A SHUT IN PLACE
By Cameron Kenny
We could see the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola looming far off in the distance. Angola is hard to miss. It is an island unto itself and has a palpable timelessness to it, as if you’re looking back into the 1960’s, or the 1930’s, or really anytime at all. The guards in watchtowers rest their shotguns in the crook of their arms, their sunglasses on despite the drizzle. Below them, work crews march in long lines carrying hoes and flanked by deputies on horseback. O brother, thou art here.
Our law school, Tulane, had a pro bono requirement for students. Shana and I had opted for the Parole For Pops program, wherein we were meant to help deserving old souls who paid their debt to society go home and spend their last days with loved ones. We were assigned a pair of inmates – a white rapist and a black murderer – for whom we would act as quasi-lawyers at their upcoming parole board hearings. Naturally we both wanted the murderer, but when we drew straws, I got the rapist. I tried to be gracious in defeat but privately I was very disappointed.
We stayed out late drinking the night before our trip to Angola, mostly out of dread, and had terrible hangovers. The Parole For Pops coordinator had stressed that we dress conservatively, which in Shana’s opinion apparently meant a long black skirt with a very long slit that went all the way up, and bare legs underneath. I asked her about the skirt before we left New Orleans, while she still had time to change it. “It’s full length,” she answered, as though I hadn’t noticed that. Through the thick fog of the hangover, I struggled to think how I could persuade her the skirt was going to be a big problem. After ten seconds of fuzzy contemplation, I gave up. Since formulating even this simple argument was impossible in my condition, I didn’t see how I could persuade a parole board it was a weekday, much less convince them a rapist should be released.
Our chariot for the adventure into darkest Louisiana was my banged-up red Ford Festiva that splashed rain on my head and left shoulder through duct tape on the driver’s side window. It was like motoring in a crushed Coke can. The scenery en route to Angola was grim to the point of surreal: broken down shacks, tarps for roofs, cars on cement blocks, mournful-looking dogs and kids. Despite this, we lapsed into hysterical laughter during much of the long drive, what with the debilitating hangovers and the rain bouncing off my forehead and the Festiva slipping all over the road.
When we reached the main gate, though, we realized we needed to straighten up immediately. The entrance to Angola is not a place for gaiety. The guards are all business and they search your car with real concentration and zeal. You just hold your breath and pray they won’t find anything, not even the tiniest marijuana seed, that would cause you to spend the rest of your life trapped in Angola. I worried they might just impound the Coke can because it clearly wasn’t road-worthy, and then we’d be stuck here anyway. Shana had some reason for us not taking her BMW and I struggled to recall it as the wolves circled the injured Festiva. Maybe she didn’t want to expose the BMW to the abject poverty and dysfunction we saw during the drive. It might’ve been an affront to the car’s Germanic love of prosperity and order.
When we finally cleared the gate inspection and walked into the outer reception area, there was immediate uproar about Shana’s skirt. The eyeballs of the matron behind the desk practically popped out and bounced up and down on springs like in a cartoon. “THIS IS A PRISON!!,” she exclaimed, as if we hadn’t realized. We both waited as other guards joined in the fracas, unsure how high the outrage might escalate. Clearly the staff was worried that Shana’s appearance bare-legged in the slitted skirt would cause a nuclear bomb to go off inside the jail. I thought this was a legitimate concern. Not only was the slit really long and wide, but Shana is stunning, gorgeous. She stared at the matron for a while, thinking, her cat eyes slanted more than usual.
“Do you have a stapler?” she asked calmly. The matron huffed and puffed to go look for a stapler, muttering I don’t know what the hell that girl thinks a stapler is going to fix with that indecent clothing. I hoped to God she was wrong because I didn’t want to go in there alone. The combination of the hangover and the insidious creeping up of my terrible claustrophobia and the dread of meeting “my client” — and assisting him, no less — was about all I could handle on my own. While Shana and I sat and waited in the inappropriate attire doghouse, I opened my client’s file and reviewed the facts of his case. He had forced his way into the car of a 15-year old girl outside a strip mall, brought her to a sugar cane field nearby, and raped her while her toddler nephew watched from the back seat of the car. It was a small community and the girl recognized him from around town. Physical evidence also tied him to the crime and he confessed quickly.
