Guest Post by Lane Nelson
Editor’s note: One of the fastest growing subcultures in American life is that of old people struggling through their last years in prison: The old lady who in her twenties shot and killed an abusive husband. The parapalegic bank robber who once tried to escape. The 78 year old, who can barely walk and seems a goner ever since the prison guards pulled his meds. The mentally ill man who hasn’t seen sunlight in 10 years. All spend out their lives–20-40-60 year stretches–behind bars.
Their sole desire is to die in the free world, and though they are rendered utterly harmless by age, few states have program to release aging inmates. And so, at great financial cost to society, they must live out their lives in prison. If they are the lucky ones, the end may come in a prison hospice where they are carred for by fellow inmates, whose sole rehabilitation to society has been their education as gentle, caring nurses–behind bars.
As for the judges who banished them to their fate, they for the most part ignore them, as do the politicians who introduced their draconian sentences. Bills to let them out wander through the state legislatures, succeeding in one court, being thrown back in another, year after year.
All this by way of introducing the work of Lane Nelson. While serving time at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, Lane Nelson spent 18 years as a staff writer and later managing editor for the nation’s most renowned prison magazine, The Angolite. He covered a wide range of subjects, including Angola’s longtermer population and hepatitis-C behind bars, and he interviewed and profiled several men just days before their executions. Nelson himself spent two years on death row–at one point coming within five days of being executed–before a judge overturned his death sentence citing inadequate counsel.
Lane Nelson eventually received a pardon based on good behavior and his volunteer work at Angola. In January he rejoined the free world after 29 1/2 years behind bars. Nelson has opened his own business, Capital Punishment Consulting Agency (CPCA), offering services that extend outside the area of the death penalty to general matters concerning criminal justice and prison life, and he is available for speaking engagements.
He also writes fiction, much of it based on personal experiences from his years at Angola. The story that follows is one of the best depictions of the life of the old, inside prison or out, that I have ever read.
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The orange ball inched over the Tunica Hills that border Mississippi and Louisiana, turning the expansive wheat fields into a glazing golden hue. Frency sat on a bent up plastic coke crate in back of the wood-framed clothing room, cup of black coffee in hand and a crimped hand-rolled cigarette hanging from his cracked lips. He wiped the sweat bead rolling down and aged crease in his cheek. Another dog-day of summer. Staring through the razor-wire topped chainlink fence separating him from the fields of wheat, Frenchy thought about the dazzling sparkle the sun gave the deadly razor wire; how it symbolized the external beauty of this 18,000-acre maximum-security prison set in the Mississippi River basin of east-central Louisiana, while depicting the despair among its 5,102 inhabitants. After 27 years chained to this beauty and unable to taste its pleasures, Frenchy was neither sad nor angry at the irony. He had long ago grown numb.
The sound of work whistle jarred Frenchy from his trance and signaled an end to the quiet morning and beginning of another monotonous work day. Nearly all the 150 trustee prisoners filed out of the three dormitories headed for their work assignment. He watch “Hog Head” bounce out of dorm 2, leading the other inmate tractor drivers on the half-mile walk to the tractor shed. Tractor drivers put in 10 hours of kidney-shaking work in the crop fields six days a week, while nearly 2,000 nontrustee convicts from the bigger camps within the prison picked vegetables and cotton under the careful eyes of rifle-totting guards on horseback.
“Dem Saints, theys ready this year, dog!” Hog Head’s voice amplified over the conversations of other prisoners. “Ya heard what that white boy said on the news? My team, theys together. All you Saint haters bring your smokes to Hog Head, ‘cause he’s putting down on every game.” For his 18 years in prison for aggravated rape, driving his tractor and sports consumed Hog Head’s life. Every season he bet packs of cigarettes on the Saints. At the end of every season he was broke.
