’ll see it coming.
But I don’t feel safer tonight, even with Kris asleep next to me. I hear the soft rhythm of her breath. My mind races. I keep thinking about what I’ve just done. I wrote my home address down on a piece of paper for a man who’s in prison. A man who must have, at some point in his life, done God knows what. I know to scold myself for this fear. Putting aside that I don’t really know whether he’s done anything and that, so friendly, he doesn’t seem like someone to be afraid of, he is behind bars in a maximum-security prison. He’s not coming after me.
No, it’s this place, this place I can’t shake, this world I can’t stop thinking about. And no door, I know, will keep that away. • 1 April 2010
Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich is writing a memoir about her experiences with a Louisiana death penalty case, excerpts from which are forthcoming in Bellingham Review and Fourth Genre.