Unlike Shana’s 1000-year old murderer on death’s door, my client was 48 with pre-diabetes. What was pre-diabetes, anyway?! Aren’t we all in this category? Even more unfair, he had barely qualified for a parole hearing in that he had only served 7 years of his 15-year sentence. Shana’s murderer had served about 70 years of his 75-year sentence. I like to think I’m above petty jealousies, but COME ON!
I expected all along that Shana would get the murderer, though, truth be told. She had a charmed life and good fortune just inevitably flowed her way. While we had both graded on to the Law Review at Tulane, for me this was a major aberration. So-so grades had been my calling card since I went to Andover in 9th grade and discovered I was apparently so dumb, so unsophisticated, so poor, so unattractive, and so inadequate in every way that I gave up on life and developed an addiction to Space Invaders that I financed with a life of crime. The only upside of this experience was I achieved lasting peace with academic mediocrity. Grading on to a Law Review many years later was a fluke, and I expected to settle down in the class ranking to where I would feel more comfortable. Shana, on the other hand, was ranked 4th and was amenable to climbing the last few notches.
The matron brought Shana the stapler and she quickly stapled the length of the slit and handed it back. Phew, I thought, thank fucking God. The matron, surprised the stapler had solved the problem and oddly not happy about it, said something to suggest the incident had been above and beyond the call of duty and had completely worn her out: “Well, finnnnnnnally, THAT’S resolved!”
We then crossed through what felt like a dozen internal security checkpoints and prison doors into an interior waiting room. To report that I didn’t enjoy the feeling of being deep inside Angola would be a bit of an understatement. It was like being inside a whale — moist and smelly and no view whatsoever. I was suffocating with claustrophobia but struggling to appear calm. This, I would learn later in my almost eight years as a prosecutor, is a fundamental requirement of working as a criminal lawyer or a trial lawyer in general — hide your fear.
My client’s wife and mother were there waiting for me in the belly of the whale. Now while there is a cute and fuzzy “WHO DAT?” Louisiana on display in N’Awlins during Mardi Gras and at Saints’ games, it seemed to my immature and hypercritical 23-year old mind that the larger constituency was what I suspected was real Louisiana. Real Louisiana was maybe mostly swamp and mist and droopy gnarled misshapen trees and enormous water rats called nutria, which are eaten and worn as fur. I’d had the privilege to canoe in the bayou, which was magical except for trying to ignore the nutria frolicking around me like ghastly nightmare-otters. My client’s mother screamed nutria to me. She either ate it or wore it or was in some way living a life in kinship with it. She had two teeth and could not form a coherent sentence – at all. The humidity coming off the swamps had evidently gotten into her brain and it was all sogginess up there. Despite the babbling and steady sobbing, I got her general gist, which was the legal system had done her baby wrong and he should be released forthwith. In odd contrast, my client’s wife seemed like a fine person. She was appropriate, well-spoken, reasonable. She forgave her husband and wanted him to come home. I figured some people took “till death do us part” more seriously than others.
My client was brought out from the back to join us. My impression was he didn’t seem sick enough, or sick at all. He also didn’t even seem old for his age, so what the hell was I doing here anyway! We discussed his first unsuccessful solo appearance before the parole board a few months earlier, where he had tried the I’m the victim here strategy. He apparently thought it was a good idea to rail against the injustice of the system, juror bias, and the mean judge who sent him up the river in the first place. He also peppered in some complaints about the slowness of his many pending appeals.
I suggested to my client that maybe, instead, the board might want to hear he was contrite and no longer posed a threat to society. I told him the board probably wanted to know that he had engaged in some deep reflection on why he did what he did, and why he had that impulse, and why he wouldn’t do it again. He seemed to understand what I said in that he nodded at appropriate intervals, but real comprehension may have been beyond his ken. He had a little nutria in him, too.
