It seems like so much more time has passed, but when I look at the dates now I realize that it was only a year and a half ago that my friend Q. wrote to tell me that he was “in the box”—in a punishment cell—at the Louisiana State Prison at Angola, where he’s been an inmate since 1996. I thought at first he’d be returned to general population in a matter of weeks, but then a year and a half went by and he was still in the two-man cell, for reasons I might never really understand, though we’ve been discussing those reasons, among other things, ever since. There’s a discipline board that meets every 90 days to determine which inmates should be allowed back out of detention, but Q. kept refusing to ingratiate himself. He wouldn’t “dance,” he told me on the phone. “I’ve done 20 summers for taking $300. I’m done playing prisoner. I’ve paid my dues.” I considered the fact that he first got sent to the “box” right around the time I began submitting for publication a novel he’d written. Perhaps both of us, in different ways, were laboring under destructive illusions.
I met Q. in 2013 when I went to Angola as a journalist to cover the rehearsal and performance of a play, “The Life of Jesus Christ,” meant to humanize incarcerated people for an audience of free people. Q. had written and recorded some original music for the production. He was a rapper, he said, but hip hop was discouraged at Angola, so he’d taught himself a little guitar, a little keyboard, enough to play into a digital recorder to compose music, which he could then enhance with programmable beats and sound loops. He explained that he wanted to write “stadium songs,” popular songs that everyone could understand. He likened the endeavor to building an outfit around a pair of shoes or a necklace, an elaboration around a basic central concept. We talked about literature then—Q. had just read Machiavelli—and he bemoaned that “most people don’t go deep with a book, they just look for the main point, not the nuance or the development.”
He stands at the cell bars, runnin it…
“Picture the world
outside of my cell bars, light rain
Doin bout 80 on the interstate
Blowin’ out my carburetor
Spirit o’ the homies in the backseat
They love it so much they’re racking the cell bars and beating applause on the iron desks mounted to the wall in each cell. Lil Chris has been in these two-man cells for five weeks now. The dungeon. Administrative segregation. The middle ground, between drops. No cosmetics. Hygiene is wrecked. They shower and rub soap under their arms. No radio. No television. No reading materials, besides religious papers, law work, and personal mail. Cell confinement for twenty-three hours and forty-five minutes a day. Exactly fifteen minutes to shower. Das wuz up!
—from Power, Q.’s novel
When I told Q. I was trying to write a novel about an inmate serving life at Angola, he offered to send me a novel he had written himself, saying I could “steal” from it if I wanted. His manuscript, carefully handwritten in ballpoint pen, arrived in my mailbox 20 years into his sentence, in November of 2015. The story depicted an ensemble cast of characters enacting the power dynamics of prison, represented by rival crews of rappers. After the first time I read it, I felt compelled to send it to my agent and my editor. I thought they would think I was crazy, but they didn’t—they saw merit in the book, though they both turned it down. I started sending it everywhere after that. The next summer, a friend of mine gave me a book by a famous rapper, an illustrated cookbook of recipes he’d picked up during his own stint in prison. It was pure coincidence, my friend giving me this cookbook, but I saw that its publisher, the rapper’s own press, might be a more likely place for Q.’s novel than the more staid outlets I’d been reaching out to for the past six months. There was a certain carelessness in the way I went about submitting Q.’s book for publication, I see now. I thought I would almost certainly fail, so it was easy to tell myself, Why not try? But when publishers took it seriously, even though they rejected it, I had to start thinking that maybe it could really happen. This led to a different type of carelessness. For example, I didn’t want to entertain the fantasy that if Q. got his novel published it would somehow help him get out of prison. I didn’t want to arouse such hopes and yet I found myself arousing them, at least in myself.
Q. and his friend R. were still teenagers when, in 1995, they carjacked a woman at a shopping mall parking lot and forced her to withdraw three hundred dollars from her checking account (they had wanted five thousand). When she gave them the money, they let her go, having first told her where she would be able to find her car—back at the shopping mall parking lot. The woman immediately called the police who were of course there to arrest Q. and R. at the drop-off point. They were sentenced to life without parole for this crime. We hear that phrase “life without parole” so often that sometimes people forget that it actually means life in prison with no chance of ever getting out.
