Conversations with Literary Ex-Cons: Billy Sinclair

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On the cold rainy night that Billy Sinclair attempted his first armed robbery, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 1965, he was just another abused, reckless twenty-year-old punk. He had no intention of hurting anyone, he says, but as he fled from the Pak-A-Sak convenience store he shot and killed clerk James C. Bodden, who was chasing Sinclair with a broom raised over his head.

“The word ‘murder’ seared an indelible imprint on my brain. I was no longer Billy Wayne Sinclair—I was a murderer,” Sinclair wrote in his 2001 memoir, A Life in the Balance: The Billy Wayne Sinclair Story. “Sartre has written that ‘the act of murder changes the victim into a thing and, at the same time, the murderer into an object.’ …I looked out across the night knowing that I would never be the same; that I had fallen through the center of the world into a doomed colony of outcasts.”

That colony of outcasts was death row at Angola, the Farm, Louisiana’s storied and notorious state penitentiary, a Southern delta prison stretched upon the brutal plains of racial and economic cruelty.

But as Sinclair waited for years to be burned to death in the electric chair—and they were thirsty to kill him—he found himself, a different self, better angels born from demons.

He became a legendary jailhouse lawyer, one of the first inmates in the modern era to successfully argue the conditions of his confinement. Then he joined the prison magazine, The Angolite, as a writer and editor, and this journalism, this writing from inside the beast, would bring him not just a measure of redemption, but fame even, and after forty years, his freedom.

Along with his co-editor and death row friend Wilbert Rideau, Sinclair helped make The Angolite itself into a national story. Under their editorial guidance, The Angolite became the first prison publication in the country ever to be nominated for a National Magazine Award, and Sinclair and Rideau won personal acclaim—including the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award and the American Bar Association’s Silver Gavel—for their searing and candid articles that exposed to the public life inside “America’s worst prison system,” as Sinclair described it in the subtitle of his memoir: the vicious realities of death row, the madness of the cells, prison rape, the brutality of the guards.

“Their voice is The Angolite,” TIME magazine wrote in 1980, “the most probing and literate inmate publication in the US.”

Sinclair was set free in 2006. Understandably, he doesn’t really want to look back. “Why would I want to look back at forty wasted years, that are gone, that were difficult hard years even in the best of circumstances?” he told me. “I’m seventy-one years old. I’m not gonna waste my time I have left on earth either to regale or remember my prison experience.”

But he did, the brave soul, and he took me with him.

***

The Rumpus: Billy, from the outside your life seems scripted. The arc of it is stunning. Forty years in prison for murder, now in your seventies and free, and you’re working for a criminal defense law firm.

Billy Sinclair: If I were sitting in a prison cell thinking of the ideal perfect job placement it would be the one that I have. I’m a senior paralegal with the John T. Floyd law firm in Houston. They’re prestigious, good people, been with them for ten years. We represent federal and state cases, which range from capital murder, sex crimes, drug conspiracies, all of it. But from the time I was a celebrated inmate, an award-winning journalist and jailhouse lawyer, I thought that if I ever got out I would go out into the free world, and there’d be apples and oranges there for the picking. But it wasn’t like that at all, coming out of prison after decades. It was terrifying. But when I was in prison I used to have the foolish notion that if you put me in New York City, in Times Square in my underwear, I would survive.

In prison, you accrue status through intelligence, a rare commodity in prison, or you accrue status because you’re a bad motherfucker, and you demand status. Everyone has a false impression of what the free world is. Nice car, fine clothes, I’m gonna be able to wine and dine. No, you have to pay bills and put bread and butter on the table, and that does not come free. You can think about all those apples and oranges but you gotta go pick them and carry them home and make them work. That’s why so many inmates fail because they’ve had this false illusion of what the free world is all about. You’ve been locked up forty years. You have no way of knowing things. I didn’t know how to use a computer. I just had my typewriter in prison.

Rumpus: What kind did you have? [This was his power, I thought. He made it so. His words. His thought. They cannot imprison your mind.]

Sinclair: IBM Selectric.

Rumpus: I imagine that was your pride and joy in there.

Sinclair: It was. You know, I remember after I’d gotten out, standing in the big glass windows looking out on downtown Houston, and it literally scared the fuck out of me. How am I gonna do this? How am I gonna make this work? There are people out here that are homeless, who cannot come to grips with the demands of a free society. My God, how am I gonna do this?

Rumpus: What did you do?

