“I believe the heaviest blow ever dealt at liberty’s head will be dealt

by this nation in the ultimate failure of its example to the Earth.”

-Charles Dickens, American Notes, 1843

Shortly after I set out from Houston I spotted my first American hitchhiker. He was walking down the highway with his thumb out and his back to me, and I blew past him going about sixty miles an hour. I had promised myself that I would pick up every hitchhiker I came across on my trip, so I slammed on the brakes and screeched to a stop a few hundred meters down the road.

He was a short, stocky blonde with a crew cut, dressed in stained cargo pants and a dirty T-shirt. I hadn’t gotten a good look at him before pulling over, and so was somewhat disconcerted when he loped up to the passenger door and thrust his mangled face in he window. His cheeks, nose and forehead were all torn up with a constellation of fresh-looking gouges and welters that made it look like he had just been attacked by a wild animal.

“Where you headed?” I asked, restraining my reaction.

“South Carolina,” he huffed back, “or as far as you can get me to it.”

“I’m headed to New Orleans tonight,” I told him. “You’re welcome if you want to come, but that’s as far as I’m going.”

“Fair enough,” he said, nodding appreciatively as he got in the shotgun seat. I observed that his arms were covered with deep furrows similar to the ones on his cheeks and forehead. He had tattoos of guns, flames and skulls running from both wrists all the way up into the sleeves of his shirt.

I shifted into first and we started down the road. It was five more hours to New Orleans.

He told me his name was Kyle. He was from South Carolina. Twenty-one years old. He had been walking since dawn, he said. Nobody wanted to pick him up. I asked him what the scars on his face and arms were about.

“Well, you see, I was planning to hitchhike all the way to California,” he muttered glumly, “but when I got near Houston, I was attacked by a group of guys. There I am, walking down the road with my thumb in the wind when all of a sudden this big pick-up truck pulls up beside me, and I’m thinking great! A ride! But then three big dudes climb out of the cab, with baseball bats and wrenches and started cussing and coming at me like they meant to do me in! So I tore off fast as I could, with them right on my ass. I had to run through a bunch of bramble bushes to get away, and got cut up all to hell. But they never got me!”

The story sounded a bit dubious, I thought, but not completely unlikely. I’d heard plenty of other hitchhiking stories in a similar vein. “Damn,” I said. “Sounds like you’ve had a pretty hard time!”

“Yeah, it’s been a rough couple days,” he concurred. “I fucking hate Texas! Too fucking big and too fucking arrogant! They pull over way ahead and wait for me to come running, then pull away just as I’m getting close! Or they throw shit at me as they drive by! The next time I head to Cali I’m going around it!”

“Ever been to California before?” I asked.

“Nah, this would’ve been the first time, if I’d have made it.”

“Why did you want to go anyway?”

“I wanted to go surfing.”

“Huh. You a big surfer?”

“No sir. Never even tried it before. Just heard those California waves kick ass.”

“So you set out from South Carolina to hitchhike to California to surf?”

“Yep. Just headed out with my thumb in the wind. Didn’t pack nothing neither, just an extra T-shirt and some potato chips.”

I did not know whether to be impressed at his wilfulness or astounded by his stupidity. “Were you planning to meet anybody out east?” I queried.

“No. I don’t know a soul over there.”

“So where you been sleeping?”

“Under the stars.”

I explained about my trip. My original plan had been to hitchhike through the country, I told him, but I finally had to give up on it and buy a car.

“I heard that,” he remarked ruefully.

“I’ve been on the road something like seven thousand miles,” I continued, “and you’re the first hitchhiker I’ve seen in the whole country.”

“Yeah,” he muttered bitterly. “I guess its getting pretty rare. Nobody picks anybody up in this country anymore. Everybody’s scared. Figure you’ll kill ‘em or something. It took me a full week to hitch to Houston.”

We stopped talking for a while and listened to some music.

“Well, actually it wasn’t just for the surfing,” he said, after a while. “I hear they’ve got some killer weed out there in California.”

“That they do,” I affirmed.

He told me that in South Carolina he had been fined $2,000 and lost his driver’s license for six month for possession of ten dollars worth of marijuana. It sounded pretty steep for a penny-ante possession charge, but I knew that dope laws in America could be pretty draconian.

“So what you going out to New Orleans for?” he queried. “Doing some more research for that book of yours?”

“Yeah. I was planning to visit a big prison nearby,” I explained. “It’s supposed to be the biggest maximum security penitentiary in the country. They call it…”

“Angola!” he finished the sentence for me. “I know a few guys who have done time there. I hear it’s one motherfucker of a place.”