Q. and R. still had a lawyer, and he was still trying to see what could be done for them, and though I came to understand this legal strategy in confusing bits and pieces, I’ll just say that their only hope, as I understood it, was a legal technicality that might inspire a sympathetic D.A. to show mercy and negotiate a lighter sentence after all these years. It seemed like a slim hope. Right around the time I began sending out Power, the lawyer managed to get Q. and R. a hearing, and it seemed, for a brief moment, that they might actually be moving forward. Instead, they got their “asses handed” to them, as Q. wrote me the next day. For the first time in twenty years, they left the grounds of Angola to appear in a courtroom in Shreveport. One of Q.’s daughters came. She sat there in the gallery while Q. and R. stood mutely and, as he wrote, “everyone else decided what direction our lives would take next. AGAIN!”
Six months later, while I was still sending out Q.’s novel, R. got in touch with me to say that he was trying a different strategy. He was going to part ways with Q. and see if he could get a hearing before the pardon board. Unlike Q., R. had been a model prisoner for many years. He had already written a letter to the board and asked now if I would write one in his support. I told him yes, of course, though I didn’t think it would make much difference.
Q. had been in the box for about three months by then.
Q., two days after the unsuccessful hearing in Shreveport:
I thought I already told you how I wrote Power… Everyday, the administration puts out what’s called ‘call-outs’, to direct interprison inmate movement. Before they started trying to save paper, the call-outs would be 5 to 10 pages. Typed on just one side.
When I wrote Power, everyday at workcall, I would steal the call-out papers. Just swipe em’ off the desk, fold it up and put it in my pocket. Go check out at the work gate. Throughout the day, I would write in between work. A chapter a day. Mostly predicated on whatever the day presented… 5 workdays a week. I wrote the first 8 or 9 chapters in less then two weeks…I used the same format. Present, build up, climax, ebb off… If not rigidly, then as a point of departure.
After I got to 10 chapters I knew they all needed to communicate one message. You’ll see that that’s about where I start introducing the plot. But, mind you, I’m still just walking around with my eyes open and writing exactly what I see. …I knew intuitively what I would only read about, later: form follows function. Once I was definite about what I wanted to say the rest of the writing took care of itself.
Far as revisions… I did more shaving then anything else… I’m constantly trying to refine myself to toast with people of your ilk (seriously, almost obsessively) so every time consequences lead me back to the manuscript—like last October, for instance—I trusted who I’ve become to say what passed and what needed touchin’.
I wrote a follow-up email to the rapper’s publishing house in July of 2016. They got back to me saying they were interested in Power but would need a typed manuscript, so I asked one of my students if he would be willing to type it and he said yes, so then I sent in the typed version in early September. I followed up occasionally over the course of the next two months and then—about a year after Q.’s manuscript had first arrived in my mailbox—in mid-November the rapper’s press came back and said yes. They made an offer, with money involved. I now had to educate myself about logistics. For example, would Q. have to publish under a pseudonym? How would we manage the contract and the advance and the royalties? Were there other forms of jeopardy I wasn’t even foreseeing? I was concerned that the prison authorities would find ways to punish Q. for publishing a book set at Angola, even if the publication was legal (I had learned that it was legal from a lawyer friend, who did the research). I felt myself entering into a new kind of carelessness. I didn’t want to entertain the fantasy that if Q. got his novel published it would somehow help him get out of prison, but I told him I couldn’t help but hope for that, even while telling him I didn’t want to arouse too much hope. What other hopes was I arousing? The publishing house of a famous rapper wanted to publish Q.’s book. I was obviously arousing a lot.
Just before Thanksgiving, I drove to Shreveport, Q. and R.’s hometown, so that I could meet Q.’s mother about the contract. R.’s mother came to meet us that morning as well. She had misunderstood my reasons for coming. She’d thought I was a lawyer, that I was there to offer some actual concrete help.
I had sent Q. a draft of my own novel—the one about a man serving life in Angola—and he’d given me feedback. My books are not for everybody, but Q. is the kind of person they’re for, and he has read all my work, so I trusted his comments.
I wrote back to thank him, and then I went on:
I hear from R. once in awhile. He is moving down his own path now via the parole and pardon route. It sounds like he has submitted a letter of apology to the victim, that this is a precondition from the D.A if the D.A. is going to revisit the plea deal. I wanted to make sure you knew this and hope you have submitted a letter of your own or are working on one. As your friend, I don’t want to give “advice” but I want you to get out of prison (obviously).