When my client and his wife and I walked into the parole board — leaving his wailing, mumbling mother behind in the waiting room — I was surprised by what I saw. I assumed a parole board in Louisiana must look like Steve McQueen’s in The Getaway. Everyone was supposed to be wearing a pushed-back cowboy hat with a toothpick in their mouth, squinting at the criminal suspiciously with their PAROLE DENIED stamps poised and ready. Instead they seemed like reasonable people, a mix of men and women dressed nicely in regular clothes. They recounted the facts of his offense and asked him why he’d done such a horrible thing. My client paused for a really, really long time. We were all at the edge of our seats, curious about what he was going to say. Finally, he shrugged and said, “Stupid, I guess.”
Every board member frowned and one of the women leaned away, crossed her arms over her chest, and rolled her eyes. If they’re unhappy now, I thought, wait till they hear about the pre-diabetes. They won’t be able to get him back to his cell fast enough.
They asked me if I had anything to add and I hurriedly listed the favorable parole factors Rat-man was supposed to mention on his behalf but apparently forgot. The eye-roller looked at me woman-to-woman: admit it, you want him to stay under lock and key as long as possible. I quickly looked down so I couldn’t telepath to her with my eyes YES! KEEP HIM IN FOREVER!
Mercifully I was done talking at that point and his wife came up to bat. She made an impassioned plea for him, crying a lot but respectful and polite. The board was genuinely sympathetic to her, probably thinking like I was what the hell is she doing with this guy? They asked us all to step out of the room so they could pretend to deliberate, which was a polite thing to do given the “stupid I guess” circumstances. Then they called us back in and said they were concerned that the inmate didn’t yet seem to grasp the seriousness of his behavior and needed to spend more time “thinking,” as if he had the hardware to accomplish that task.
It could have been worse, I thought as I shook their hands before leaving to find Shana. At least they didn’t let the mother in there.
Shana’s appearance before the other parole board with Methuselah was playing out very differently from my fiasco of The Stupid Young Healthy Rapist. Producers from ABC’s 20/20 were at Angola that day filming a segment about the most famous inmate, an award-winning journalist named Wilbert Rideau. After finishing up with Rideau, they immediately honed in on gorgeous Shana with her concealed hangover and her stapled skirt and her divine murderer who looked like he’d come straight out of central casting for The Shawshank Redemption. He was a slender, kind, lovely, refined black gentleman in his 80’s, smiling wide from his wheelchair and using his long beautiful fingers to gently shake hands with me and the producers from ABC, who were gaga for him. He’d had a barfight in the 1950’s that went bad, and he said to us very convincingly that the other guy, the murderee, “was a bad fellow who would’ve killed me otherwise.”
While Shana and he waited outside the door of the parole board while they deliberated his fate, the cameras were rolling and zooming in on Shana’s face. She said, “This is his life we’re talking about,” and she wiped a tear from her eye. I and others did the same because her old fellow was heartwrenching. He was granted parole and it was quite a nice story of everybody doing the right thing: Tulane, Angola, the parole board, the ABC production people, the stapler-provider. Sadly, Shana’s challenge afterward was finding a place for him to go in the outside world. Nearly everyone he knew or who once loved him had either forgotten him or died long ago.
As for me, I tried as hard as I could to pretend I was at the circus, largely to distract myself from the overwhelming claustrophobia of being locked inside that enormous labyrinth. But even with the surreal atmosphere created by the presence of the film crew from New York and the blubbering incoherent nutriarch and the cartoonish female matron with eyeballs-on-springs and the terrible hangover, it was awful being trapped within the recesses of that place. I was overwhelmed with relief as we finally cleared the last security checkpoint and left the building, and felt even greater relief once the Coke can wheezed and splattered its way out of the main gates and we were back on the road — FREE!— to New Orleans.