I told him that I had once worked in a prison in Canada, as a rent-a-cop on suicide watch, while I was finishing my university degree. I told him how little I thought of the system.

“Tell me about it,” he grumbled. “I spent three years in the state pen.”

I didn’t ask him what for.

“How was it?”

“It was rough,” he said. “Especially being white. Prisons here, down south, are mostly black. Skin like mine doesn’t make you many friends.”

“So… you got family in the Carolinas?” I asked, changing the subject.

“Sure do,” came the laconic response. “A wife and newborn son.”

“Your wife know where you’re at?”

“Naw, she won’t know where I am til I get back.”

“Is she working?”

“No sir.”

A pause.

“How old is that son of yours?”

“Oh, he’s about half a year old now. He was born a bunch of months premature, and was hooked up to a respirator until a couple of weeks ago. I headed out practically as soon as I saw him come off the machine.”

It seemed to take a lot longer than five hours to get to New Orleans. I dropped Kyle off at a gas station and wished him well, wondering if he would ever make it home. He was a bit of a strange kid.

The city looked terrible. I cruised through the streets passing city block after dilapidated city block. Hurricane Katrina had decimated the city five years before, and whole neighbourhoods still remained completely unrestored. It reminded me of pictures I’d seen from bombed out post-war Europe. Over 200,000 homes were damaged in the catastrophe, they say, amounting to more than eighty billion dollars in property damage. There is no comprehensive reconstruction plan to this day.

Considering that this was the home of jazz and American voodoo, the city seemed a lot less black than I had expected. Nearly a million people were displaced when the catastrophe struck, and the predominantly black neighbourhoods were the ones hardest hit. The population of the city was still only around half of what it had been, and since construction companies are reluctant to build low-cost housing, rich whites tend to be the only ones repopulating the place.

There is even a widespread conspiracy theory that the part of the levee near the black Ninth Ward district was actually blown by engineers during the disaster to protect wealthy white neighbourhoods at the expense of the poor. In any case, there was certainly no shortage of people who had denounced the lethargic reaction of the United States government. Interestingly, the first country to jump to New Orleans’ assistance in the wake of the disaster was an avowed enemy of the nation: Cuba. Fidel Castro almost immediately placed 1,586 seasoned disaster relief professionals on standby in Havana airport and asked President Bush for permission to send in the cavalry. Cuba’s emergency response medical team is called the “Henry Reeve Brigade,” and is named after a United States brigadier-general who fought side by side with the Cubans against the Spaniards in the 19th century. Castro waited three days for a response that never came, and 1,464 Americans died.

My host in New Orleans was a transplanted Canadian girl in her mid-twenties named Ora. I pulled up in front of her house and rang the doorbell. I was greeted by a bright-eyed black-haired girl with bee-stung lips that reminded me of the spunky title character from the film Juno. She invited me in and offered me a drink.

I told her about the guy I had picked up on the drive in.

“You say he spent time in prison?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I responded, “I think he said three years.”

“Jail really messes people up in this country,” she commented. “My boss here in New Orleans spent eighteen years in the slammer, and it messed him up. He has had big problems readjusting to the world on the outside.”

It turned out that Ora worked for a non-government organization called “Resurrection After Exoneration,” which was dedicated to helping exonerated death-row inmates reintegrate into society. Her employer, an ex-convict named John Thompson, had spent fourteen years on death row, before being completely exonerated.

I told her that I had come to Louisiana to visit the famous Angola penitentiary, and asked her if she was familiar with it.

“Oh yeah,” she responded with a grimace, “I know all about it.”

The state of Louisiana has the highest rate of incarceration anywhere in the world, and the majority of its most dangerous inmates are all confined in Angola. This one huge facility has well over 5,000 prisoners, about three-quarters of which are serving life sentences. It sits about 130 miles northwest of New Orleans, nestled in a bend of the Mississippi river, on a former slave plantation. The nickname of the prison is the country that the majority of the slaves that worked there came from. And the demographics haven’t changed much since the early 1800s either. The current inmate population is 80% black, while the prison administration is 100% white. The penitentiary is still a plantation to this day, and most of the land is used to grow cotton crops with convict labour. Prisoners are usually paid between ten and twenty-five cents a day for their labour.

“Ten cents a day?” I sputtered, astounded.

“Well, yeah,” Ora affirmed. “American prisons are big business. They always find ways to put convicts to work. Making license plates is one of the most popular.”

“I’ve heard that before,” I said, nodding. “About the license plates, I mean.”

“Imagine what it’s like to be in prison in places like New Hampshire,” she said, “where the motto on every plate you manufacture is ‘Live Free or Die.’”

