Saturday, June 13, 2009

My Wife Went to Prison Last Week

John Ramsey Miller

My wife’s bank was purchased by this other huge bank with offices in San Francisco and she was in that fine city all week, while I was at home with the chickens and dogs. Monday she went to Alcatraz Island and took the tour. She called me to say that she couldn’t believe how bleak the place was and how small the cells were. I knew that already since I’ve been in prisons before. And I reminded her that she had been there too, albeit only in the visitors area.

When I was photographing country music artists for album covers and magazine features I went to “The Walls” in Nashville with Tammy Wynette and Mel Tillis to photograph their concert for CBS Records. I got pictures of Tammy walking around in a huge room filled with a few hundred inmates armed only with a microphone, and she was a safe as she would have been sitting at home, where she actually died some years later. One of the inmates was also taking pictures and I talked with him about photography. The walls was a gothic prison where Burt Reynolds filmed the Longest Yard. Tony M., the inmate with a camera, was there doing 54 years for armed robbery.

A week later, I was approached by the warden at the prison (who later lost his job and, if memory serves, went to prison himself for borrowing money from inmates) who said Tony had asked him if I could help him set up a photographic darkroom for use by the inmates who put out the prison newspaper and I agreed. I looked at the space, which was across the main yard where the inmates spent their days. I designed a well-equipped darkroom, which Tony was to run. Tony was a very nice guy for an armed robber. In fact he was a nice guy period. The inmates liked him because he furnished them with pictures for their loved ones. In exchange they traded him things for the pictures, which is how prisons work.

For a period of a few weeks I would present myself at the gate and the guards would open the gates and let me in and I would wander to the designated darkroom space. I had nothing to fear because the inmates knew I was helping Tony, and I walked around unaccompanied by guards as safe as a newborn puppy. I went everywhere with Tony and being under his protection and I spent a lot of time talking with inmates. I taught Tony how to use the equipment I selected, and he was a natural. After Tony was moved to a newly built facility two years later I would take my wife and two-year-old son to visit him on Sundays and my son would sit in his lap.

Later I went to Leavenworth, Kansas to photograph Johnny Paycheck in concert in that federal facility, and it turned out that the warden was a nephew of Bill Monroe, the Bluegrass Icon. Bill Monroe was a casual friend of mine, and I had done a couple of his album covers. I was invited to go coon hunting with him. The warden gave me the celebrity tour, and I visited the rooms where the Birdman of Alcatraz had done his bird thing. The bird man was a cold-blooded sexual predator and murderer who had a soft spot for birds. The warden told me that the birdman killed several inmates after he’d raped them and that was the reason he was never released on parole. Hard to imagine Burt Lancaster filming a scene like that for the movie. I met well-known mobsters, a Brinks truck robber, killers of people with Federal implications, and other famous criminals. It was the kind of tour normal people didn’t get. That day I was with the warden, who walked around without an escort. I was amazed.

In 1981 I was living in New Orleans, and one night at a dinner for a mutual friend (Tony Dunbar, a lawyer who worked for Amnesty International). I was seated beside Sister Helen Prejean who lived in the projects and ran a ministry from her apartment. She worked with death row inmates. This was before she wrote DEAD MAN WALKING and I found her brilliant and totally delightful. She asked me how I felt about the death penalty and I said I was all for it. Long story short she said if I knew the inmates she worked with I couldn’t hold that belief. Two years later I found myself on Death Row setting up a formal portrait studio in the main hallway and loaded film in a cell on death row at Angola. During those two years I had spent untold hours negotiating with attorneys, inmates, and prison officials in order to do portraits of the men under sentence of death. In 1981 executions had been halted for a few years, and the big burn was in the works as cases wound through the courts. I met and photographed Elmo Sonier (Son-yay) one of the two men turned into one for the movie. The other was Robert Lee Willie, I didn’t photograph him. Elmo was one of an impromptu two-man team who raped a teen-age girl and murdered her and her boyfriend. The pictures ended up running in John Grisham’s The Oxford American in the largest selling issue in its history. The pictures, formal large-format portraits of smiling men dressed in street clothes ran years after the men in the pictures were executed. The handcuffs and leg shackles didn’t show in the portraits. If you saw MONSTER BALL, you saw Death Row and depictions of the guards. None of the guards were pro death penalty (at least they told me they were against executions) because they spend their days with the men they would have to help kill.