I had negotiated with the rapper’s press a slight increase in the advance for Q.’s novel. I’d learned of a lawyer in Baton Rouge who specialized in pardon and parole cases and who had a strong track record and I was hoping the advance would be enough to cover his fees, but even after my negotiations we weren’t even close. I asked the lawyer if he thought the book’s publication would help Q.’s chances in getting out on an eventual pardon and he said no, what he and R. needed to do was serve 25 years—that was the magic number—and if they’d been well-behaved, done everything right, then, with the current governor, they had a chance of release. The sensitive artist card wasn’t going to help. I asked the lawyer if there was any flexibility with his fees. The simple truth I know now is that paying him would have been unnecessary. There really is a magic number, 25 years. In my carelessness, I ended up torturing myself with questions that were in fact superfluous, such as should I pay the fees myself, was it presumptuous to even think about doing so, how far or not far should I go, but this was part of the friendship I had embarked on, this not-knowing even what the questions were.
Q. sent me a large painting in the mail that he wanted to be the cover art for Power. He’d made an album of music that was a companion piece to the novel, almost a soundtrack, and he sent me this music on a chip. It was impressive to hear it. I began daydreaming of ways to use the music to get attention for Q., his book, his plight, and meanwhile Q. himself had begun to see the novel as a platform from which to obtain a record deal—to finally achieve that long-deferred dream of fame. There was, as there always is for artists, almost always unrealistically, faith in coming stardom. I knew the problems with this faith and was encouraging it anyway.
When I wrote to the rapper’s press to follow up on our deal, they began to show hesitancy. They said they had concerns that sales would be harmed because Q. couldn’t make appearances to promote the book. They also thought the title, Power, wasn’t suggestive enough. I asked them what they had in mind instead and they sent me an image of inmates at Angola in a farm field wielding hoes. The title should make an explicit connection between incarceration and slavery, they argued. I thought of Q.’s dreams of stardom and reminded them that the book was called Power, not Slavery, but I told them I’d speak with him about it. Since he was still in the box, unable to use email, I knew this could take a long time, so I contacted his mother first, hoping she would get a phone call from him soon. In my carelessness, I’d now become a white man explaining to the mother of a black man that his black publisher wanted him to change his book title from Power to something about slavery.
It went on like this for what seemed like a long time. Q. had been in the box for nine months, then ten—he was having trouble. He lost some vision in one of his eyes. He was suffering from depression, then something even more debilitating, and began taking meds. We could only communicate by mail, which could be very slow, and sometimes out of laziness I would email his prison account and the correction officers would print it out and bring it to him. He sent me some color drawings he’d made, one of which was a self-portrait, influenced by some photographs I’d sent him of mural paintings from the ruins at Teotihuacán in Mexico. Maybe you can see how Q. was feeling in this portrait.
I got your email, last night. Well received!! I know what you mean about the letters. Trust me, I tweeking to get out of the box, myself.
Not that this box is all bad. I’m sitting here, now, peeping out “Price is Right” and listening to Adele on 102.5. It’s feed up, but I ain’t moving—it’s coming straight to the cell door. Room service! Hahaha!!!
I recovered my eyesight, 100%. But, I did suffer another setback, recently. I had a more than problematic cellmate. I’ll be 40 next month, this cat was 25, just two years older than my oldest daughter.
So, anyway, we’re having cell issues. I feel compelled to be the adult. I’m looking over a lot of shit, but the more I let him march the bolder he gets. Dilemma! He’s throwing tantrums and shit. I’m embarrassed. I don’t let it snag my pride. I just tell myself he’s illiterate. Underdeveloped. Doesn’t know how to properly redress his grievances with me.
I know I’m an artist, fuck! I’m not the easiest person to live with. You even said it in that “Life of Christ” article you wrote. The euphemism you used was “moody,” I believe.
I even gave myself to the experience as a student. Allowed him to reacquaint me with boyish traits I’ve lost somewhere along the way. Let him give me my social cues, or some shit.
Shit still escalated. Fuck!!
