Angola Bound

Inside The Infamous Louisiana State Penitentiary

Editor's Note:

Khalilah Ramirez is an author, educator and performance artist known as The Peace Dancer. Her performance art, the Dance of Peace, is designed to radiate light, joy and peace to all who see it. In this week's column Khalilah got to visit with family in Louisiana and bring that light behind the walls of Angola Prison.

This Week In Peace is a cyberspace designed to encourage as many people as possible. It's closing in on the time of year where family celebrations are the order of the day. If life were "fair," everybody everywhere would be surrounded by a loving family or a network of friends. Since this isn't the case, those of us who have can afford to ask the question: What can I give? We all have something useful to share, even if it's just giving a friendly greeting to someone who otherwise wouldn't receive one today.

This was the case last week when I found myself inside the gates at Angola State Penitentiary. Every Sunday in October the prison hosts a rodeo featuring bull riding, a full food court and sales of furniture, leather and crafts. All of the food, entertainment and for sale goods are overseen by inmates who have reached trustee status. My uncle (we will call him Mr. G) is one of them. At the tender age of 15, he was involved in a botched robbery. The penal system at Angola State Penitentiary is built on racism (the onsite Angola History Museum provides detailed accounts of inmates being divided by race and treated accordingly) so his crime landed him in an adult facility facing a life sentence. 

Despite all of this, Mr.G appears to be thriving cheerfully. He regaled us with shocking tales of life on the inside, including showdowns with the guards and various famous rappers who became fellow inmates. His status as a trustee allowed him to walk outdoors unshackled in a small area. The day was incredible hot. Fortunately, we were housed under a small canopy which provided just enough shade for dancing, so I went to work. Step one was figuring out how to smuggle my speaker inside the gates. I ended up wrapping it in my jacket and somehow slipping by unnoticed. Next, we hid the speaker underneath some of the homemade furniture. This way the music could be coming from anywhere.

Most of the audience consisted of hundreds of people locked inside chain link fences, high gates and bars. Though most inmates were allowed to sell their wares, only a handful had achieved the status that would allow them to roam free. Seeing the Dance of Peace brought such a degree of stunned surprise to their faces that I wondered if I was doing the right thing. In an instant, it was clear that it was the only right thing to do. It is my work to bring light & love through dance wherever I can, not just where it's allowed or encouraged. I did experience the nervousness of being a renegade, risking a reprimand by the guards, but no such thing happened. The guards were just as interested in watching the dance unfold as the inmates were. They nodded their polite thanks, smiled and genuinely seemed more peaceful. 

Mr. G noticed this effect. After a few minutes he mused, "I'll be dog gone! How you doing this?" I laughed heartily at his accent and expressiveness then told the truth, " I don't really do anything. It's the spirit already inside each person that does the stuff. That and the magic power of music, of course." Music can fly and ride the wind. It can float directly into the hardest heart and softens it immediately. Music can stimulate the brain and activate the body in ways that mystify modern medicine. Music resounds deeply with people because we are all dancers in a manner of speaking. We are all dancing with life and one another,  each of us renegades fighting a corrupt and divisive government daily. We fight by insisting on love and justice and practicing just enough civil disobedience to keep life interesting. Moral of the story? Be You! That is the best possible way to contribute. Thanks and see you out there!

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