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December 7, 2013 / JV

Dying at Angola

I’m working on an essay about the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola Prison, and I came across this video for an annual event called Returning Hearts Celebration. Returning Hearts is organized by Awana Lifeline, a Christian “ministry effort” that started at Angola in 2004. The purpose of Returning Hearts is to allow incarcerated fathers a day with their kids, a day to play games, eat food, and learn the Bible. According to Awana Lifeline, the bad news is that over 5,000 people are imprisoned at Angola, the nation’s largest maximum security prison. And many of those inmates are fathers to a collective 20,000 children. What’s more, most of the inmates are serving life sentences without parole. The “good news,” though? “The good news is that over 1,000 inmates are Christians as well as the warden, Burl Cain.”

But how, exactly, is that the good news? When 95 percent of the inmates who enter Angola will die behind its walls? When 9 out of 10 of the fathers I see in this video will never spend time with their children outside of Angola’s gates, or walk outside with them for more than one day a year? When someone can be sentenced to 99 years for armed robbery, as per Louisiana’s sentencing laws? And I’m supposed to be convinced that anyone’s religious beliefs are the good news?

As I cried through the first half of the video, I was pressed to find the good news. Is it the laughter, the smiles, the tears? The contact and conversations and love? The one, or few, days a year when inmates and their visitors can just be? — in the moment, with each other, and exploring the spontaneity of social life among family and friends. These are things that all people, prisoners and not, parents and not, deserve. So in the age of incarceration, when so many people are locked away from so much of what makes up human experience, why is this made to feel like a victory?

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