Angola was only the beginning of my long non-love affair with prison. In my work as a criminal prosecutor, I meted out hundreds of years of jail terms in the form of plea bargains. I conducted upward of 20 trials where many other jail terms resulted. I wrote oppositions to appeals in which I argued in support of upholding convictions and sentences. I attended habeas corpus proceedings in prison chapels that doubled as courtrooms, wherein my job was largely to oppose anything about which an inmate was complaining. Getting bad medical care? The People disagree. The warden has counted your days wrong and you were due to get out two days ago? The People say the warden is right, as always, of course. Getting beaten up by other inmates? The People say stop complaining — it’s prison.
Throughout my tenure as a prosecutor, I became very familiar with the rattle of handcuffs and the clanging of iron gates. But despite constant exposure to this, I never felt comfortable in this environment, or being in the confinement business in general. I suppose no claustrophobe is comfortable when confronted with the reality of confinement.
The term claustrophobia derives from the Latin claustrum — “a shut in place,” a cloister — and the Greek phobos, meaning fear. “A shut in place” is a particularly apt description for prison and for how nearly all people, claustrophobic or not, feel about the shut in place that is prison: we fear it. Indeed, the criminal justice system runs on mass claustrophobia. What would happen to our society if law-abiders and law-breakers alike had no fear of being shut in?
The derivation of the word claustrophobia also has distinctly religious overtones. In addition to the Latin “cloister,” the Greek translation of claustrum is μοναστήρι, or monastiri. And at its most fundamental level, of course, crime and punishment has spiritual dimension. The culmination of confession (usually known as a plea) and punishment and forgiveness and reflection-while-cloistered can lead to enlightenment, redemption, peace, rebirth. In theory.
After all my experiences in and around jail in an official capacity, dressed in a suit and on weekdays, my last time inside the shut in place was as a former lawyer, and a regular Visitor, one Sunday afternoon in 2006. I went to see our family friend Michael Skakel, who was convicted in 2002 of having murdered Martha Moxley in 1975. Michael was interred in Suffield, Connecticut, which is a small town in the northern part of the state, almost on the Massachusetts border.
I sat in the waiting room with all the other visitors; quiet wives and children in their nicest Sunday clothes, waiting patiently to see their husbands and fathers. Nearly everyone but me was black or Hispanic. All the women had on fresh lipstick and pretty skirts and it was clear they had made a real effort to look their best. It all made me want to cry.
I looked down and thought too late that maybe I should have worn a skirt. Not a Shana prison skirt, where staff would have to scramble for glue or rubber cement, but maybe just a regular skirt. I’m not bragging about my legs, but they’re certainly okay for anyone who’s been in jail for a few years. It’s a basic courtesy, I realized, to wear a skirt to prison when you’re a Visitor.
It was very cold in the waiting room and I made this observation aloud to the family sitting next to me because that’s what I’m wont to do — I’m a compulsive extrovert and I foist my opinions on others. I expected a yeah in response or some non-committal nod of agreement. Instead, everyone in the room looked really startled and afraid of me, as though I had said “LET’S BLOW THE FUCKING PLACE UP! WHO’S WITH ME?!” I shrugged in an apologetic way to the whole group and said, “I’m just saying, it’s cold in here, right?” This helpful clarification made it even worse and now everyone seemed to want to avoid eye contact with me. Just shut up, I said to myself. You’re freaking these poor people out. I sat then in an agitated silence, thinking oh how I hate that the system makes people so goddamn timid! I hate how afraid they are just visiting this place. I hate how I’ve been a part of this process, sending people to places like this, sending their wives and children on Sunday afternoons to see them.
The door from the waiting room swung open to let us into a hall where we were instructed to line up to go through security. The line was long and I was midway down it, sticking out like a pant-legged white light bulb. I saw Michael standing behind one of the guards’ shoulders, pointing me out and beaming. Michael and the guard gestured me forward, which I felt bad about. First I made everyone nervous bitching about the temperature, and now I was cutting the line. I tried to gesture back to the guard, oh no no, I don’t want to cut, but at that point the guard was making it clear that now I should do what I was told. I glanced around at the other people on line and no one seemed outraged by the possibility that I might cut, like I would be. If anything they seemed relieved at the prospect of getting rid of me: yes, by all means, let the loose cannon go first. Let her be the guard’s problem now. So I cut the line.