Okay, so I sat him down and talked to him. Got in his face. Touched him to emphasize certain points. A subliminal message that I will lay hands on him. But, by this time he had shut down and moved out of reach of reason. He was committed to his course. He was gone to do his thang, I could either get with the program or get out the cell.
Even then I didn’t want to do what years of conditioning has taught me is necessary. Again, I’ll be 40 next fuckin’ month. I didn’t and still don’t want to see myself as someone who only knows how to solve his problems by punching on muthafuccas. Like a gottdamn monkey or some shit.
But, Zach, he had his people fucked up. That last tantrum was personal. Red flag!! I’m not sleeping locked in a box with a true enemy. So, I busted his ass. I’ll give him this, the lil bitch brung it like he sung it. He ain’t fold up. But he did bite the shit out of me. I still got the marks on my jawbone.
I had to sit by myself for a long time after reading this letter. I don’t think it comes across here. I remember thinking about his jawbone many months later as I took an outdoor shower at the house my wife and I used to live in year-round, where we now live only sometimes, where it’s pleasant in the summer to shower under trees instead of indoors.
It was a cold winter. Sometime in January, after all this back and forth about the title, about the difficulty of selling books when the author couldn’t make appearances to promote it, the rapper’s press stopped responding to me. A new President of the United States took office, the one who’d garnered more than 60 million votes. I wrote the rapper’s press one last time that February.
I haven’t heard from Q. in awhile.
I’m wondering if you are still interested in publishing his novel as I think he is discouraged. Please let me know.
They withdrew their offer later that day.
I hadn’t seen R. in person since the previous April, when I went to visit him at the Angola rodeo, which is also the occasion for a large arts and crafts fair at which inmates can sell their wares. R. is a carpenter and a metalsmith and also a class A trustee, which means that unlike Q. he has a great deal of freedom within the context of prison. When I went to visit him that spring at the craft fair, he was able to mingle with me like an ordinary person, dressed in street clothes, indistinguishable from the free people who were there shopping. We talked about Louisiana politics, which he follows more closely than I do. He was selling jewelry at his stand, and I remember he wanted to give me a pair of earrings for free but I insisted on paying him, and we went back and forth for awhile. R. used to be a quarterback in high school and he’s still a star athlete in prison. As a carpenter, he builds new structures—a church, for example—but he also builds coffins for inmates who die at Angola, go unclaimed by loved-ones, and have to be buried on the prison grounds. He drove a hard bargain that morning, trying to give me the earrings for free, but he finally let me win and I paid. The letter to the pardon board I’d written for him almost a year earlier seemed a distant memory. His legal angle at that point was still the slim possibility that the D.A., out of mercy, would revisit his and Q.’s case and renegotiate their sentences. When I asked R. how he was feeling about all this, he just looked out at the sky very calmly and said he wasn’t upset, he just needed to get out of there.
Then, three months later—June of that year—R. received a letter from the governor of Louisiana. After a year of waiting, his request for a pardon hearing had been granted.
From R., July 2017:
I hope that you and the Mrs. have been great. I finally got the paper back stating that your number has been cleared on my phone list. Usually I work on weekdays from 7am until 3pm. Anytime after that is good for me to call. Back here in this camp it’s nothing really but work-call, hobby-shop, and eating. Not that I’m complaining about it at all!!! Today I went to Camp-D for a baseball game and had the opportunity to see Q. He’s in the working cell-blocks at Raven. It seemed to me that he’s doing just fine. Of course he knew about my hearing and was happy to finally hear it from me. He told me that he had told his mother about it … She just wants him to get his act together so he won’t miss the bus. I told him just as much myself and I hope that he awakens out of his prison slumber before he gets sunk too deep in all of this.
The hearing was scheduled for September of 2017. When I called R. and Q.’s lawyer, he told me that he thought R. had a good chance of getting out. R. asked me to be one of two people who would speak on his behalf before the board.
I thought, if I hadn’t met Q., I would not be friends now with R.
Then I wondered if supporting R. was somehow disloyal to Q.
You have no idea how gratifying it is to take off on an intellectual bent and actually be understood. It means I’ve finally learned to communicate. To relate. And I’ve finally made contact with my natural group.