I shuddered, envisioning myself spending half the waking hours of every day behind bars stamping out plates emblazoned with words that mocked my confinement.

Ora had recently been to the annual prison rodeo, and told me that it had drawn spectators from all across the state. It has a forty-five year history, she explained. Then she told me about some of the events. One of the crowd favourites is called “Convict Poker,” where four convicts sit on chairs in a circle in the middle of the arena with their hands on a table while a rampaging bull is turned loose to trample and skewer them for the audience’s enjoyment. The last person able to remain in his seat gets fifty dollars. No small sum for people receiving twenty-five cents a day for eight hours labour!

Then there is the “Pinball” event, where eight inmates kneel inside plastic hula hoops in the middle of the arena while a furious one-ton steer charges at them out of a chute. The last inmate that remains in his circle becomes the winner.

After that comes the “Guts and Glory” event, where another frenzied bull has a paper chit tied between its horns and inmates compete to snatch the piece of paper from the head of the rampaging beast. The one who can snag it wins a prize.

I told Ora that I didn’t believe her. It sounded like something no civilized society would allow. She went to her room and brought back the December 2009 copy of the prison newspaper, The Angolite, which had a large section devoted to that year’s rodeo. Here is an excerpt from the discussion about “Guts and Glory”:

“This event receives more attention than any other because of the intense daring and exhilaration that it brings. A raging long-horned bull is released into the arena and quickly surrounded by participants competing to snatch the valuable chit tied between the bull’s horns. Spectators squirm and gasp in amazement as the bull tosses the participants around like rag dolls…”

I put the paper down, reeling as I pictured the bloody spectacle and the cheering crowd. “Good lord!” I exclaimed. “It sounds like the Roman Colosseum!”

We cooked up some dinner and sat around watching television. British Petroleum had just put the final cap on the huge oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Reporters were speculating on the effect that five million barrels of oil flooding Louisiana’s shores would have on the local fishing industry. Tourism was going to suffer, they predicted. It was the biggest oil disaster in the history of the world.

“As if New Orleans didn’t already have enough to worry about,” lamented my companion.

In spite of the fact that British Petroleum had approximately a hundred times the safety violations of its nearest oil competitor, the newscaster declared, the American right wing was rallying to its side. Republicans were fighting tooth and nail against a proposed moratorium on offshore drilling.

“Sometimes I find Americans pretty strange,” Ora said.

“Just sometimes?” I whispered to myself in amazement.

The following morning Ora took me to her office to introduce me to her co-workers. She showed me around and introduced me to some of the other employees. I shook some hands and picked up a pamphlet that talked about what they did.

I turned it over in my hand. A picture of John Thompson, the exonerated head of the organization, appeared on the back. Opening it up, I scanned a few informative paragraphs, learning that when convicts were exonerated from Angola prison, they are often given nothing more than a ten-dollar check and a bag of their possessions. That is the extent of the government support they receive, the pamphlet said.

It sounded unbelievable. I remembered that in my home province in Canada a man named David Milgaard was wrongfully imprisoned and got ten million dollars when he was exonerated. I asked Ora if it was true.

“Yep,” she declared. “The ten dollar check is supposedly to give them the money to take a bus back to the homes of their families. But these people have spent decades in prison, and their families have often moved away. Besides, ten dollars doesn’t get you very far anyway. They usually just wind up on the streets or guests in other people’s homes, scrambling to survive on $200 a month in state aid and food stamps.”

“But how could it be so bad?” I muttered, flabbergasted.

“Sometimes, if they do go to court and really fight the system, they receive compensation,” she continued. “My boss got millions from the state, but only after four years in court. Many others get nothing at all. Especially in New Orleans, where the city is too occupied with reconstruction to dedicate resources to reintegrating ex-cons.”

“So… what are the recidivism rates then?”

“In America the nationwide rate is nearly 70%,” she responded. “About seven out of ten released prisoners are back in jail within three years.”

“That sounds pretty damn high.”

“Well, it makes sense,” she explained. “You get out of prison and nobody wants to hire you. You become a burden on your family and friends. If you have kids you can’t support them. You get desperate. You get angry. Especially around here. They say Louisiana has the highest exoneration rates in the United States, but the least funding for reintegration programs.”

“Numbers like that don’t say much for the system,” I observed.

“No,” she agreed. “No they don’t.”

