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Tossing Away the Keys

GUARD: Wake up call. Let's go. Get up.

(Sound of guard clinking his club against bars. Cell doors slide open.)

WILBERT RIDEAU: Welcome to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.

My name is Wilbert Rideau, and this has been my home for the past 30 years. I'm serving a life sentence here for a murder I committed during a bank robbery in 1961. I'm also a journalist. For the past 14 years I've edited the prison magazine The Angolite.

While Alcatraz and Attica, Sing Sing and San Quentin are all part of the American vocabulary -- you may well never have heard of Angola. But, hidden at the end of a long road in the most remote part of Louisiana, this prison has a history unlike any other. In the 1950s it was officially labeled the worst prison in the country. In the 1970s, daily inmate murders branded it the bloodiest.

Angola doesn't look like your typical maximum security prison -- it's a sprawling prison plantation, stretching for miles in all directions -- with fields, creeks, lakes and woods. The prison is surrounded on three sides by the Mississippi river -- the fourth by rattle-snake infested hills. Most of us live within the huge main prison complex -- enclosed by 14 foot high fences, reinforced with endless loops of razor wire, guard towers and an army of security personnel.

Behind these fences there's a massive, unprecedented experiment taking place -- the state is locking up large numbers of men and throwing away the keys so that age and eventually die behind bars. Traditionally most prisoners serving life sentences have had the opportunity to go free after about ten years. But in the early 1970s, Louisiana politicians came upon, what was then, a novel idea. They decided to make life sentences in Louisiana mean precisely that -- they did away with the possibility of parole.

Today there are more than 2,500 men serving this so-called 'natural-life' sentence here at Angola. A number have now been here for some 30 years. Of those who've survived, most are in their 50s or 60s or 70s -- the first generation of lifers to reach their twilight behind bars.

(Sound of Moreese Bickham clipping roses.)

MOREESE BICKHAM: Come over here. I want to introduce you to the beautifulest rosebush on the whole yard. This one right here is my favorite. I named it after my wife, Ernestine. It's a beautiful pink rose, and some way or another I keep it trimmed and uniform. I call it "My Beauty." I know it sound funny, but these is my company keepers. I enjoy these bushes. See if it wasn't for these bushes, I wouldn't have nothing to do. So these bushes have come to be close -- very close to me.

My name is Moreese Bickham, my number is 75251, and I'm 72 years old. I've been in prison every since 1958. My crime is murder of two white deputies in a small town called Mandeville. They was dragons of the Ku Klux Klan and I was a black man living in a white neighborhood and they came to my house to kill me, and they shot me with my hands up and I fell and loaded my gun and I shot 'em. So here I am, 31 years later and I'm still locked up.

I remember when my first gray hair came in my head, I was in prison in 1960. It was right up front where I could see it good. By 1961 I had one in my mustache, by '63 I had gray hairs all over my head. I've had three heart attacks since I've been here -- the big one happened in 1977 when the pardon board turned me down. Lost all my teeth since I've been here, my eyesight went bad. I have high blood pressure, poor blood circulation. Yea'-- watchin' myself pass away, die a little bit every day here in prison.

HENRY PATTERSON: My name is Henry L. Patterson, my prison number's 54915, I've been at Angola for 30 years. I'm serving a life sentence for a murder I committed in a barroom fight.

You know, you know you gonna age, but then one day a young guy walk up to you -- "Hey, Pop." And you get offended at first, "What you mean Pop? You know my name, don't call me no Pop, man!" But then, you go lay back a little bit you sit down and you analyze it, and you say, "Well, I am Pop now. I'm old, I'm gray, and I'm no longer Patterson, I'm Pop Patterson."

MONROE GREEN: I'm Monroe Green, I'm 57 years old, my number is 62694. I've been at Angola for 24 years and 6 months, serving a life sentence for rape. In the morning, all the younger men will crowd the mirrors, none of us older men will even use a mirror to shave in. It took me a while to figure it out, but we don't like to see ourselves growing older each day.

BICKHAM: Since I been locked up, I lost all my family mostly. I can see loosing my mother and father, but all my sisters, and brothers? All my aunts and uncles? God bless me now. The judge is dead, the D.A.'s dead. The lawyer's dead. Everybody's passed on but me. And when I look at it I say, "Lord, why am I still here?" It makes you wonder.

(Angola Gospel Superiors singing "Time is Now.")

RIDEAU: Most long-termers adapt to prison life by immersing themselves completely in some sort of activity -- it's our way of escaping the reality of our situation. Some loose themselves in religion, or sports, or music; others in violence and drugs.

I lost myself in writing. I educated myself on death row, where I lived from the age of 19 until I was 31. Although religious literature was all we were allowed to read in a death row cell, some guards managed to smuggle books to me -- I read everything I could get my hands on, and began to write. In 1972, when the Supreme Court overturned the death penalty, I left death row, and three years later became editor of the prison magazine, The Angolite.

(Sound of typing in TheAngolite office.)