That May, my friend Deborah and I had had a surprise guest at our annual joint birthday party: G., who had been in Angola since he was 16 and had just been released after 42 years. I sent Q. a photo of G.’s reunion with three other former inmates—Q. had known almost all of them at Angola. I wasn’t sure exactly what I intended, but Q. saw that I intended to encourage him to follow their example and work for his release in the way they had, so he wrote back to say why he wasn’t taking that advice.
Strangely enough, I’m not the least bit contrite looking at them all free. Together. Proof that their method works…When I was a young pup I used to watch ‘em like elders…I sought them out in search of some kind of structure…
…(But) I took my own route. I’m an artist and a Gemini. They even tried to reach me on Mars. But I was out Mercury. More outlier than outlaw…
…I ain’t here fuckin’ wit’ drugs or letting my appetites command my decisions. I’m just keeping my posture erect and my chin like my last name Obama. Perpetuating a lifestyle that affords me more self-esteem than false bravado. And if I have to sit in a box time to time…Well, fuck it! Prison has no altitude. You either in or you out!…
…This isn’t radicalism or hate-fueled rebellion. It’s facts… I ain’t talkin’ defiance, I’m talkin’ homo erectus. You dig me…
I know exactly what I’m doing. I’m doing it on purpose.
Always what’s necessary and only what’s necessary.
There are times when I think he just doesn’t want to face the prospect of getting out of prison and all the complexities and compromises it would entail. But I have delusions of my own, and it’s not my place to cling to such thoughts about Q.
We arrived in Baton Rouge for R.’s hearing at eight a.m. on September 13—my wife Sarah, Deborah, and I. At the check-in office, a sheriff’s deputy gave us green placards to show we were there in support of an offender, the green indicating “go,” while the families and friends of victims were given red placards indicating “stop.” We sat all together in a large hot waiting room with no idea of what to expect next. You were not allowed to bring a phone or even a book, so there was nothing to do but just sit there. Eventually some inmates on work release came in to set up two enormous drum fans to try to cool us off. The fans were so loud that we couldn’t hear the tumult on the other side of the wall in the room where the first hearing was taking place. Apparently a family member of a man whose request had been denied threw a chair at the D.A., then he punched a spiderweb into the glass door leading out into the courtyard. The police came. This ended up slowing down the rest of the days’ proceedings. I had a class to teach that afternoon back in New Orleans, and I thought there would be plenty of time, but we ended up spending 7 hours sitting in the waiting room. There was no way to tell when we would be called because nobody knew.
I had worked hard on the statement I’d prepared for R., which in a way was the most important piece of writing I’d ever done. I wrote a late draft of it at my office on campus, then I printed it out, put it in my pocket, and left the building to get a snack. That was when, by chance, I ran into Calvin, a friend of mine who had spent more than 20 years incarcerated at Angola as an innocent man. Calvin is now a student at Tulane, where I teach. He happened to be there on the quad that afternoon waiting for his next class to start. I said hi and told him what I was doing, and he told me that he went to pardon hearings all the time, he was an advocate for people like R., and he gave me my first concrete idea of what the proceedings were like. Eventually, he asked to see my statement. After mulling it over carefully, he said, “I don’t know if I would say it like that.” It sounded like I was lecturing. I had to picture the board as a bunch of good ole boys, he told me. “You should try to make them laugh,” he said, and this made me laugh, the incongruity of it. It was a miracle I ran into Calvin that afternoon. He told me I should emphasize some basic points: R. was a trustee, he had learned carpentry and metal working, he had family support when he got out, a job waiting for him. He asked how much R. and I had discussed his crime, and I told him quite a bit, and Calvin encouraged me to go deeper, as deep as possible, which I did later that evening on the phone with R. Calvin also told me I should offer six months of rent for R. when he got out. “Put your money where your mouth is,” he said. I paused for a moment, then agreed to do that.
It was three o’clock in the afternoon when they finally announced R.’s hearing that afternoon in Baton Rouge. R. was not in the same building as us but in Angola with his mother, his aunt, and several other family members. We could see this on a video screen—the hearing was a kind of live telecast. Onscreen, R. was dressed in a gray dress shirt. He sat at a table between a warden and a correction officer. We sat in the space between the screen and the members of the board on their raised platform, behind long desks. The hearing started with R.s aunt, who made an eloquent speech on his behalf. Then the board asked R. some questions. I was glad that he and I had talked on the phone, because this way some of what R. had told me about, especially the hard questions about his crime, did not come as a surprise. R. handled himself well. It was impossible to say which way the board was leaning at that point.
