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Beena Ahmad [left], Books Thru Bars volunteer and former Wits Justice Project staff member.

Senior WJP journalist Ruth Hopkins is spending two and a half months in the United States with the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery and the Marshall Project in New York, investigating the similarities between issues facing both the American and South African criminal justice systems. Ruth will be detailing her journey through weekly blog posts published every Friday.

MY FRIEND and New York attorney Beena Ahmad – who worked for nearly a year with the Wits Justice Project – had a quirky habit. In her neighborhood in Brooklyn she picked up books that people left out on the street with great enthusiasm (an aside: you can furnish your entire house with the stuff people discard; from baby shoes, to antique cupboards, to electronics). Sometimes I would share her joy, like when she picked up a battered copy of ‘Long Walk to Freedom’, placed on a garden wall. At other times though, ‘Form Your Own Limited Liability Company’, for example, didn’t seem quite as riveting a read.

But when I entered the basement of the bookstore Free Bird, where Books Through Bars New York hosts one of their weekly book packing volunteer groups, I got it.  About 10 people were seated around a table or browsed the shelves crammed pell-mell with books.

Incarcerated people write to the organisation, requesting books they want to read. The volunteers read their letters and go through the book collection to see if they can find any matches and mail the books to the inmates.

Annie Soga, a 26-year-old volunteer who describes herself as a ‘library school dropout’ and her boyfriend Tim Nicholas run fanzines and are regular volunteers for Books Through Bars. “Dictionaries are most popular,” she says. According to this website “more than 60 percent of all prison inmates are functionally illiterate.” If prisoners learn to read and write their chances of ending up back in prison drastically drop, and it also allows them to understand their rights.

Annie Soga [left] and other Books Through Bars volunteers sorting through mail.

Exonoree Gregory Bright, who I interviewed in New Orleans this weekend, knows this. He went from being illiterate, to representing himself before the Louisiana Supreme Court. Eventually, with the help of the Innocence Project, he was exonerated for a murder he never committed and for which he spent 27 years in Angola prison. I will return to his story in blogs and articles to come. Gregory told me he had to drop out of school at the age of 11 to take care of his dying step-father. After his arrest and conviction to life without parole, he managed to teach himself a few words, starting with a religious magazine he found in his cell. The only written words he could recognize were those in the prayer ‘Our Father’, which his step-father had taught him to read. These words were his starting point. In Angola, lifers were not allowed to participate in any programmes, as the prison did not consider literacy skills relevant. Life without parole means you will die in prison, so why bother, seems to have been the reasoning. Gregory persisted though and taught himself to read and write, with the help of dictionaries. When he was proficient enough to read legal texts, it became his sole activity. “It didn’t make sense to waste time on anything else than proving my innocence. My friends would find me asleep in the morning, my head resting on law books.”The power of books shines through in the thank you notes uploaded to the Books Through Bars website. One person writes that he is grateful for the books on photography that the project sent him, “the books (…) have provided great inspiration for artwork that I have completed for other inmates and staff at this facility.” Another man writes: “I would like to thank you for the books you sent me last month. I’m going to be executed May 30th but I’d like you to know that those books will give me much pleasure in the days remaining to me.”

Given the grim reality of life behind bars, it comes as no surprise that sci-fi and fantasy are popular requests, as are stories and pictures about family life; a surrogate for the loved ones that are missed.

Some books are not allowed though. Many prisons ban hardback copies and some ban books with maps and DIY books. In Alabama, The Equal Justice Initiative sued the Alabama Department of Corrections over its ban of the book ‘Slavery by Another Name’, which documents the abhorrent practice of ‘convict leasing: “African Americans in Alabama and throughout the South were re-enslaved in the years following the Civil War, due in part to laws specifically written to facilitate the arbitrary arrest of African Americans. Unable to pay the resulting fines, in addition to the costs for their own arrests, they were sold as forced labor to mines, railroads, farms, and quarries.” Bryan Stevenson, EJI’s director and former Springfield, Missouri attorney had sent the book to a man working in the prison library of an Alabama prison.

Books ready to be mailed

The Department based its decision on a regulation, which states that any piece of mail or other material “may be determined to be a threat to the security of the institution.” The case was settled in 2013, when the book was allowed in the prison.

When the evening draws to a close in the Free Bird basement, there are at least eight bags full of packaged books that need to be mailed. The brown packages clog up the first postbox and we haul the bags to the second, around the corner. I imagine someone in a cell unpacking and reading ‘Long Walk to Freedom’ and I know this was an evening well spent.

Senior WJP journalist Ruth Hopkins is spending two and a half months in the United States with the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery and the Marshall Project in New York, investigating the similarities between issues facing both the American and South African criminal justice systems. Ruth will be detailing her journey through weekly blog posts published every Friday.

Angola prison, formally known as the Louisiana State Penitentiary, is built on 18,000 acres of land in a river basin nestled in between the Mississippi river and Lake Killarney. It would be beautiful if I hadn’t seen the disturbing pictures of African American prisoners picking cotton while a big white guy on a horse oversees their work. Angola prison takes its name from the Angolan slaves who picked cotton on the slave plantation that used to thrive on these very grounds.