Our cramped office is down the hall from the main prison control center, near cell blocks C and D. Here six of us work at old office furniture to turn out the bi-monthly magazine. At the desk next to mine sits associate editor Ron Wikberg, who's serving a life sentence for a murder committed during an armed robbery. It was Ron's in-depth study of long-termers which brought national attention to the very real possibility that Angola will soon become the nation's largest old-folks home.

RON WIKBERG: The old-timers here at Angola are in a state of semi-retirement. Instead of working in the fields like they had for many years, they've turned in their hoes and shovels for canes, wheelchairs, crutches. They wear glasses, they wear false teeth. The prison management gives them menial assignments -- cleaning doorknobs, washing windows, sweeping floors. They shuffle from place to place. They're no longer productive, and non-productive prisoners are kind of pushed to the side. This is a place of hard labor, this is a place where prisoners are required to work. Prisoners who can't work are kind of put to the side, and just allowed to exist.

RIDEAU: There are now hundreds of elderly prisoners "existing" here at Angola. Most are housed with the general prison population -- some confined to their beds, many subject to theft and harassment from younger inmates. Those just too old or sick live on the over-crowded wards of the prison hospital -- stretching the Angola's healthcare budget far past its limits.

These long-termers have now spent more time in prison than the country's most infamous criminals and gangsters. Many have in their own right committed very, very serious offenses. But no matter the crime, no matter whether or not they've changed over the decades here at Angola, there's no way out for them.

WIKBERG: The long-termers were put in prison 20 and 30 years ago, they have been forgotten about in prison. And that is where the problem begins. There is no mechanism to recognize when a person becomes rehabilitated, and at that point some effort should be made to move them out of the system. It is that lack of this mechanism which has allowed the lifer population to increase 300% in just ten years here in Louisiana, and this problem is not just in Louisiana, it's nation-wide.

(Sound of Lifers' Association meeting.)

CHAIR OF LIFERS' ASSOCIATION (addressing meeting): If you wouldn't mind rising and remove the headgear -- please repeat after me: "We, the members of the Lifers' Association of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, Louisiana, join together for the improvement of ourselves and society."

(Crowd repeats.)

"We have love in our hearts, for all men. Hope in our spirit that our wrongs will be overshadowed by our rights."

(Crowd repeats.)

RIDEAU: The Lifers' Association meets on the last Tuesday of every month, here in the visiting room. Support groups, like this one, are filled to capacity -- with many inmates on their waiting lists.

Newly incarcerated lifers need only look to the old faces and pained eyes of the long-termers to understand the nightmare which lies in store for them.

CHAIR OF LIFERS' ASSOCIATION (reciting pledge): "No matter how dark the night we believe in the coming of the day." Thank you, gentlemen.

(Sound of cell door closing.)

DONALD BUFFETT: My name is Donald Buffett and people calls me "Frog." My number: 57391. I've been at Angola for the past 28 years serving a life sentence for the rape of a white woman. The best way I can describe Angola for us long-timers is that it's something out of science fiction.

JOE WHITE: My name is Joe White, my number's 56310. I've been incarcerated for murder here in Angola since 1961.

I've been here so long it's difficult to imagine how it feels to be free. I don't think people can conceive what it means to spend all your life in prison.

PATTERSON: I find technology amazing, I don't know for sure but they say they got superhighways now, okay, where you bypass the cities and all, so you don't have to slow down any -- you just, straight through. And I never rode on no superhighway, you know it huh -- I wouldn't even know what to do if I got on one. They say you got lanes that you get in, they say "fast," "slow" . . . and you look at all these things you say "Boy, this is amazing!"

WHITE: If you were buried alive, that's what it would be like. Except for the television, we wouldn't know that there's a world out there; except for the radios, we wouldn't know. We actually come here, and when we come here everything stops. This, this is a graveyard. A graveyard of time.

PATTERSON: I feel like my life have been frozen in time. Like the Cosby show. I look at those kind of shows and I wonder sometime, "Is it fiction? Is it really real?" You know, because I can only relate to that which I came out of in '61, and when I came here in '61, the restaurants were segregated. When I caught a bus, I caught the back end of the bus, I had to go to the back, I couldn't sit in the front. You look at the changes from that time that you stopped, and they say, "Well, they doing this today, they doing that," and you wonder, "Is it real? That's for real there man?"

WHITE: The living dead, that's an accurate description of it, because the things that it takes to live, to feel life, we not in contact with that. We fantasize. That's all we have left is our fantasies and our dreams, and this is what a lot of people rely on to make it.

GREEN: I often picture my son in my mind's eye. The last time I saw him he was ten years old, and now he's 35. I often imagine the scene of when James and I face each other the first time. What will I do? Will we move towards each other? Will I be able to hug him? What response will I get from that hug? Will it be -- will it be a loving hug? This picture runs over and over in my mind. It's like a dream that occurs over and over and over.

WHITE: It's as if you don't exist, it's like you in a spirit and everything around you is alive, and you can't touch, you can't reach, you can't do anything but just look. We can't touch people lives, we can't touch their lives. That's what tears us up, we can't touch their lives.

