TILL THE END OF TIME
Over the last thirty years, an increasing number of states have gone down the route that Miriam Shehane and her political allies helped chart for Alabama, imposing extraordinarily long sentences—longer, it is worth repeating, than many of the top Nazi war criminals, including Hitler's confidant Albert Speer, received at the Nuremberg trials after World War II—not just on murderers and rapists, but also on perpetrators of relatively minor crimes. Even before the national prison population exploded during the 1980s and 1990s, many parts of the South had already made the life sentence (or finite sentences that were all but life terms) routine parts of the criminal-justice arsenal. This practice has helped to sustain the growth in America's archipelago of penal institutions, and in turn that very growth—the availability of a seemingly endless supply of cells in which to house prisoners—has fueled the continual movement to ramp up the lengths of criminals' sentences.
To get to Louisiana's eighteen-thousand-acre Angola prison, known colloquially as “the Farm,” one drives twenty miles off the highway an hour north of Baton Rouge, past a sign to Solitude, past a landscape of old plantations, trailers, and broken-down wooden shacks, deep into the verdant, swampy Mississippi Delta. The prison holds more than five thousand prisoners, about three-quarters of whom are African American.1
About 90 percent of the inmates in Angola are there for life, or for sentences that will last almost that long.2 Sentenced to hard labor, most of them serve out their days in the fields along the Mississippi River. They grow corn, potatoes, squash, and soybeans—4 million pounds a year in all, harvested to feed prisoners across Louisiana, as well as state employees in a variety of government agencies. The prisoner-laborers earn between four and twenty cents an hour and are guarded from dawn to dusk by horseback-riding, gun-toting officers.
Deep inside the prison's perimeter lies Lake Killarney, a muddy expanse of water disturbed by the protruding stumps of dying trees. A short distance