Michael picked me up off the floor and bounced me over his shoulder a few times like an exuberant polar bear, which made me think it was probably better I wasn’t wearing a skirt. He was looking a bit like a polar bear in those days, too. He had gained some weight and his hair was turning white.
We sat and talked until visiting hours were over. There wasn’t much to say to someone in Michael’s situation, whether in person or in letters. I believe he didn’t kill Martha Moxley, and so in my opinion an innocent man was trapped and helpless and sentenced to 20 years, which was the most unfathomable part because even if he had done it as a 15-year old minor, his maximum sentence would have been four years. It was painful to be with someone in Michael’s situation because how often can you say “I’m really sorry this is happening to you”? It’s even harder when you’ve been part of the criminal justice machine, an official opponent. I imagined Michael’s habeas proceedings in the prison chapel: getting bad medical care? The People disagree. You think your sentence is unfair? The People say your sentence is just right, as always, of course. Getting beaten up by other inmates? The People say stop complaining — it’s prison.
I left the jail in Suffield and walked out to my car, the relief of being outside — FREE! — flooding over me, like always. But even as I stood in the parking lot taking deep breaths, the thought of Michael shut in behind me was sickening. It bore down on my chest like physical pressure. I wondered, like always, whether an innocent person might be incarcerated because of me. I prayed this wasn’t the case, but I don’t believe any prosecutor can know that with absolute certainty, nor can any judge or police officer. You have to tolerate a margin of error in the confinement business, as abhorrent as that is.
Why do some of us become trapped, besmirched, or even ruined, while others go off scot free? Most of us clean-record law-abiding citizens have done something illegal at some point in our lives, especially in our younger years, but somehow we’ve just had the dumb luck to avoid arrest or any repercussion. I stole money to play video games (granted I was 14, but it’s certainly against the law). I’ve driven drunk, and I probably don’t have a close friend or family member, all uncaught, who haven’t done the same, at least once. I’ve smoked more than my fair share of pot and a few other things besides. But here I am, and always have been — FREE. Out. And out I will probably always remain.
Michael is out now, after having served 11 years, although as I write this the powers-that-be in Connecticut are still trying to put him back in. I sometimes think about whether many of the people I helped send to prison or helped keep in prison are out now, too. For those who remain cloistered, I wonder if their kids or wives are visiting them this Sunday, or whether they’ve long since been left behind like Shana’s lovely old gentleman in Angola. I wonder if any of them are nearing redemption and enlightenment, or whether, much more likely, they’re moving farther away from it.
It’s painful to accept that most of what happens in the shut in place, whether over a term of one year or 7 years or 20 years or 50 years, can result in nothing more profound or insightful than “Stupid, I guess.” The paradox remains that many of our imprisoned population don’t have the wherewithal to deeply consider their actions and its consequences, and didn’t have the chance to be anyone different, and didn’t have the infrastructure or wholesome environment or opportunity or hope that all of us require in order to become productive and useful members of society. Because if they did, of course, they’d be a whole lot less likely to be in claustrum to begin with. So the endless factory ramp of the criminal justice system keeps rolling along. Every minute of every day, 365 days a year, someone is being arrested, arraigned, sentenced, paroled. A husband or son enters prison; a brother or grandfather gets released. The quiet wives and children sit and wait in cold rooms on Sunday afternoons. The guards in Angola’s watchtowers rest their shotguns in the crook of their arms, while the work crews walk below them flanked by deputies on horseback.
O brother, who is thy keeper? Not I, not anymore, but Lord knows I wish you enlightenment, redemption, peace. Try to find some, dammit, despite all the ways we’ve let you down. This is still your life we’re talking about.
About the Author:
CAMERON KENNY’s writing has been published in Fourth Genre, The Washington Post, The L.A. Times, and The New York Post. She has a J.D. and a Masters in Education. She has worked as a criminal prosecutor, a Legislative Aide in the U.S. Senate, a middle school teacher in Harlem, and an Associate Producer at Fox News. She lives with her husband and daughter in Montana.