Four years ago, a few activists had a great idea: A 170 mile bike ride fundraiser that brings attention to the distance families travel, from New Orleans to the Louisiana State Penitentiary. “NOLA to Angola” has since raised tens of thousands of dollars for the Cornerstone Bus Project, who provide free monthly buses for families to visit their incarcerated loved ones. I was able to be part of the mission. And damn do my legs still hurt.
I had no idea what to expect physically, emotionally, or spiritually; so like most everything, I entered with a Buddhist “Don’t know” mind of adventure. I barely knew a few of the forty riders and support people, but was inspired that they could come together for this cause. Each rider was expected to raise at least $250, with some raising over $1000 each from their own friends, families, and colleagues. Several of my donors were locked up before and deeply understand the power of a visit (or a “V-Wop,” in Joint vocabulary).
The ride was full of some very deep conversations while pedaling along, particularly during the less treacherous moments where the road allowed me to ride beside someone. Most people had no idea who I was, the work I do, or my previous stint in a cage, and I felt blessed to hear about their interest in supporting this cause while sharing with them some of my experience and analysis of the System. Yes indeed, there were a whole lot of cool people embarking on such a ride, coming from all walks of life. And if anyone ever needed an inspiration to keep pedaling, 11-year old Gabe just kept going and going and going.
Sometimes, particularly on the third day when I went hard along the last ten miles, I was deeply reminded of millions of folks on the Inside and millions of miles being jogged along worn down gravel tracks in hundreds of prison yards around the country. I recalled my own miles, thousands at least, I logged in prison; and I wasn’t even a “runner” like some of the other guys. I would prefer a sport, with a ball a strategy and a score, but sometimes it was just you and another guy having a jogging conversation for two hours until “Yard is closed!” drones over the loudspeaker. Other times it would be just me, recounting my things to do, thinking through a court case I’m working on, thinking about all my failures and pondering my dreams, and then hitting that blank meditation with eyes twenty feet in front of me on the gravel… just running. I knew that while we biked to Angola, there are so many people running along barbed wire in gray sweatsuits doing just about the same.
The ride also evoked the reality that many folks in cages do not have the luxury to jog. Some are disabled, or elderly, or locked down in solitary confinement. My latest foray back into prison litigation involves a guy in Louisiana who, along with about a dozen others, does not even get the legally mandated one-hour of recreation per day. They get a ten-minute shower and then rustled back up into the cage. My ride was for the visitation to keep communities together, but my sweat on the free side of the wall is always for those left behind. I thought about what Mumia said when reflecting on the Pelican Bay Hunger Strike, how people were literally “dying for sunlight.”
I never got too many visits during my time in The Joint. Perhaps about five times a year over my twelve years. I might have used the phone about one time each week. For me it was the letters, and was blessed to have some deep thinkers in my life over that time who were not bound to text messages and Facebook for all their communications. Regardless of their intentions, people who wrote me ultimately wrote to a circle of guys. In the same vein, people who visited my circle were visiting me as well. Whether it was Rhino’s mom, Stiblock’s ladyfriend, or whoever; those guys bring the joy (and pain) back to the block for all of us to indulge. It is “life,” the real world, connecting back into this Faustian nightmare people must live in a prison.
The ride culminated in an optional entry to the Angola Prison Rodeo and hobbycraft fair. For the past three years I have been asked how I feel about the Rodeo, as for Louisiana it is as much a part of the culture as Thanksgiving in Plymoth, Massachusetts. (Side Note: There is an annual protest to the centuries of American genocide that followed the landing of Pilgrims at Plymoth Rock.) I vaguely recalled the Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder movie “Stir Crazy,” when they get framed for a bank robbery and end up in the rodeo; but that was as much knowledge I had on the subject. Three years of listening to others, while imagining myself as an Angola cage-occupier, informed my opinion as I traversed the gates onto the plantation.
A ticket into the hobbycraft area was only $5, while the “sold out” rodeo goes for $15. They offered me a ticket in line for the rodeo nonetheless. Of course, being broke, I took the $5 route in. The place was packed like a music festival, yet my non-coordinated athletic wear accented by peculiar retro 90’s sunglasses clashed with the bevy of cowboy boots and Saints jerseys. With my new friend Matt (who happened to grow up in a town next to mine) we headed for the crafts area. The scene was quite stunning, and an exclamation point to all the finely crafted furniture we had seen strapped to vehicles driving away from the prison. (I imagine like a good yard sale, get here early to buy the coolest stuff.)