Frenchy flicked his butt at the guard’s fence in front of him and pushed himself up from the coke crate. He eased his weight onto his right side before taking a step. The bullet he took in the hip while robbing his first bank in 1960 hurt him more now than when it happened. “Son of a bitch cop couldn’t shoot straight enough to kill me and put me out of my misery,” he often recited. He grabbed a small empty clothing cart and maneuvered it down a cement walkway, headed for Dormitory 3.
His 1960 bank heist sent him to Raiford Prison in Florida for his first adult jolst at the age of 18. The four years at Raiford started him on the road to the only successful skill he ever learned—professional convict. After Raiford it was Holman, Alabama, Tucker, Arkansas, Parchman in Mississippi, Huntsville, Texas, and his final destination Louisiana’s infamous Angola to serve life-without-parole for a jewelry store heist in the Garden District of New Orleans (while on escape from Hunstville). The prosecution had no problem citing Frenchy as a habitual offender and the judge had no problem giving him life. “Mr. Mancini, you’re through,” said the judge in ending his lecture during the sentencing hearing. Frenchy being Frenchy had to have the last word, “So was your momma when she had your dumpy-headed self,” and he grabbed his crouch as the guards yanked him out of the courtroom.
He parked the clothing cart in front of the dormitory and walked inside, where he found Whit hunkered over the edge of his bunk sucking air. “Hey ya old fart, said Whit. “Rough night?,” replied Frenchy.
“Naw. Slept like a baby in a bank vault.” Frenchy knew Whit was lying like a dog, but didn’t press the issue. “Your carriage waits, Princess, so get your sexy ass up and lets go.
“Fuck you too early this morning,” Whit said and started one of his coughing fits. Frenchy reached over and rubbed his back. “Wow old fart, relax. Be the Buddah.” That only made it worse, with Whit laughing and coughing at the same time. It took several minutes before the heavy heaves and cough subsided. Having gained a little strength, Whit allowed Frenchy to help him across the dormitory and onto the cart. His serious emphysema and weak heart begged for a wheelchair, but Whit refused. He wanted to die without help.
By the time they rolled into the clothing room Cupid had another pot of strong coffee brewing, and black market bacon inside the 15-year-old microwave that sparked every time in use. “Happy, happy morning,” sing-songed Cupid. “Bacon sandwiches and steaming coffee is on the menu. And for you ladies it’s half price.”
“Just make sure you put enough mayo on mine,” said Whit. “Last time we had this crappy breakfast you almost choked me to death.”
“Shut your pie hole and get in your chair,” countered Cupid. Frenchy helped Whit out of the cart and into the ragged recliner. The chair had been in the Captain’s office before it mysteriously disappeared two months ago and took on a rough reupholster job to change its appearance. Every time the captain paid the three old farts a visit he commented, “Just like my ole chair. If I ever catch the son of a bitches who stole it I’ll hang them by his heels from the razor wire.” The three old farts always grumbled how their chair cost them an arm and a leg from an unnamed prisoner who picked it out of the prison dump. A little game they played. Captain Fontenot knew his missing chair the first time he saw it, and they knew he knew it.”
Cupid distributed the bacon sandwiches and turned on the small portable fan, leveling it in Whit’s direction. The heat was already close to unbearable at 8 in the morning. Gonna be another hot one on the farm,” commented Cupid. “I’d rather be fishing under a shade tree,” added Whit, who struggled with each small bite of his sandwich. “I’d rather be drinking a cold brew in an air conditioned strip joint in Dallas,” said Frenchy. They finished their breakfast in silence.
At 69, Whit was the oldest of the three, but only by a couple years. He also had the least criminal experience, with no prior brushes with the law before he was sent to prison 18 years ago for killing his cheating wife. Before that he had been a full bird Colonel. His terminal emphysema and bad ticker was a result of his hard drinking and chain smoking lifestyle in the Air Force. He found Frenchy and Cupid here and they showed him the ropes of being a standup convict. More important, they taught him how not to let his yearning for freedom drive him crazy. Walk slow and drink a lot of water was their edict for doing time.
