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In the Footsteps of Tocqueville (Part Three)

Death row and a brothel in Las Vegas; a pilot's lecture on creationism; genealogy and the Mormons; higher learning in Austin; a gun show in Fort Worth; and the rain-struck opening of the Clinton Library

There it is. It's the question asked by lovers of antiquity when they wonder if the Greeks believed in their myths or not—to which they reply, as André Gide did, that it was a matter less of belief than of assent.

And the fact is that in the great, simple sentiments that the Kennedy saga mobilizes; in this live death we are given to witness over and over again without ever tiring of it; in this proximity of suffering and love; in this nexus of power and misfortune, fall and redemption; in this story of youth struck down; in this true story of a glamorous and cursed family, blessed by the gods and pursued by a fate perceived as both inconceivable and necessary, it is the eternal form of Tragedy—"terror and pity," Aristotle said—that is played out and that makes us tremble.

The Kennedys are not, as is often alleged, an American royal family. They are the brothers in fate of Oedipus, Achilles, Theseus, Narcissus, Prometheus. They are the tragic side of a nation that thought it could do without tragedy. They are America's Greeks.

Hell Must Feel Like This

At first sight it's a prison. It's even, apparently, a decent- looking prison. A wholesome life in the great out- doors, on this former plantation north of Baton Rouge, the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, where you arrive via a sad and splendid road, planted with trees covered in kudzu and Spanish moss.

The bend in the Mississippi: the assistant warden, Cathy Fontenot, young, blonde, hair pulled back, pregnant, explains that the bend serves as a natural barrier on three sides, and renders unnecessary the cumbersome apparatus of watchtowers, barbed wire, walls.

The "trusties"—in other words, the 800 of 5,000 prisoners who have earned certain privileges through good behavior—can walk without surveillance, almost free, on these 18,000 acres of greenery that they call in these parts The Farm.

Carey Lassaigne, for instance, the trusty in charge of the stables, who, with his well-polished boots, his immaculate white T-shirt, his handsome, honest blue eyes, his faithful dogs, looks more like a gentleman farmer than someone doing life.

The cell blocks of "D Camp"—one of six living areas—themselves look all right. They have birds' names: Raven, Hawk 1 and 2, Falcon 1, 2, and 3. The dormitories, showers, collective baths, are in an altogether different league from what I was allowed to see at Rikers Island or in Las Vegas (not to mention that veritable pigsty Tocqueville discovered when he visited New Orleans, where the prisoners, he wrote, lived chained up like animals in the midst of their excrement).

And then there's the rodeo season, which every year in October attracts thousands of tourists from all over Louisiana. The prisoners are so proud of the rodeo they put on that none of them has ever taken advantage of the occasion, or of the relaxing of discipline it inevitably entails, to attempt an escape and, by doing so, risk having the administration retaliate by suppressing this "social benefit."

There's the volleyball court on the impeccable lawn at Falcon 3.

The boxing matches with referees, gloves, all the rules of fair play, as in any Southern university a century ago.

Wood figurines at the entrance to the housing blocks, made by the prisoners themselves for Thanksgiving, represent a fairy, a dwarf, a piglet on a leash.

In short, an above-average prison. A prison that from the outside looks almost like a model prison.

Except for one detail. One small detail, which has less to do with the prison itself than with the ruling legislation in the state, but which causes this landscape of green pastures to topple over into nightmare.

Since Angola is a prison reserved, for the most part, for people condemned to death or to life in prison, and since Louisiana law has the distinctive feature of suppressing the very principle of parole (conditional release for good behavior), the men who enter here know that they'll never get out, and that they're condemned to live without even the vague prospect of release that is the prisoner's final hope in other prisons.

How can you live when there's no hope for anything? How do you prepare yourself for prison when you know that whatever you do, you'll get out only by dying?

You think about your death, Cathy Fontenot replies, unflinchingly. Here at Angola, she explains, we have a magnificent hearse, drawn by a horse and made by the prisoners themselves. We have a special trusty, a carpenter. He builds the coffins with his own hands. Others dig the graves and prepare the wakes. When you don't have a family anymore, or when your family has forgotten you, you go to our cemetery to choose where your grave will be. You learn to read, too; most of these people are illiterate, and they learn how to read so they'll be able to comfort themselves with the Bible or the Koran when their time comes to be led to the death chamber.

I make my way to the cemetery where, in fact, those prisoners for whom Angola was the entire universe are buried.

I visit the death chamber, along with the little adjoining room where a victim's representatives can watch the condemned man's execution by lethal injection from behind glass, and a visiting area whose amenities Cathy Fontenot is proud to explain to me: separate men's and women's toilets; an "evacuation plan" in case of fire; and an immense, hope-inspiring mural showing a man rising into the sky on a winged white horse. In another room are three tables—yes, three; they don't skimp on expenses at Angola—where the condemned man can have his last meal served to him: good meat, foie gras, excellent side dishes, and even, once, a deliciously cooked dish of crayfish, paid for out of the warden's own pocket and prepared by the prison's culinary staff.

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