Category Archives: Mississippi River Town

Brad Pitt’s Green Building Boom

LOWER NINTH WARD, NEW ORLEANS

Considered one of the most famous neighborhoods in America, New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward is presently undergoing a transformation from the poster child of post-Katrina devastation into the epitome of green, sustainable living. I met with key players on the ground to discuss how this is taking shape and how the environment is playing an active roll in the psyche of the Lower Ninth Ward’s returning populace.

Interviewed in this piece:  Tom Darden, Executive Director, Make It Right NOLA; Robert Green Sr., Resident, Lower Ninth Ward; Darryl Malek-Wiley, Regional Representative and Environmental Justice Organizer, Sierra Club; James Perry, President, Louisiana Housing Alliance and Mayoral Candidate for the City of New Orleans; Dr. Douglas J. Meffert, Center for Bioenvironmental Research at Tulane University; Professor Mark S. Davis, Senior Research Fellow and Director of the Institute on Water Resources, Law and Policy, Tulane University

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A Prison Without Walls

ANGOLA, LOUISIANA

I had no idea there was no perimeter wall at Angola as I canoed along the natural barrier that surrounds three sides of Louisiana State Penitentiary – the Mississippi River. The sun had broken thru the morning mist as I made my way upstream from my camp the previous night on Shreves Bar Island, about one and a half miles downstream. The short upstream trip was work but at long last I reached the prison’s ferry landing. I had read online that this was a ferry for prison guards only, and as such, I had hoped to catch a ride into the prison. The ferry was not operating and I was later told that due to high water, they were using a “crew boat” for foot passengers only, but that this only took place during a shift change.

I was preparing to make the trek up to Angola on foot when I met my first convict “trusty”, Charles Martin. Mr. Martin had driven up in a truck while I was pulling my canoe out of the water and had busied himself working on the ferry structure moored into the banks of the river. When asked how far it was to the gate of the prison, Mr. Martin turned towards the road from where he had just come and replied, “What gate?”

Angola has transformed itself from what Collier’s Magazine once called “the most dangerous prison in America” into what observers are now calling the safest. According to Warden Burl Cain, this about face has taken place with two words: “morality” and “communication”.

The communication in the prison, afforded by Warden Burl Cain, gives the men a sense of freedom, a sense of hope. It is a psychological barrier that has been taken down – and the men are truly appreciative. From my interview with the warden, I was led to a meeting with the radio station, newspaper, and television station, before being brought to the prison’s hospice, into a room where Richard Vinet was on vigil, awaiting his death. Mr. Vinet, age 54, whose liver is failing, has been at Angola since 1984 and is officially now “on vigil” which means he was not expected to last the next 24 hours. As I spoke with Mr. Vinet about his love for the radio station and the chance he had had to request his favorite songs, a USA Today photographer snapped photos. When asked what it was that he wanted most to say, Mr. Vinet pointed towards his nurse, as well as one of Angola’s vice-wardens, Cathy Fontenot, stating, “I want to thank these two women here.” According to Ms. Fontenot, “No inmate here dies alone, a stroke of compassion which tends to lead the prisoners here in hospice to the realization of the gravity of their past actions.” When asked for specifics, Ms. Fontenot quoted a late prisoner who had spent time here in hospice as saying, “I realized the last person I was with when they died was my victim,” going on to say, “I’m truly sorry.”

Warden Burl Cain takes a similar approach when it comes to the men on death row, a people he refers to as “his children”, taking the trouble to hold their hand as they are executed by lethal injection. In so doing, Mr. Cain, who will have worked with these inmates on getting as right as possible with their maker, is able to “communicate” in a wholly different fashion. There is nothing fake or pretentious about Warden Cain. The man commands respect thru his presence alone – when he enters a building. Among multiple people I spoke with, both outside and inside Angola, the idea of Burl Cain as a good and honest guy was unanimous.

Approximately 86% of the 5,000 inmates at Angola are never going home – a sentence of “life” that in the State of Louisiana actually means it. The strategy of Mr. Cain is simply to let these men he has custody over have the chance to better their lives, to communicate, to be men.

As the sun began to set, I asked to be taken out to the prison’s old cemetery, a place where 1/3 of all those who die here will be buried, having no family or friends to take their remains away. I found a bronze marker set up for the “Unknown Buried Here” with the dedication: “Remember not my name nor my sins nor guilt nor shame; only that I was a man.”

