Rhonda Mawhood Lee: Angola prison and the communion of saints

Credit: Angola Prison

An Episcopal priest finds in the obit pages of The Angolite -- Louisiana State Penitentiary’s award-winning magazine -- reminders that we are all members of the communion of saints.

Raymond Marler, a plumber, pipe fitter and welder, died at age 59. He considered welding “a noble trade and often spoke with pride about his aunt, who was one of a cadre of female welders who filled traditional male roles in armament factories during World War II.” He expressed his creativity by making “unique, colorful flower bouquets out of cola cans.”

Wilbert Young, 61, was “survived by his mother, with whom he was very close, a sister, Wanda, and a brother.” He would be remembered “by all who knew and cared for him” for both his “serious demeanor” and his kindness.

Frank Jones, 70, “had a strong faith and was a member of the Cowboys for Christ ministry.” He was a fast-pitch softball pitcher and a woodworker who specialized in rocking chairs and other outdoor furniture.

These men, of various ages, races and backgrounds, had two things in common. They all died serving life sentences at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola, the largest maximum-security prison in the United States; and their obituaries were published in the prison’s award-winning news magazine, The Angolite.

I have subscribed to The Angolite for several years, because it gives me a window into prison life and a way to support incarcerated fellow writers. I enjoy reading about educational and religious activities at Angola -- such as a seminar two years ago by noted Anglican theologian David Ford -- and I’m often moved by the poems submitted by inmates across the country.

But my favorite part of the magazine is the obituaries that appear in virtually every issue, providing glimpses of men who are often dehumanized by those of us living our lives outside prison walls yet whose hopes, joys and sorrows are similar to our own. More compelling still, The Angolite’s obituaries are almost always more honest than those that typically appear in “free-world” publications.

The recent obituary of a man whose drug addiction led him to commit armed robbery, for example, said that he “felt that he had let his family down and broke off all contact, a loss he endured introspectively.”

Another obit stated matter-of-factly, “No one would ever say that Big O was the most agreeable person they knew. In fact, he could be plain stubborn.”

Some men, like Edmund Pettibone, are said to have done what they could to fight their incarceration. Soon after arriving at Angola, Pettibone, convicted of rape, “dove headfirst into the law, studying diligently in the hope of winning his freedom.”

Whether Angola inmates were rightly or wrongly convicted, it’s a safe bet that many would have received lesser sentences in any other state and, as a result, might not have died in prison. Louisiana has the country’s highest percentage of inmates serving life without parole. Life sentences are mandatory for many Louisiana convictions, and under the state’s habitual offender statute, can even be imposed for nonviolent offenses such as shoplifting.

What legal scholar Michelle Alexander has called “the new Jim Crow” is evident at Angola. The prison stands on an old plantation, bought in 1880 by a Confederate officer who housed prisoners in former slave quarters, put them to work on the prison farm and leased them out to build levees.

When Angola became a state prison at the turn of the 20th century, conditions did not improve. In the early 1950s, 31 inmates protested their brutal living conditions by slicing their own Achilles tendons with razor blades -- a particularly pointed act of defiance considering that 19th-century slave owners used that same technique to mutilate runaway or recalcitrant slaves.

After a federal lawsuit by prisoners in the mid-1970s, life at Angola improved, but the past still echoes down to the present. Although about a third of Louisiana’s population is black, African-Americans account for 80 percent of the inmates at Angola. They work for as little as 2 cents an hour in the prison’s in-house and partnered for-profit businesses. Almost all can expect to die in prison.

When they do, they will receive an obituary in The Angolite that will reach readers across the country, both inside and outside prison walls, including people like me. We may never be incarcerated ourselves, but we follow Jesus Christ, who said we would be judged in part on whether we had visited those in prison.

All the men at Angola and other prisons are my fellow human beings; many, through baptism, are also my brothers in Christ. Notwithstanding our sins -- theirs and mine -- we are all members of the communion of saints, a community grounded not in our accomplishments but in the immeasurable worth of Jesus. As the Book of Common Prayer says, the communion of saints is a family of “the living and the dead, those whom we love and those whom we hurt, bound together in Christ by sacrament, prayer, and praise.”

“Those whom we love and those whom we hurt.”

This All Saints Day, as I meditate on the communion of saints, I find in The Angolite echoes of my own, more prosaic life with God and neighbor. The prisoners’ stories bring me face to face with the sins -- others’ and my own -- that tear holes, small or gaping, in my web of relationships. And they also bring me face to face with God’s persistent invitation to repent, atone and reweave community wherever and however I can.

Each prisoner’s victims, of course, have their own stories to tell, stories I haven’t heard but can try to imagine. If the families of the inmates and the victims were to meet, they might find that they have much in common -- their grief, if nothing else. And because prisoners’ convictions are overturned with an alarming frequency, it’s likely that some of them were punished for the crimes of others -- a story familiar to Jesus himself.

When I read obituaries from Angola, I pray for the men who have passed from this life to the next, for those they have hurt and those they have helped, for prison workers, and for all of us in whose name the legal system is administered -- its brutalities perpetuated and its justice served.

We are all connected. We are all sinners. And by God’s grace, each of our lives may reflect something of divine glory: something of a saint.