Cupid was the trio’s true gangster, serving life for a murder he didn’t commit. The cops hooked him up to get him off the streets once and for all. Until he came to Angola for good in 1980, he was part of a loosely-fit criminal organization in North Louisiana that delved into gambling, enforcement, prostitution and gun smuggling. He didn’t hate of the police for giving him a bum murder charge. Just part of the outlaw game, he would say, and just deserts. He had killed his share of like deviants over the years and either never got caught or beat the charge in court. Only once he couldn’t finagle his way out of a criminal act—back in the mid-60s, when he used a baseball bat on a bar owner. That put him in Angola for five years, in the days when Angola was rough and tumble and Sears Catalogues carried their weight in gold (prisoners would tape them to their chests when they slept to protect against middle of the night knife attacks). Compared to that violent era, Angola is now a lamb. Elderly prisoners make up half the prisoner population, due to life meaning life in Louisiana since 1972, and the young guns coming to Angola are crack heads who think this is just an extension of the projects they left. So a balance of peace exists; one that is rarely thrown off kilter.
A soft knock on the closed wooden window interrupted the reflective silence. “Hey studs, open up.”
The three old farts said in unison: “Read the sign, asshole.” Today is Tuesday. No clothing handouts on Tuesday. Leave your request in the box. No bikini underwear in stock.
“Fuck your sign. And don’t be calling me that dirty word. It’s Precious.” The size of all three farts put together, Precious had not an ounce of fat on his well-chiseled body. He also wore bikini underwear, tight shorts and low-cut tank tops. “Come on, hurry up or I’m a gone pecan.”
The three looked at each other and said, “Yeast!” Cupid jumped from his chair to the window. As he pushed the wood flat opened Precious slipped his hand down the front of his shorts and pulled a half-filled baggie from inside his flowery underwear. He shoved it at Cupid as he looked nervously around the courtyard. “I gotta go. Pay me later. Remember pink. And it better be a thong and have a heart on the front like you promised, ‘cause it’s what my man wants.” Precious’s man was Needle Dick Slim—6’ 2” and 135 pounds. How Needle Dick could order and slap Precious around was just one of many mysteries of prison life. “Yeah right,” said Cupid. “I’ll bring them to the dorm tomorrow.” And he closed the window.
Turning around he held the bag of yeast in front of him like a diploma. Frenchy got up, took the yeast and walked to the back room. Seasoned convicts can get their hands on any anything from an x-rated video to an ounce of heroin, but yeast was one of the hardest contraband items to score. It came from the kitchen where it was kept under lock and key and inventoried on a daily basis. Security often overlooked a joint now and then, but when it came to making hooch they were serious. A group of prisoners drunk on home brew always meant trouble. Yet, for the most seasoned convicts, they always find a way.
In the back room, where their small, rusted refrigerator sat among stacked boxes of state-issued clothing, Frenchy knelt down and lifted a floor board. He tapped the yeast to the bottom of the board and snugged it back into place. Reserve stock. In the back corner of the room, under a barred window and behind a dilapidated shelf used to store rubber boots and brogans sat the covered bucket of fermenting wine. Frenchy opened the sealed top, took a quick sniff and hurriedly closed it back. Ready. He then reached his hand into a size 13 rubber boot and pulled out a woman’s pink thong underwear, brought to him by a guard in exchange doing the guard’s application for divorce. Tit for tat.
Frenchy heard the front door open and stuffed the thong back into its hiding place. Captain Fontenot walked in with his new Lieutenant trailing behind like a police dog. “How ya old fart doin’ this morning?”
“Like shit, and you?” answered Cupid. “Want some coffee, Cap?” asked Frenchy as he stepped from the back room.
“Just had a cup. Wanted to stop by to see how were doing, Whit. How ya feeling?”