In the end it was two inmates who pushed me and my canoe back out into the Mighty Mississippi. The sun had gone down, and the Mississippi was shiny black, reflecting the lights of the crew boat. I was not afraid. I knew exactly where my island lay, having approached the night before under similar circumstances. There comes a time on this river when you become one with your craft, where the danger of a seriously dangerous river is outweighed by a sense of calm, of a cocoon that envelopes you and lets you know you’re going to be alright. It could very well be due to the fact that I was only a visitor, but I felt this same safety – this same calm feeling the entire day at Angola – my very first day in a maximum security prison. My canoe with my gear in it had been loaded on a truck, and together we heaved it out and into the water. It was a strange feeling to step in and glide away. The convicts whose names I had forgotten to ask waved and wished me Godspeed. The sliver of a moon had broken thru the clouds for a moment and as the current took me, I waved back, feeling a certain camaraderie with the prisoners and their warden, but thankful to be free.

Thanks for making this story possible:

Vice-warden Cathy Fontenot.

My guide for the day was Major Joli Darbonne.

Interviewed for this story on video at the “Ranch House” – Warden Burl Cain.

KLSP (Louisiana State Penitentiary) — a 100-watt radio station that operates at 91.7 on the FM dial from inside the prison to approximately 6,000 potential listeners including inmates and penitentiary staff. The station is operated by inmates and carries some satellite programming. Inside the walls of Angola, KLSP is called the “Incarceration Station” and “The Station that Kicks Behind the Bricks.” Interviewed for this story is KLSP disk jockey Keith Alexander. Mr. Alexander is 44 years old and has been incarcerated at Angola for 21 1/2 years.

LSP TV Station 21 is a one-room television station that serves Angola State Penitentiary. Interviewed for this story: Matthew Morgan, sports editor; and Shawn Vaughn, editor.

The Angolites interviewed for this story are: Lane Nelson, managing editor, age 55, incarcerated at Angola for 28 1/2 years of a life sentence for murder; Kerry Myers, editor, age 53, incarcerated at Angola for 19 years of a life sentence for murder; and Klye Hebert, age 44, incarcerated at Angola for 9 years of a life sentence for attempted murder.

In the hallway of Maximum Security Cell Block D are: Marlo Green and Devon Morris.

Interviewed at Angola’s Hospice: Richard Vinet, age 54, incarcerated at Angola for 25 years.

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Life lessons of the dugout canoe

HELENA, ARKANSAS 

Canoe guru John Ruskey’s exploits along the Mississippi River have been featured in Southern Living, Outside Magazine, and National Geographic.  But it’s his work with the at-risk children of this region of America that intrigued me: the idea of using a canoe as education; of transforming a log into useable art; of the dugout canoe as a life-changing experience.

QaGaron, Fredrick, Brooklyn, and Veronica, four KIPP Charter School Middle School kids from downtown Helena, Arkansas smile as they walk the levee from their school to Mr. Ruskey’s Helena-based workshop.  This is their second class at Quapaw Canoes, and even though their friends are catching the bus for home, these kids walk with a stride in their step.

Helena has a rich and illustrious past.  As one of the few original bluff cities on the Mississippi River, the boomtown that once was is now an economically-depressed region, save – one of the only things going for it – the hope, promise and vision of the children. 

Mr. Ruskey has been volunteering his time with the local KIPP Charter School for over a year, so when the principal phoned and asked if it would be possible to transform a log into an original dugout canoe, comprised of KIPP-only students, the answer was, “We’d love to do that.”

QdMr. Ruskey does not speak in sound bytes. He speaks from his soul and he speaks with conviction.  When asked how art, education, and the Mississippi River come together, Mr. Ruskey explained, “They come together with each paddle stroke you take.  If you watch the way a paddle cuts thru the water – it creates a double spiral on either side of it – and if you look at the shape of a classic canoe, it’s almost the same shape you see created in the water as you’re stroking the paddle.  And that’s the wonderful thing about the Mississippi River and any moving water – but on the Mississippi you see it more than any other body of water I’ve ever experienced.  You see expressions of patterns, of life patterns – the very basic patterns that govern our life – you see them expressed, constantly being expressed and then re-created over and over again.  And so it’s actually there on the face of the water that you see all those things come together.  One of our mottos here is Qcthat the River brings us together, and in that sense it literally does bring together education and canoes and art – they all come together as you’re paddling the canoe.”