Sinclair: I went to community college, learned how to use the Internet, started taking paralegal courses. Sure, I knew federal law, constitutional law, how to file a habeas corpus. Big difference between post conviction filings and the demands of an undecided case. Especially Texas, I didn’t know the Texas codes. I earned a paralegal degree from Houston Community College. I made the dean’s list.

Rumpus: Did the teacher or fellow students know who you were, your story?

Sinclair: One professor did know my story. I made it a point not to discuss it with the other students. They were just starting. I had a broader understanding of the criminal justice system. A couple of ‘em became dependent on me to explain the classes. I know they were intrigued about how I’d learned what I knew. I would lie and say I worked in law libraries in Louisiana. It wasn’t a lie so much as an exaggeration of the truth. They were prison law libraries.

[The old storyline of the convict studying the law. But it’s not a cliché; it endures as one of the more vivid representations of self-reliance, I think, of ingenuity and the power of the mind to free us from the hells we make for ourselves or are made to suffer. For more on “convict criminology”—the study, understanding, and use of the law by convicts and ex-convicts—see this excellent article by Seth Ferranti.]

Rumpus: You were coming from such a different place.

Sinclair: In prison I was a celebrated journalist. When you’re an inmate and you win a Polk and a Kennedy Award, that makes you a very famous, distinguished person within the prison setting. It places you in the social order above most of the inmates.

But no matter how many jailhouse lawyer lawsuits I may have filed and won, that did not prepare me to make a living in the free world. I did not want to be an award-winning journalist anymore. I did not want to be an author. I wanted to be a person in the free world who worked day in, day out, to fulfill obligations to my family, to my coworkers, and I didn’t want any distraction. I wanted to have a good, decent life and contribute to my family, to have a home and a successful marriage. That was important to me. Some people see that as abandoning my fellow inmates, because I’m not an activist. But for forty years I had absolute shit. Prison gobbles your humanity up and spits it out on a daily basis. So when the opportunity came for me to achieve what I’d wanted for four decades, I did it. The nitty gritty of life, that’s what I wanted.

Rumpus: A simple life, I hear you. It’s helpful for me, too, to hear you talk about activism. You’re not known as a reform advocate or a talking head in the press or on TV. [Although he does frequently post on Facebook about politics and criminal justice matters.]

Sinclair: I committed that crime and it was a very serious crime and I paid a very heavy debt. When I was in prison I stood up against authority. I was known far and wide in Louisiana as someone who would take on the system. But when I came home I left that wagon there. I didn’t want to re-litigate those battles. Well, you abandoned your fellow inmates, some might say. But I had no allegiance to prison. When I read about prison today, sure it impacts me, but prison is not my world anymore. I don’t want to have it in my mind. I don’t want to go back there.

It’s a very divisive world and there’s a lot of animosity for criminals. I agree with reforms wholeheartedly but there’s still a very negative force out there against ex-offenders, convicts, people coming out of prison.

Rumpus: For taking a life, your life was set to be taken. You were still a young man yourself then in the 1960s, and there you are on death row, awaiting execution.

What was going through your head when the Supreme Court abolished the death penalty and your sentence was commuted to life?

Sinclair: Mine was a very practical decision. There were forty-three inmates then on death row at Angola. Six white, the rest were black. We just had a new governor, Edwin Edwards. If the Supreme Court upheld the death penalty in 1972, he would sign some death warrants in Louisiana. Mine was the most high-profile case. The death penalty was a big issue at that time. Every state had an interest in it.

Rumpus: Are you saying that you might have been first in line?

Sinclair: That’s what I was thinking. Since Edwards had won with a strong black vote in Louisiana he would not want to sign a death warrant for a black inmate. Wilbert Rideau was on death row then, too. He would have signed them at the same time, because we were the two most obvious choices.

Rumpus: But why exactly you two?

Sinclair: Because both our cases were high-profile political cases. There was strong opposition that had led to the death penalty being imposed on us for our crimes, opposition to any kind of relief granted to us, victim opposition. That became a new term in later years. So Edwards is looking to go forward with the executions that would cause the most interest.

[In A Life in the Balance, which Sinclair co-authored with his wife, Jodie, he described Rideau as “the state’s most notorious killer… a black man who slit the throat of a white woman and tried to kill two other white people—the worst crime that could be committed in the South in the 1960s.” For Sinclair’s part, his victim, J. C. Bodden, was a well-liked Baton Rouge local who had been a football star in high school. Those angling for Sinclair’s execution included not just local law enforcement but Louisiana state authorities.]