“Okay,” wheezed Whit. Captain Fontenot smiled, but lines of concern etched his face. Cupid, let me see ya outside for a minute.” The two walked out leaving the green Lieutenant to browse around the room. He didn’t like what he saw. And old color TV with rabbit ears, a deck of cards with poker chips and a shelf underneath the still smoking microwave. “Ya’ll are laying out on this farm,” he said with stern sarcasm while bending over to look at a brand new VCR.
“Laying out?” responded Frenchy as he moved across the room and into the Lieutenant’s face. “Were in for life. Gonna die in this stinking piss hole. How the fuck are we laying out!?” Frenchy’s abruptness caught the Lieutenant off guard. He quickly regained his composure, moved closer to Frenchy with a scowl. Captain Fontenot walked back in and saw the two squaring off. “Let’s go Smith. We need to make our rounds. From now on stay out of here. The clothing room is off limits to you. These old convicts, they know how to do time and they don’t give us no trouble. So we don’t give them none, understand?” Without saying a word, Lieutenant Smith turned on his heels and walked out, tail between his legs.
“He come from one of the non-trustee outercamps,” Fontenot told the trio. “You know how they play it in those camps, everything by the book. He don’t know no better about this camp, and I don’t expect he’ll make it here. Fontenot knelt in front of Whit. “You’re not look so good, my man.” Whit struggled to hold off a coughing spell as he told the Captain, “I’m okay, really. Fontenot stood up and headed to the door. “If you need anything let me know.”
“Three whores and a case of beer,” said Frenchy. Fontenot smiled and shut the door.
“What he want when he took you outside,” asked Frenchy. Cupid looked at Whit. “He wants to send you to the infirmary. Says he’s worried about you.” Whit’s eyes grew moist and big as silver dollars. “No way! I ain’t going to that butcher shop! I don’t want to leave you guys and have to die alone in a locked room.” His anxiety caused him to miss every other breath. “Calm down ya old fart. I talked him out of it. Told him I’d let him know if you got any worse. So just be sure to die before you get any worse.” Whit chuckled with relief.
The day drug on, like every day does in prison. They tried to play three-handed poker, but Whit kept fading out, and sweat kept dripping on the cards. So they turned on a baseball game. Whit’s favorite team, Atlanta Braves, were playing.
An hour before supper, just as everyone returned from their job assignments, all hell broke loose. From inside the seclusion of the clothing room the three old farts were jarred by security radios blaring and hard shoes beating the pathway outside. Before Frenchy and Cupid could get to their feet and race to the window, Knucklehead, the yard orderly, came crashing through the door. “Bopeep just took out Hog Head! Busted his head wide open with a weight bar. Blood and brains everywhere on the walk! Hog Head laying dead as a doornail.
“What happened, man?” asked Frenchy.
“Heard they been beefing all day at the tractor shed over football,” said Knucklehead. “Hog Head called Bopeep’s mom a grizzly old linebacker. I heard Bopeep didn’t say nothin’ after that. Just walked away. Now this. Snuck ole Hog Head good.”
Cupid looked at Frenchy and Whit. “Wow.”
“That’s his issue,” said Frenchy. “You don’t beef with a psycho like Bopeep, then go about your business like nothing’ happened. I though Hog Head had more sense.”
“Later,” said Knucklehead. “I gotta get back over there. Gotta clean up the mess.” Knucklehead seemed excited about that. Frenchy and Cupid opened the window. Across the courtyard Bopeep wore handcuffs and leg shackles as three guards led by Lieutenant Smith shuffled him into a prison SUV. The sound of the prison ambulance screeched in the distance. “Wow,” repeated Cupid. “Thought he was smarter than that,” repeated Frenchy. Whit was struggling to get out of the chair and to the window, but couldn’t make it. Frenchy and Cupid helped him over. “I’m glad I’m not going out like that,” Whit said.