I have never written about prisons in my books, even though I am familiar with them and got to know more than a few inmates. After that series, I lost interest in photography, and began writing. When those men were executed it depressed me. I was depressed because I felt deep compassion and empathy for the victims, and I felt a sense of wasted lives of the inmates. I look at the pictures of smiling death row inmates and I try to imagine how their victims saw them in their last moments alive. It was impossible to imagine these men as cold-blooded murderers, but they were, and had done horrific things I won’t go into here. They did the crime and they each paid the price society exacted. As long as people harm others, prisons will be necessary. A lot of prisoners shouldn’t be there, but a lot should and have to be. The death penalty has the purpose of making certain that people who are executed never kill again. But the truth is that killers don’t think they’ll ever be caught, much less convicted and executed. It isn’t a deterrent. And it is certainly barbaric. Not much I can do about the people in there, but I can live my life hoping I can help someone make better choices, and know they are valuable.

Here I go wandering again and not blogging about writing, but talking about my life. (It’s all about me). Everything is about writing because our sum totals go into everything we write. The fact is that people flat amaze and astound me. That’s a huge part of why I write, and the people I’ve been fortunate enough to know furnish parts of the characters I put on paper. It seems to me that we all have an amazing capacity for doing good things and being positive influences on people in our lives. At the same time we all have the capacity (hopefully unrealized) for channeling evil and destroying lives. Although most of write about evil, it rarely if ever wins in the end, and good triumphs in the end. I like to think life is like that and good will always shine through and prevail.

7 comments:

  1. As always, John, you’ve proven once again to be a great storyteller. Thanks for sharing. I think every story has an undercurrent message of good versus evil whether the writer intended it or not. And the most lasting messages are those that were never intended.

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  2. I'm as "hawkish" on law and order as the next guy, but it does bother me that a government can execute its citizens. That's a line that I don't want a government to cross. When they can legally kill their citizens, then what next?

    But that conversation puts us down a winding road that takes us away from your main point John. That humanity lives in all of us.

    We may have made bad choices. May have done terrible and brutal things that require us to be segregated from society. But the sea refuses no river. We all carry the spark, the ember, of humanity. That's a human being on the other side of that wall of bars. You may not want him to babysit your kids, but he's a man, flesh and blood. We must not forget that.

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  3. I tend to believe that some criminals commit crimes that flat deserve capital punishment. Sometimes confining someone for life is a reward. The truth is very few people given a death sentence are ever executed. Anyone who butchers a family or rapes and murders a child is no longer human, never mind a citizen (in my opinion), and capital punishment means they will never do it again. Who knows that the government won't eventually release these monsters into society again down the road. Just my humble opinion, as always.

    Life is sacred, but some lives are more sacred than others.

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  4. John~

    I hear ya. And I'll confess, I'm not losing sleep over the death penalty issue. I guess, for me, the concept is two fold.

    One, I like a limited government and taking a life is the ultimate in "invasive" government. But there are some actions that require the profound separation of that individual from society so they can't hurt any one else. You can forfeit your freedom but you can't forfeit your humanity.

    Which brings me to number two. Even the most heinous criminal is a human being. Might only be 2% human, but human nonetheless. I think you found that in your interactions with the inmates. I'm not saying, "Ah, the guy made a mistake. Cut him some slack." What I'm saying is, what does it say about us, if we are willing to take the spark of humanity from another? We are judged not only by our own actions, but the actions we do to others.

    So maybe it's more about me than the other guy. Life is subtle shades of gray in my world.

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  5. All issues are complex and emotion often rules debate. No biggie. I agree that all people are part human. I agree intellectually that we do not need a death penalty, but emotionally I don't mind a bit. I can write either side.

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  6. Thanks; great storytelling and much thought provoking.

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  7. Fascinating insights, thank you. I came to this through Jim Goudelock, and am grateful for finding your work. The depth of your perceptions makes me want to read your books!

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