Rumpus: That’s pretty morbid, isn’t it? The most political splash.

Sinclair: We were ideal candidates. There would be little opposition. This was before we became well-known, celebrated for our journalism achievements. We were just regular old death row inmates at that time.

Rumpus: But you started educating yourself in earnest then, right?

[In A Life in the Balance he wrote, “Intellectual activity born of self-discipline, I found, held the key to coping with the psychological brutality of the death cage.”]

Sinclair: On death row I started studying law, reading philosophy. It gives you a lot of time for introspection, to learn how to read, to see life from a much larger perspective than I had before I went to prison. If I looked back on my first legal filings, I would be embarrassed by the grammar, the syntax. But you keep evolving, and something happens along the way. The more intellectual curiosity you have, the more you develop a moral fiber. Morally you start to question yourself, your own values, how they relate to other people, what you want to be personally. I’m a prisoner, but I can’t be a part of criminal mindset. I cannot embrace the convict code. I have to develop my own ethics, my own values. In a lot of ways, without being braggadocious, it takes courage to do that.

I wrote about it in my prison memoir, I had inmates come to me, who wanted me to lead a protest, and I didn’t want to be a part of it. I went to work. The only reason I was not killed was because I had enough of a standing, the respect of enough people, but that was where I severed my connection to the criminal mindset. I became a responsible individual.

Rumpus: When was that?

Sinclair: That was in 1975. Actually, I got out of lockdown… spring of ’76.

Rumpus: What were you in lockdown for?

Sinclair: A guard said he saw me pass another inmate three tabs of acid hidden in a law book. That was a very all-white redneck prison staff. There was no place for a young, crazy, longhaired hippy. They sent a snitch to me and set me up. I was on lockdown for two years.

Rumpus: Do you remember what that protest was about?

Sinclair: I had filed a lawsuit from death row, one of the first in the US, challenging the conditions of confinement at Angola. Keeping a prisoner locked up for so many hours a day violated the cruel and unusual punishment protections of the 8th Amendment. Roaches in the breadboxes. Rats coming up through our toilets. They assigned me a civil rights attorney and we were able to put in place certain procedural protections—a mattress when you’re in isolation, limits to solitary, time for exercise. There was a tier above death row at Angola called the Amphitheater. That’s where the Black Panthers lived. They later used my lawsuit to challenge the conditions of their confinement, too. I was the only white inmate who could walk down through the black part of the prison because I was helping a lot black inmates with their cases.

My whole revolution began with my willingness to take on the system, someone who was waiting to die, in a system that was all white, with inmates for guards, a brutal place, and ‘Hey, I’m gonna challenge your authority,’ and survived a couple of attempts on my life.

Rumpus: This is while you were almost totally at their mercy on death row. You were really going for broke, weren’t you?

Sinclair: Yeah, I was thinking, Is this gonna speed me into the electric chair? Are they gonna come after me? By then I was twenty-five, twenty-six years old. I was offended at the way things were done. You just get tired of the way you’re being treated. I’m not gonna tolerate it anymore. I grew up under a very abusive dad. I had a very strong sense of abuse of authority. You reach a point where you say, “What’s the worst that’s gonna happen?” If you don’t have that much to live for, I’m not gonna let them do this to me. It’s not right. They might think it’s right, but I’m gonna resist. I’m gonna rebel.

[I thought I heard something move in Billy when he spoke of this, a slight break in his voice—to think back on those pitiable moments when you’re at such a precipice, with simply nothing left to lose.]

You’re doing it for self-serving reasons, for the prison status it gives you, for the respect it brings you, but you come to a point, you evolve, not to be just a rebel. You have to develop a sense of morality, and be responsible for your actions. If I do this, it’s gonna have these consequences and it’s gonna affect people beyond you, and you have to consider that. Those are not activist, intellectual decisions. Those are moral decisions. I went from an anarchist to a leader.

Rumpus: And you led through the law, and through writing, didn’t you? Fighting the system with its own weapons.

Sinclair: A warden at the time, C. Paul Phelps, said that “Billy Sinclair has done more to change the Louisiana system with lawsuits he didn’t win, than the ones that worked.” He said every lawsuit I filed they studied. The prison administrators studied it. “Can we make these changes?” they said. “What would it do? Is this something we could gradually bring into the system?”