Two hours later all was quiet in the camp. Hog Head’s body had been hauled away to the prison’s small morgue. Bopeep went to a lockdown cell where he would stay for at least a couple decades. Knucklehead had cleaned up the blood and grey matter on the walk. Shit happens in prison, then it’s over and life moves on.
The sun set, making way for a harvest moon to rise over the wheat fields. Whit was in his chair half asleep and laboring with every breath. His thoughts were consumed with anxiety over the possibility of being transferred to the infirmary. Cupid and Frenchy were looking at Whit, willing him to breath. In the background the TV was on AMC, showing, “The Great Escape.” “Too much excitement for me today,” said Cupid. “Yep, me too. I think we need something to calm our nerves,” grinned Frenchy. Whit looked up smiling. Frenchy got up and walked to the back. Cupid followed with three empty water bottles.
A few minutes later they pulled their folding chairs around Whit and handed him a half-full bottle of hooch. “To three old farts,” said Frenchy. “To three old farts,” agreed Cupid. They all took a swig. Whit’s weak hand shook as he took a gulp. The home brew trickled down the corners of his mouth. “Frenchy my man, you’ve out done yourself this time,” Cupid said as he readied himself for another swig. “I believe you’re right. I have outdone myself. What ya say Whit? Does it hit the spot, or does it hit the spot?”
“Mighty good,” wheezed Whit. “A drink with friends.” He lifted his bottle for another drink, but before it reached his lips is slipped from his hand. Frenchy quickly bent over to pick it up from the floor before much spilled. “Ain’t nothing but a thing, ya old fart. You didn’t lose any.” Whit’s hand brushed the top of Frenchy’s head as it swung loose over the side of the recliner. Rising, Frenchy noticed Cupid’s stunned look. He turned to Whit, whose head lolled to the left side and he eyes drooped with a blank stare. “I think he just died” said Cupid. Frenchy set the two bottles of home brew on the floor and reached the back of his hand to Whit’s neck. “Whit? Whit?” No answer, and no chest movement. Whit was indeed dead. The two sat there of several minutes staring at their friend.
Cupid broke he silence. “Is that it? Just like that?”
“I guess so,” said Frenchy. “The old fart is free, and he died the way he wanted to—with us, on his terms.” Cupid nodded, bowed his head and said, “We need to tell someone. I mean, we need to tell a guard.”
“Later,” said Frenchy. “He’s not going anywhere.” For the next hour , with Whit dead in his chair, Frenchy and Cupid went back and forth to the bucket of hooch. Somehow they ended up on the back porch, arms around one another’s shoulders, facing the wheat field shinning under a full moon. “We still got those wire cutters underneath the floorboard?” asked Frenchy. Cupid turned and walked in to get them.
Taking the wire cutters, Frenchy asked, “You coming?” Naw, Wheat fucks up my sinus. You go, old fart. Have fun.”
Frenchy walked unsteadily to the fence and cut a hole at the bottom. With his bad hip and drunken state, it took him a while to shimmy through the hole, but once on the other side he shed his clothes, leaving on his socks and brogans. Then he staggered across the 100-yard gravel perimeter between the camp and wheat fields.
The guard in the tower at the back corner of the camp spotted Frenchy with the searchlight and sounded the alarm. Frenchy walked faster, finally reaching the edge of the wheat field, where he ducked in and spun around while looking up at the shinning moon. He sucked in the smell of wheat, of freedom, tasting it with every fiber of his body.
Cupid stood on the back porch, tears running down his cheeks, listening to his friend holler with joy.
Flashlights bounced in the night as a dozen guards ran to the edge of the field. Leading the chase team was Lieutenant Smith, who volunteered to work overtime. Smith has his rifle in hand. “It’s only Frenchy,” hollered a longtime guard. “He must be drunk or something. He ain’t no problem. I’ll get him.” Before the guard stepped into the wheat field, a rifle shot echoed through the night.
Feeling empty and alone, Cupid shut the back door and walked over to Whit to tell him what happened.