The biannual prison rodeo at Angola prison attracts thousands of visitors every year, most of whom are unaware of the history of the prison. Food stands offer Southern delicacies from Cajun dishes and sugar sweet ice tea to ‘tornado potatoes’ and fried pickles.

Angola prison was long called the ‘bloodiest prison in America’, known for its stabbings and general violence among and toward the inmates. When warden Burl Cain took over the prison twenty years ago he managed to bring about a sharp decline in violence through various religious programmes, offering college degrees in ministry, making him the darling of reform-minded Christian Republicans.

Louisiana is the world’s prison capital as it imprisons the highest number of people in America, which has the highest incarceration rate in the world. One in every 86 adult Louisianian goes to prison. One in seven African American is either in prison, on parole or probation.

The prisoners showcasing their work at the arts and crafts fair at the ‘prison festival’ are ‘trustees’; they have had a clean disciplinary record for several years. Those who are well behaved can sell their wares from behind a fence. Leaning against the wire, their fingers clasped through the grid, they try to attract the attention of the visitors browsing the paintings, leather belts, jewellery and toys at the fair. I buy a chess set from Charles. He tells me, through the fence, that it is the only opportunity for prisoners to make some money. Despite taking a 20% cut of the sold arts and crafts and charging visitors a $20 entrance fee, the prisoners have to buy their own supplies.

Most men in Angola are sentenced to life without parole. This means they will die in prison. Some of them tell me it’s not the worst prison to be in. One inmate, who wants to remain anonymous, tells me: “If you show initiative you can make it work.” Others say it is hell inside – a modern day slave plantation – where there are violent guards and inmates, and bible study is the only way out.

The rodeo starts when the star spangled banner plays. Bucking bulls and kicking horses have inmates in striped black-and-white uniforms flying through the air. Even though the prisoners are kitted out with body armour and helmets, they resemble rag dolls, as they crash to the ground or are trampled on. In one of the many game variations called ‘convict poker’, four men sit around a table and the last one to get up and run away from the bull wins. One inmate limps away after a bull flings him to the ground. Another game is to have prisoners stand inside a hula hoop and wait for the bull to attack them; the last man standing wins. The crowd cheers and laughs at the rodeo clowns running around agitating the bulls.

“The rodeo is degrading and inhuman,” says Robert Hillary King, who is one of the Angola 3, a trio of men who were at the ugly coalface of the American criminal justice system for decades. Herman Wallace, Albert Woodfox and King were locked up in solitary confinement in Angola for years because, so they say, of their allegiance with the Black Panther Party. They were falsely accused of murdering a prison guard and a fellow prisoner in the early seventies when they were educating inmates to organise against the harsh prison conditions in Angola.

King spent 29 years in a cell the size of an average bathroom, a debilitating experience he writes about in his book. Woodfox was recently released after spending 43 years in an isolation cell. Wallace died three days after his release in 2013. If you want to imagine what solitary confinement is like check out the Guardian’s virtual experience here.

“We tried, as much as that was possible from our cells, to educate inmates about the exploitation of the rodeo,” King said in a recent interview. I will be writing more about him and Angola prison in articles follow. Gregory Bright, who spent 27 years in Angola for a crime he did not commit, agrees: “There were always guys who came back injured from the rodeo,” he says, “one guy had severe kidney problems after he was attacked by one of the bulls. He later died from complications. No one talks about that.” Both King and Bright cite boredom and desperation as a reason for the incarcerated men to elect to partake in the rodeo.

Visitors pile out of the prison compound when the bulls are back in their pens and the prisoners returned to their cells. I ask them, as they place their purchases in their cars, what impression the rodeo made.

“I have heard about the rodeo for years,” a young couple from upstate Louisiana tells me, “and I always wanted to go. It wasn’t as good as a real rodeo, because the prisoners can’t stay on the bull as long.”

Another couple, lecturers at a criminal justice college in Texas, thinks it is a wonderful chance for the prisoners to mix with family members and friends and to interact with the outside world. The man adds that he really enjoyed the rodeo, which he says would impossible in Texas. When I ask him why, he shrugs and says: “health and safety.”

Posted by AudreyBarnhardt on May 11, 2017
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Category: The prisoners showcasing..

The prisoners showcasing their work at the arts and crafts fair at the ‘prison festival’ are ‘trustees’; they have had a clean disciplinary record for several years. Those who are well behaved can sell their wares from behind a fence. Leaning against the wire, their fingers clasped through the grid, they try to attract the attention of the visitors browsing the paintings, leather belts, jewellery and toys at the fair. I buy a chess set from Charles. He tells me, through the fence, that it is the only opportunity for prisoners to make some money. Despite taking a 20% cut of the sold arts and crafts and charging visitors a $20 entrance fee, the prisoners have to buy their own supplies.