Rumpus: Your mentioning Warden Phelps brings us to The Angolite, Angola’s acclaimed prison newsmagazine. Phelps believed in a free inmate press, that this transparency, even to the public, was a positive thing, right?

Sinclair: Right, he was very instrumental in The Angolite. It could not have been done had we not had an administration who was willing to open up the door. See, they had their own reasons, too, because the more acclaim The Angolite received, the more attention the administration got, the more positive press they received. It was the prison officials who got to pick up our awards when we couldn’t go. They got to hobnob and meet with important people.

Rumpus: Did you realize the potential that you had in The Angolite, how this little prison magazine could have such far-reaching impact and so radically alter your life?

Sinclair: Rideau and I knew we had a vehicle and if we do it right we can tell the world what’s going on here. We were very successful in doing that.

Rumpus: In A Life in the Balance you wrote:

The stories we wrote seared away sham and conventional beliefs about keepers and the kept. We wrote the truth about cell madness, guards turned pimp and killer, midnight suicide, and self-mutilation. We chronicled the scalding shame of homosexual rape and wrote of paranoia, the psychological mind-set necessary for survival in prison. We carefully crafted our words to temper our bitterness and purge any bias in our stories about the casual atrocities of life behind prison walls.

Sinclair: That’s it, that’s exactly what we done. We were two editors. We had the written word as our tool, our weapon, not an aggressive weapon, but a weapon of survival. Be tempered, balanced, but get our stories across, and that was the nitty gritty of prison survival.

[It’s worthy to note that Sinclair and Rideau’s golden era of prison journalism came not long after the Attica prison uprising, in 1971, had luridly exposed to national consciousness the hidden and brutal world behind bars. For an outstanding account of the Attica uprising see Heather Ann Thompson’s new book Blood in the Water.]

Rumpus: You and Rideau won a prestigious George Polk Award in 1979 for your articles “The Other Side of Murder” and “Prison: A Sexual Jungle.” Was “The Other Side of Murder” you discussing your own complexity beyond just having committed this crime?

Sinclair: It was an in-depth piece about the death penalty. This is what happens when you deal with the crime of murder. People see the front side of murder, the newspapers, but it’s on the back side of murder, where the punishment is carried out, that you see how it’s a flawed penalty. There has to be a way for society to respond to violent crime, means with which to deal with crime. What comes with that is isolation. I don’t believe in punitive isolation, but I do believe you need to isolate certain people, remove them from the community. American prisons are violent, brutal, but even with that they are better than most prison systems. We may not be as humane as Canada or Switzerland, some of the Scandinavian countries. Prison is not supposed to be a comfortable place, but a prisoner can be held in a humane way, without stripping every ounce of his well-being and human dignity.

Rumpus: It seems that this reasonable view is finally leading to more bipartisan support for criminal justice reform.

Sinclair: I don’t think it’s bipartisan. I don’t think it has anything to do with them recognizing the dignity of these people. I just think the economics is just bringing them to their knees.

Rumpus: Is that what you saw in the various administrations in your prison experience, from the 1970s into the new century?

Sinclair: Phelps said this back in the ’80s to me and Rideau: “One day the numbers are going to catch up to them, the prison populations, and they won’t be able to deal with them.” I think he really believed in bringing about reform. Angola was cleaned up by another warden named Ross Maggio, who was there twice between ’76 and ’88. They weren’t liberal reformers, but they believed in programs, in a safe and humane setting. Maggio made night school available to inmates. He believed in regimentation, and I do, too. Work during the day, I agree with that, too. You owe the state eight hours of work; get the benefits of education on your own time.

[Sinclair expressed his deep appreciation to Maggio in the forward of his memoir, calling him “the very best the corrections industry has to offer.”]

Rumpus: Did you bring that solid work ethic to your journalism?

Sinclair: I did.

Rumpus: Were you relentless?

Sinclair: I was a good reporter. I knew how to separate the wheat from the chaff. If you can’t dazzle ‘em with brilliance, baffle ’em with bullshit.

Rumpus: Ha! You mean you could recognize when someone was doing that to you.

Sinclair: Exactly. I knew how to get at a story. I could tell when someone was lying, someone was bullshitting. You learn how to interpret people, situations.

Rumpus: It’s amazing how you and Rideau were featured back then on national news, the idea of permitting convicted murderers, still in prison, to have such a platform and voice.

Sinclair: Here’s two inmates sitting on Nightline interviewing the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Warren Burger, discussing the prison system and what could be done to improve it. Private prisons, prison labor. Rideau and I were the two “expert” inmates. The program generated so many calls as it was going on that Ted Koppel extended it.