I was the last to speak. I had to insist on getting my turn—the board wanted to wrap things up, and one of them told me to keep it brief, I had three minutes. I said the practical and strategic things that Calvin advised me to say, and though I knew I didn’t have it in me to make anyone laugh, I at least tried to extemporize, rather than just read a prepared statement word by word. I told them about R. and the trajectory of our friendship, and when I was finished I sat down so the board could announce its decision.
They commuted his life sentence to 99 years, which sounded at first like a distinction without a difference, but it was code. It meant now that he had “numbers” instead of life, which in turn meant that he was eligible for parole after 25 years. The magic number—25 years. He would likely get out in three years, in other words. My face must have shown disappointment, for one of the men on the board spoke to me, explaining that this was good news. At first, all I could take in was the fact that R. had to stay in prison. Imagine holding your breath for three more years. But imagine the alternative, which was to hold it forever.
On the way home from Baton Rouge, I got a phone call. I was driving, so I asked Sarah to answer, and when we saw that the number on the phone was from Angola, we assumed it was R., but it was Q. He wanted to know what had happened.
I really don’t know what he was feeling in this moment, though probably many things at once. Part of him must have been jealous, but I know another part of him was pleased for R. Their fates have been tied together since they were teenagers. But now R. was going off on his own, not just in theory but in fact.
We were driving the long causeway across the edge of Lake Ponchartrain, and I can remember the blue of the water and sky, the white barriers on either side of the roadway, the black shadows they cast, the difficulty of driving while talking to Q. about something that could not have been more important, while the phone sizzled in and out. We were of course talking about Q.’s choice not to pursue the route R. had pursued, his choice not to dance. He kept asking what I really thought, what was my real opinion about R.’s strategy versus his strategy, and I said a lot of things I didn’t want to say. I was driving and he kept asking. I said in essence that I thought he was crazy. He didn’t want to beg, he didn’t want to ask for a pardon. He wanted the D.A. to see reason, to revisit Q.’s sentence and determine that he had already served more than enough time, and I told Q. that he of all people should have serious doubts about putting his fate in the hands of a D.A. At one point, Q. posed a hypothetical question. How would I like it if a stranger walked into my living room and started telling me how to live my life? I thought he was talking about me—me walking into his life and telling him how to live—but I’d misunderstood. He was talking about getting out of prison and having to contend with a parole officer monitoring him even after he was “free.” I could tell by Q.’s silence that my misunderstanding had hurt him more than anything else I’d just said, far more even than me saying he was wrong not to follow R.’s example.
“Artist to artist,” he finally said. How could I not recognize him as myself, is what he meant. In my carelessness, I had forgotten we were the same. The same and very different, which was not a contradiction.
“I want my life back,” he said. It was something he’d told me many times before, but now he clarified it to say that he didn’t just want to get out of prison. He wanted his life back, free and clear. He had spent 22 summers for taking $300. It was enough time—more than enough time. He wanted the world to feel those years and understand why it was more than enough time.
At Christmas, they finally let Q. out of the box in a show of holiday generosity. He still has the same record of bad conduct, but he’s in the dorm, not the cell, and he has access to email again. So much has happened and not happened since this story began that I sometimes forget that Q. changed the title of his novel when we were going back and forth with the rapper’s press. The novel isn’t called Power anymore. It’s called This Life Matters. I found another publisher for it. This time the press is so small they don’t give advances, but their books are visible, they get reviewed, people read them. I know that the magic number for Q. to get out of prison is 25 years, and that even this would require him to establish a better conduct record, and that the book’s publication will not matter to a pardon board, should Q. ever decide to even pursue that route. Power. This Life Matters. The problem with both titles is that they can’t mean anything more than a slogan until you actually read the book—343 pages, 10 or 15 hours of your time.
Zachary Lazar is the author of five books, including the novels Sway and I Pity the Poor Immigrant, a New York Times Notable Book of 2014. His honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship and the 2015 John Updike Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters for “a writer in mid-career whose work has demonstrated consistent excellence.” His new novel, Vengeance, is just out.