[Photo: Louisiana State Penitentiary 'lifer' Maurice Bickham]

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Tossing Away the Keys
Recorded in Angola, Louisianna.
Premiered April 29, 1990, on Weekend All Things Considered.

The Louisiana State Penitentiary, Angola Prison, is a sprawling old plantation on the Mississippi River. It was named, long ago, for the birthplace of the slaves who were brought here to work the land.

Now, Angola holds more than five-thousand prisoners, mostly African Americans. It still has the look of another time: long straight lines of black men march to work along the levees with shovels over their shoulders. They are trailed by guards on horseback, shotguns resting in their laps.

It used to be that a life sentence in Louisiana meant a maximum of ten years and six months behind bars. But, in the 1970s, the state's politicians changed the definition. A life sentence in Louisiana now means just that. Unless they're pardoned by the Governor, inmates today know they will never again see the outside world -- that they will die inside Angola prison. Tossing Away the Keys is their story.

Producer: David Isay with Wilbert Rideau and Ron Wikberg / Mix engineer: Anna Maria deFrietas / Photograph by Harvey Wang.


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This piece is available in the following audio formats [25:25 min]:



Holding On, a book with an oral history based on this documentary

Updates on the prisoners profiled in this documentary [updated 6/10/03]

"Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," sung by the Angola Gospel Superiors [MP3, 1.1 MB]

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