Rumpus: Do you remember what year that was, and where you guys sat in Angola when you did it?

Sinclair: I think it was 1982. ABC had to bring in this huge satellite, and they put it in a camp near the main complex, where they had a prison training academy for the correction officers. It was the only place they could bring this huge truck in and get a signal with the live satellite. They had us sitting in the office in the lobby, a couple of chairs set up. We couldn’t see Koppel or the Chief Justice, but we could hear them. We were mic’ed up. Here we were sitting facing a wall in prison, talking to the wall, listening to the Chief Justice of the United States.

Rumpus: Just wild, and to think of something like that today. Were you guys able to watch that program at any point?

Sinclair: We were later able to watch it. When you look back over your life, what are the most interesting or distinguished moments? That was a very memorable situation. I was honored that the Chief Justice talked with us, and complimented us on our presentation.

Rumpus: I mean, your story just sets up to be a prime example of giving people, even murderers, a second chance. It’s easy to see why people would want to make you a symbol.

Sinclair: That’s what we became, models of rehabilitation. You pick up support. People want to use you as a symbol. We were hailed as the two most rehabilitated inmates in the US. Rideau had been in the ‘90s. Louisiana prison officials held both of us out to national media as models of rehabilitation in the US.

[In 1993 LIFE magazine called Rideau “The Most Rehabilitated Prisoner in America.” In 2005, after forty-four years in Angola, he was released, and in 2010 published In the Place of Justice: A Story of Punishment and Deliverance. Rideau has so far declined my requests to interview him for this series, though he did, in an email response, call it a “great concept.”]

Rumpus: While inmates you both also toured the state talking about criminal justice matters, didn’t you?

Sinclair: There was one time we had a whole week of lectures in northern Louisiana, and the guard driving the van took a short cut and came down through Mississippi, trying to cut an hour off the return trip to Angola. We stopped at Natchez to get something to eat. Now, we weren’t cuffed or tied up. The guard had made a mistake, because there we were in another state, so we couldn’t have been accused of fleeing Louisiana if we had bolted. We could have escaped. I could have made that decision, but what would that have done to all the people who believed in me at that point? I’m riding back to prison and that prison gate is there. Man, it was a hard feeling. “What are you crazy? You could’ve just walked off?” Me and Rideau talked about it later back at the prison. We realized there had been that opportunity. But there’s a larger goal here. Your goal is to be free. You have to pass on those temptations.

Rumpus: And so now what do you want from your life?

Sinclair: I don’t want to be a former murderer, former killer, convict writer, convict author. I don’t want to be any of these things.

Rumpus: What do you want to be? I know you’re doing interesting work with that Houston law firm.

Sinclair: I live in Texas hill country, 180-degree view of the hills in the distance. My wife and I both work, we’re both employed, both have our health, income, a certain amount of security, our family and friends. When you look at the sum of it together, we have a good life.

[Billy’s relationship with his amazing wife, Jodie, is another sweeping story unto itself. Jodie, who graduated from the Columbia School of Journalism, told me this in an email message: “So proud of him. We have been married thirty-five years in June. I was a reporter when we met in 1981 doing a series on the death penalty and he was an Angolite editor. We met for the very first time in the Death House at Angola where I was to interview the warden and he was doing a story on reporters covering an upcoming execution. I waited twenty-five years to see him walk out the prison door forever.” The New York Times is currently producing one of their engaging Op-Docs on Billy and Jodie.]

Rumpus: Pretty wild.

Sinclair: It is. We’re just taxpaying, hardworking people. Have my ashes spread across the hill country and I’d be at peace.

Rumpus: Do you think that because of those forty hard years you appreciate little things more?

Sinclair: I do. What I’m doing now are the things I dreamed of doing when I was locked up. There’s a satisfaction in knowing that, certainly a satisfaction in living it.

Rumpus: I hope you enjoy another day in those Texas hills, Billy.

Sinclair: You be good.

***

Want more from Cullen Thomas? Visit the “Conversations with Literary Ex-Cons” archives here.


Cullen Thomas is the author of Brother One Cell, a Kiriyama Prize Notable Book and one of World Hum's Best Travel Books of the Year. His writing has appeared in GQ, the New York Times Magazine, the Daily Beast, and Foreign Policy. He teaches The Dark Side: Crime and Punishment in Literature at New York University. More from this author →