(White begins to sob.)

RIDEAU: Recently some disturbing things have begun to happen here, even by Angola's standards.

It started a year ago, with a long-term inmate named Francis Clifton. After serving 27 years of a life sentence for murder at Angola, Clifton had a most comfortable prison job. He was moved outside the razor-wire fences of the main prison complex, in a house here at the 'Pens, where he tended Angola's blood hounds and attack dogs. At 52, he could have served the rest of his sentence free of chains and guards. But last April, Clifton ran. For five days he hid in the hills, evading the blood hounds which he, better than anyone, knew would eventually catch up with him. On the fifth day, exhausted, Clifton walked out of the hills, flagged down a car and turned himself in.

FRANCIS CLIFTON: When you finally realize you're going to die here, it just starts working on your mind. It's a terrible feeling just know you're going to stay here till you die.

RIDEAU: Clifton has spent the year since his capture in solitary confinement.

CLIFTON: In spite of all the other fears and problems out there, and the worries on my mind, the guards running all over the place with guns chasing me, and knowing I could be shot at any time, I still was able to enjoy that little bit of freedom, after 28 years. . . Eh, well.. . .

RIDEAU: A few weeks later, it happened again. Long-term inmate Donald Fink was being marched into the fields for a day's work. Suddenly, he turned and began to walk away. "I'm going home," he said, and as he started to run, the guards lifted their guns, aimed and fired.

Things got worse from there. Angola erupted in an unprecedented epidemic of attempted escapes, suicides and killings. Many involved old-timers, traditionally the most stable inmates at the prison. By mid-summer 1989, a federal judge was forced to declare a "State of Emergency" here. That order is still in effect today -- and the desperate acts continue . . . as hopelessness creeps through the tiers and cell blocks of Angola.

HILTON BUTLER: To me, I think life without the possibility of pardon or parole -- if you know you have no hope for pardon or parole -- would be worse than the death sentence. If you know you're gonna die at Angola. . .

RIDEAU: Hilton Butler was warden here until the state of emergency was declared last August. Butler had worked at Angola for forty years, but when things started getting out of hand, he was fired.

BUTLER: I'm no softy -- I gave the signal for the switch to be pulled eleven times when I was warden, but I feel that what's going on at Angola now is wrong. You have to give an inmate hope. When he's lost hope, he's lost everything.

RIDEAU: In today's political climate the last hope for lifers -- a pardon from the governor -- has all but disappeared. A year ago, Louisiana's Governor Buddy Roemer let Christmas pass without granting a single clemency -- it was the first time that this had happened in the state's history. Here, prisoners finally began to comprehend the grim reality of natural life sentences. For many -- particularly the older men -- the fragile illusion of eventual freedom crumbled.

BUFFETT: Since I was convicted of rape 28 years ago, I've had a recommendation from the pardon board six times to go, even the victim have asked for my release, but yet the governor still refuse to let me go. So it seem that, you know we gonna die here.

BICKHAM: "Point Lookout" -- we sometimes call it "Boot Hill," is a place where they bury the dead. Old timers think about it a right good deal but they don't talk about it much, because they 'fraid that they might get buried out there. See if you buried out there, you really forgotten. 'Cause nobody comes here to see you -- nobody even passes by boot hill.

PATTERSON: When you die at Angola, you don't die as "Henry Patterson lies here." You die as "554915 is in the ground up there." I don't want to die a number, I don't want to die an insignificant number. A prison number -- nah.

GREEN: I don't want to die here and be forgotten. I don't want to spend my last moment on earth here in penitentiary. I would like to see the outside once more. We're trying to hold onto a little faith, but it's constantly deteriorating.

WHITE: When you start to realize that you're never going to leave this place, hopelessness begins to take hold of your time. It's like a disease -- everybody around you have it, and it's just a matter of time until you'll be next. That's the torture. Not giving us hope.

(Fade up on Angola Gospel Superiors singing "It's Late in the Evening.")

People always ask me to recite this particular poem, and the reason I believe they do is because it touches something inside of them. It's called "Just Thinking."

Just Thinking: Prisoners' Song

I want to drift along, sing a song, get high off memories.
I want to get to know just once more how it feels to be free.
I want rip and run, have a lot of fun, come go as I please.
I want to sleep real late, give myself a break, put my mind at ease.
I want to go strange places, meet new faces, make myself at home.
I want to reach behind, reclaim what's mine, forget I was ever gone.
I want to stretch out my arms, air out my lungs, get out of my system this. . . this inhibition.
I don' t know what I want to do, to tell you the truth, I was just thinking, just thinking.

WHITE (whispering): I sure, I sure wish this thing would come to an end.

RIDEAU: From the Louisiana State Penitentiary, I'm Wilbert Rideau.

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

Tossing Away the Keys premiered April 29, 1990, on Weekend All Things Considered. Copyright © 1990 Sound Portraits Productions. All Rights Reserved.


Please consider supporting the work of Sound Portraits and StoryCorps by making a donation.

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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