featured in Tricks of the Trade and condensed from original format
You asked about writing. I’ve always had a knack for it, even when I was unaware of the gift. In second grade, the teacher selected my little story assignment to read to the class. The opening words were “I am a G.I. Joe named Johnny.” Time has washed away the rest of it, but the narrative must have had merit because no one else had their stories read. :) My senior year in high school I flatly refused to write an essay on one or another of The Canterbury Tales, and I was promptly sent to the principal’s office. He explained that because I disrespected the teacher in class I would have to take a paddling, or, I could write an essay about why I thought I should not write an essay on The Canterbury Tales. I penned a masterpiece, and was spared the paddle. Only years later did it occur to me that the man tricked me: he got more writing out of me than was required by the original assignment, and, of course, it wasn’t long before he had the pleasure of paddling me for some other indiscretion. I love writing. I hope to produce meaningful works that will outlive me. Cheesy as it may sound, I draw inspiration from observation and contemplation of life. And let me tell you, prison is a fertile socio- logical field.
You asked me about my life in Angola. It is better than most because of my record, my job and positive focus. I worked as a counsel substitute (prison lawyer) for seven years before joining The Angolitestaff in late 2004. Angola is unique among U.S. prisons because the inmates live together in dormitories. Cellblocks are reserved for disciplinary issues. Every able-bodied man here works; Angola could not function without its inmate labor force that is responsible for everything from mowing the grass to constructing and maintaining the buildings to hospice caregiving, clerical work, providing legal assistance and, of course, enlightening the public about criminal justice matters and documenting Angola events through the pages of the prison news magazine. Angola is a beehive—it never sleeps. Someone is always out and about, working, attending classes, doing something.
My day begins around 6 a.m. I walk the short walk from my dorm to the office around 6:30. From then until about 10:45 p.m., I am at my desk. Not glued to it, of course; I move around as necessary, but I am always close by. Production of the magazine is largely my responsibility. Everything you see when you look at it was, for better or worse, my decision. I plan it, design it, write for it, edit it, lay it out page by page and proof it. The editor helps with the proofing. It then goes through administrative review before being sent to the printer in Baton Rouge. I’m very proud of what we produce. Not bad for a country boy who made his living in the dirty, sweaty, hardcore offshore oil industry before coming to prison.
There are roughly 5,500 prisoners here. About 70 percent of those, like me, are lifers. In 1989, I took someone’s life. It was not something I planned or intended or ever imagined myself capable of doing. But it happened. I was sentenced to mandatory life in prison without parole, the sole punishment provided by Louisiana law for that offense. Most of Angola’s lifers cling to the hope that someday they will find a way out, although statistics indicate that 85 percent or more of them—us—will die here. I do not intend to be part of that statistic.
Life at Angola is best recorded in The Angolite. As you can see, the place is decidedly unlike those madhouses depicted on television. (Does anyone watch television anymore?) It is, however, prison.
Thank you again for your interest, your consideration, and your wonderful journal.
John Corleywrites from the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola where he has served 29 years of a life sentence. He is a recipient of the PEN award for playwriting and a National Council on Crime and Delinquency award for journalism. His first poetry collection, Pagan, was released in 2018. He is the managing editor of The Angolite, the award-winning prison news magazine. For subscription information, click here.