The KIPP Dugout Canoe Project, as it is officially known, is a twice-weekly after-school class that begins with a pad of paper and a pencil.  The students are asked to sit quietly and look at the log and visualize what it will one day become.  Some draw the log as they see it while others draw a dugout canoe with an animal head.  At some point, the kids, in coordination with their school, will vote democratically on what the final shape is to become.  For now, part of the fun is just that idea alone.  The idea that this cottonwood log can one day become anything and everything they hope and desire it to be.

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Hurricane Katrina Survivor and Mighty Quapaw, Shemiah Timberlake

HELENA, ARKANSAS

Video interview with “Mighty Quapaw” canoe apprentice Shemiah Timberlake.  Shemiah, age 15, a survivor of Hurricane Katrina, speaks of his family’s departure from Louisiana, of his time in Mississippi, and of his love for the Mississippi River.  Filmed at the Quapaw Canoe Company, Helena, Arkansas.

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Reclaiming the Sons of Zion graveyard

MEMPHIS, TN 

The Zion Cemetery of Memphis, TN has been in a state of disrepair for many decades – the grave markers in most cases inaccessible thru a canopy of creepers.

ZionEThe cemetery is important because it was the first African-American graveyard of the region, founded in the 1870’s by the “Sons of Zion”, who were former slaves. The property was in use until the 1970’s but quickly slid into disrepair shortly thereafter. In the 1980’s and 1990’s there were rumors of the gravestones being used as “chop shop” jack props for car thieves and as a result – this was a location that the general public would dare not venture.

ZionAAALocal activist Ken Hall of Volunteer Mid-South has been working with local volunteers to correct that for the past nine years.Currently, approximately eighty percent of the property is still covered by overgrown brush, weeds, and thorn bushes – but Mr. Hall is optimistic that one day this will change.

In the accompanying photographs, he supervises the work of 100 local teens from the non-profit Bridge Builders comprised of 50% white and 50% African-ZionGAmerican youth. Armed with machetes, mowers, and clippers, they go in search of the gravestones of the Sons of Zion by re-claiming the land for the future generations of those buried here.

Video by Neal Moore.  Photos by Ken Hall.

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Livin’ the Blues with James “Super Chikan” Johnson

CLARKSDALE, MISSISSIPPI 

James “Super Chikan” Johnson’s chicken shack, out back behind his family’s Clarksdale home, is a work in progress. He’s currently expanding it out to accommodate his art, guitars, and inner sanctuary that he calls home.

Blues enthusiasts from all over the world celebrate Super Chikan’s unique, old school take on the blues – including a wide variety of homemade guitars that he both plays and sells. Here you’ll find the diddley-bow hybrid he calls a “bow-jo”, his rooster guitar, ax guitar, 38 calliber gun guitar, and ceiling fan guitar. A simple cigar box guitar will set you back around $3,800, while a diddley-bow bow-jo will run you closer to $5K. And they sell.

But before his success, Mr. Johnson “lived the blues” in a different context – as Wikipedia explains, “moving from town to town [as a child] in the Mississippi Delta and working on his family’s farms.” From a sharecropping existence, picking cotton, to working the John Deere tractors that replaced the sharecropper, to driving truck throughout Arkansas and Tennessee, Mr. Johnson made a conscious decision to stay in the South and to do it with a smile.

Which life lessons led him back to his early childhood memories, back onto the front porch where he’d listen to the likes of blues legends Muddy Waters and Jimmy Reed, among others, who would stop by to visit his grandfather, to talk shop, play their music, and in so doing, to quite literally live the blues.

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Embracing the Economic Blues

 CLARKSDALE, MISSISSIPPI

When you walk the streets of Clarksdale, Mississippi, you can still hear the voice of blues legend Robert Johnson – ringing from the shop windows as well as from passing cars.  There’s a revival going on here and it’s all about the blues – about a respect for the first generation bluesmen who are honored and revered. 

But it’s not just about a cultural renaissance.  The blues pays, a concept that folks from all walks of life have begun to latch on to.

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