Guys were in their own booths, hocking their belts, purses, artwork, sculptures and more. Amazingly, some of their families were right in the booths with them. They ate real food. I spoke with a gentleman whose last jailhouse lawyer on his case was none other than my friend and colleague Norris Henderson, executive director of VOTE. He bought a gator skin, shot on “The Farm,” for $500 and is now making leather goods from it to recoup his costs. Another man and his partner were selling these amazing wooden boxes that would shift from a solid shape to reveal secret drawers. We joked about how much “stuff” could be put in there. Turns out that one of those guys also knew Norris quite well, and wanted me to say hello. I found out that one dude made over $20,000 last year with all his skilled work going into his wares. The prison keeps 20%, but of course
I shared with the fellas a bit about my story, going from prison to activist-writer to law school. I like to see their eyes light up, particularly as I know how it would have felt if I had met someone like that while locked up. It can be difficult to gain inspiration in prison, and hope is a scarce commodity. As much as I read from Mandela, Hugo and Dostoevski, or about the cases of Peltier and the Angola 3, there was always a separation; particularly as some of us, many of us, actually did something terrible. We are trying to transform our own lives. Political prisoners, including the wrongfully convicted, are engaged in a different struggle, both internally and with the world. So to the degree that their struggles are useful, we take it- but there is a whole other conversation happening in the shadows among those of us striving for redemption in the mirror.
One of my favorite conversations was with a man getting out in six months or so, and headed back to New Orleans after fifteen years. He too knew Norris well, and was hoping to move into the new halfway house pushed onto the scene by Norris and our friend Calvin Duncan- both former Angola law clerks, both reaching back to help the fellas they served time with. Just so happens both were wrongfully convicted by a system that does that too often; a system deeply resistant to looking at its own flaws. The man I spoke with furthered his horticulture skills and certificates while at Angola, and Matt provided further inspiration by explaining his own job: a gardening instructor for youth.
I snuck into that rodeo, of course. Rather funny, when you think about it. I walked around the ring and saw so many family members and bona fide rodeo folks with their gear on. The event started with all the participants (the guys in prison) circling up for a prayer. They held hands, young and old, Black and White, and I saw too that the crowd took it serious: this is a dangerous sport and nobody wishes for injuries. We see this comradery in football and mixed martial arts where even the person who injures an opponent will ultimately hold their hand and say a prayer.
When the Angola Rough Riders stormed into the ring, I could see the pride in their horsemanship (if that’s the word). When the man who sang the national anthem, and the two guys flanking him with sign language, let it rip: I could feel the preparation they put into this performance. The dude had some pipes in his lungs. There is a lot going into this rodeo, but of course it’s all about the brutality to most folks. Of course it is brutal.
I couldn’t stay long enough to see the men vie for toughest gladiator, or “All Around Cowboy.” I’ve seen Professional Bull Riding Champion Tuff Hedeman ride the mighty Boadacious (only seven riders ever held onto Bodacious, a gigantic bull). I saw Bodacious destroy him as well. Surely many people have tried to close down bloody sports throughout the world, but I am not sure how many have succeeded. Ultimately, there will always be a crowd ready to watch someone try to prove they are the toughest.
Our football league in prison was supposed to be flag football, but there was this little rule that if a man was knocked down he was down. Thus, although you couldn’t wrap someone up and tackle them, you could blast them into a thousand pieces. Or try, at least. Broken bones were relatively common. I went out there every week with my long hair, fast legs, and crazy beard of the month. I was one of the smallest people on the field, playing wide receiver and cornerback, and my attitude was “bring it.” If there were a crowd paying admission to the prison, to be entertained by us, I would have further enjoyed the game. I was even proud to go to the Hole because I used a contraband Sharpie to convert a normal t-shirt into a deluxe Pittsburgh Steelers football jersey. Whatever joy the prison workers took in sending me to solitary was worth it for that moment of showing off to my Brothers- to be alive.
The Angola Prison Rodeo, to me, is like Field Day in elementary school. It’s the days to be anticipated, to break up the doldrums, to prove one’s toughness, see the world, and even make some money. It is true that the penitentiary exploits the guys Inside. Just like prison labor is often at least as exploitive as a sweatshop in a Third World nation. But that prison labor is also my friend’s job, and it may be the only thing he or she looks forward to all day. It provides their meager income for soap and stamps and snacks. It may also be a chance to work with animals or plants, and connect with something that feels more alive than three hots and a cot in their 5 x 8 of concrete and steel. And how many of our nation’s 2.4 million people in prison get anything to replace that?
What will sit sticky in my stomach is the image of two banners around the ring. One was a sponsorship by The GEO Group, a for-profit corporation that makes its living off the American prison population being greater than the state and federal system can hold. This is why they lobby Congress and state legislatures for any law that will increase incarceration, increase recidivism, and decrease releases from prison. They are a twisted collection of shareholding profiteers who should have no right to exist in a civilized society. Of, course- this is the same group that paid so fans could call Florida Atlantic University’s stadium: “Owlcatraz.”
The other banner is a proud celebration that an Angola guard tower and prison cell have been donated to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. I tried to think of a parallel. Does a Jewish cultural museum have gas chambers? Do Native American museums have small-pox infested blankets? Do women’s museums have a portrait of Stanley Kowalski? The lineage of slavery to convict leasing to a targeted drug prohibition are alive and well today. To consider prisons as “history” is to pretend that we have moved beyond this inhumane system of cages. To call prison “African American culture” as if it is the fifth element of Hip Hop is a sad acceptance of contemporary oppression that instead needs to be confronted and overcome.
Nola to Angola: just a simple bike ride can raise all sorts of consciousness.
Learn more about the ride at www.nolatoangola.org.