- Longtermers' Day
"He wants to ask you something," the biggest man at the table said, gesturing behind him. The man he pointed to was older, with a darker face the purple-black of night. In spots his face was ashen, as though he'd brushed against life so many times, the skin had become abraded. His friends—there were five of them, including the big man, all clustered around him—patted his back and pushed him toward me, gently urging him to speak. "Go on, go on." He looked then like a shy schoolboy peeking out from his mother's skirts.
I scanned the prison room for my fellow volunteers, but they'd all already paired up with each other and were sitting on the long metal benches, their heads bent towards groups of inmates. I'd faltered at the heavy double doors, simultaneously scared and ashamed of my fear, and now I was on my own. I looked again at the man, but he avoided my eyes and kept his head tilted toward the floor. Something about his reluctance made me feel safe. The room was full of men who'd been in prison 20 or 30 years. I'd never visited a prison before, and told to expect a question from almost any of the men, I'd have braced myself for something lewd, but I didn't think that was coming here. "Go on, now," the big man said again, and rested his thick hand on the smaller man's shoulder. I waited.
When still nothing came, I leaned forward and brought my head down a bit, adopting the pose one would take to coax a child. From the deep creases in his face and the bags under his eyes, I figured the man was at least three decades older than I was at 25. I knew that to have been pulled from the general prison population and be in the room that day, he must be serving a" [End Page 63] life sentence. It occurred to me he'd most likely killed someone. Right now, though, he looked absolutely terrified to speak me.
I decided I'd try instead. "What's your name?" I asked.
"Elijah." His voice was so soft I had to strain to hear it in the crowded room, the voices of hundreds of men bouncing off the high ceilings and mingling around me. It was a warm voice, low in tone and suff used with a deep calm. I looked around the room at all the unknown faces and decided right then that I'd be safer sticking with him.
My fellow volunteers and I had been ferried from the prison gates and through the fields that morning by a repurposed school bus painted white. It still held the long brown vinyl benches I remembered from countless such buses when I was a kid, and running my hands over the vinyl that morning, I'd wondered if the long rips exposing the yellow foam beneath were left over from the bus's previous life, or newly caused by prison visitors who picked at the vinyl with the same nerves I now felt. The vinyl was sticky against my fingers in the August heat. The sides of the bus were painted with the words "Louisiana State Penitentiary," but the stenciling had clearly been done years before. Now the paint flaked, and the words were little more than a suggestion of themselves.
There was no need to repaint them. Angola, the Louisiana state penitentiary, is known not just in Louisiana, but throughout the United States. It's one of the most infamous prisons in a region known for its prisons. Named for the homeland of the slaves who once worked its fields, back before the state purchased the land from the plantation owners, back when the men who worked its fields arrived by a different kind of force and were kept by a different kind of bond, Angola has always been both hard and fertile. It is swampland, with grasses that grow lush in the heat and provide sweeping cover to the plantation homes, now inns for romantic getaways, that...