I left New Orleans the following morning to visit the prison. I drove through Baton Rouge and came to a city called St. Francisville, then headed down a twenty mile road that brought me to the penitentiary. Barbed wire fences enclosed the huge facility as far as the eye could see in two directions, and a three-story watchtower loomed beside the gate. I pulled into a parking lot and got out of the car. I had been told that they sometimes gave tours of the facility, so I gave it a shot and went to speak to the man at the entrance. No dice. If I wanted a tour, I would have to come with a large group, pay a substantial fee, and would probably have to wait several weeks for the approval to come down from the warden.

“But you can check out the museum over there,” consoled the round-faced guard, pointing to a large building nearby. “It’s free of charge, and has lots of information about the prison.”

So I went inside the museum and examined a vast array of exhibits showcasing various elements of prison life. Toothbrushes that had been scraped into shanks and keys. Long metal prods used by guards to stab slow moving inmates. A fifty pound ball and chain with an ankle harness. Hanging on one wall was a large photo of white, rifle-wielding overseers on horses looming over a landscape of black prisoners working in cotton fields. If the caption had not told me that the picture had been taken in the 1960s, I could easily have mistaken it for an image that pre-dated the outlaw of slavery.

More than one in every ten African-American males in the United States today between the ages of twenty-five and twenty-nine are prison, and black men nationwide have a 25% chance of being incarcerated in their lifetime. Yes, America is truly the land of opportunity. Being born here gives you a greater opportunity than anywhere else in the world to spend time behind bars.

The incarceration rate in America in 2008 was 754 people per 100,000, and this was, far and away, the highest worldwide. Compare Canada, which has a rate of 107. The United States, with around four percent of the world’s population, incarcerates nearly a third of the world’s people in prison. China, denounced in the western media as a “lockdown police state,” with four times the population of America has a total prison population of only about 70% of the United States. In 2008 approximately 7.3 million Americans were either in prison or on parole from prison. That comes to 3.2% of the entire adult population. Since well over 90% of people in prison are men, those numbers mean that—pay attention now—approximately one in every eighteen adult males in America is either in jail or under government surveillance.[i]

And here’s an even more shocking statistic: most of the people locked up in America today have not even been found guilty of a crime. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported in 2005 that 62% of people in American jails had not been convicted and were still awaiting trial. The law enforcement on the streets is charging people so fast that the judicial branch can’t keep up. Which is really saying something since, as I’ve mentioned before, the United States has more lawyers working within its borders than the entire rest of the world combined.

How the hell did things ever get this bad? Well to figure it out, you need to look at a little recent history.

In the late 1960s the civil rights and anti-war movements were in full flourish. Urban riots and unrest had become an epidemic, so Lyndon Johnson passed the “Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act” of 1968, which set up the “Law Enforcement Assistance Administration,” a huge federal bureaucracy which redistributed ten billion dollars to create the massive infrastructure upgrades (helicopters, SWAT teams, surveillance equipment etc.) that we now equate with America’s modern law enforcement. Then Reagan started the “War on Drugs” in 1982 and specifically targeted minority domestic groups, culminating in the “Immigration Reform and Control Act” of 1986, which initiated a crackdown on poor Latinos and militarized the southern border. Around the same time, “three-strikes-you’re-out” laws were set up, locking people away for twenty-five years to life for crimes like shoplifting and marijuana possession. After that, Clinton came to power and delivered a thirty billion dollar “Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act” in 1994, which added another fifty new federal offenses punishable by law, and funded the building of a teeming multitude of new prisons.

What all this meant was that from 1970 to 2010, the American prison population increased by more than 700%. These days a new prison is being built every single week in the United States. If you have trouble picturing the scale of growth I’m talking about, here is a more graphic presentation of the data, courtesy of the American Correctional Association. The largest blue dots represent federal prisons with inmate populations of 2000 or more. Note that the second map is already five years out of date.

Federal Prisoners in America: 1970 and 2005

In one of the museum’s back rooms was a rusty old electric chair which had been used at Angola for half a century, from 1941 to 1991. The information next to the display told me that it had been nicknamed “Gruesome Gertie,” and eighty-seven men died on it. Nearby was a paper describing the execution of a young black man named Willie Francis.

“On May 3, 1946, sixteen-year-old Willie Francis was strapped into the electric chair, and the official flipped the switch over and over four times for more than two minutes while he screamed and groaned. Unfortunately, the apparatus could not kill him, and he was taken away. He was brought back six days later and strapped in again, and this time it finally killed him.”

I tried to imagine how poor Willie must have felt, being dragged into the execution room that second time. I learned later that evidence indicated he had almost certainly been innocent of the murder he was convicted of.

He was just born with the wrong skin colour in the wrong country.

[i] All numbers and statistics for this section, unless otherwise specified, come from the United States Bureau of Justice Statistics.


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