For 42 years I have lived in an underworld I never knew existed until I became one of the thousands of women in that world, women distrusted by the public and defamed by the media for being a prisoner’s wife. I swore after my husband was paroled that I would never forget the suffering of other women like me.
My life in that underworld still widely unknown to many, began when I met an extraordinary man in the Death House at Angola, a Louisiana slave plantation turned into a prison in 1880.
I was a TV news reporter then, at Angola to cover an upcoming execution.
The man was Billy Sinclair, a journalist with major national awards – The Robert F. Kennedy Award for highlighting human rights, social justice, and individual action; the American Bar Association’s Silver Gavel for journalists who improve “comprehension of jurisprudence in the United States”; the George Polk Award for special achievements in journalism and the Sidney Hillman Award for outstanding investigative journalism that exposes social and economic injustices.
I was shocked that day to learn that at the time he was an inmate and co-editor of The Angolite, the nation’s most famous prison magazine, written and edited by prisoners. I married him in 1982 and I was determined to get him out of prison.
I lost my job at the Baton Rouge TV station shortly after we met and started visiting regularly. When we married, I kept it a secret. Unlike some of the other prisoner’s wives who may have hit roadblocks when looking for work, given my master’s degree from an Ivy League college, I was able to get decent jobs.
In 1986, my incarcerated husband of four years who was on death row did the unimaginable.
Instead of grabbing the opportunity to buy his way out, he reported a pardon-buying scam at Angola to the FBI after he learned about it from a top prison official who told him he could get a pardon if he gave the official $15,000.
The Louisiana Pardon Board chairman and the prison official were convicted. Prisoners who lost money in the scam’s pipeline wanted revenge for what he did. Those who bought pardons were released for providing evidence in the case. Not Billy Sinclair.
He lost his position with The Angolite and the privileges that came with it. For a time, he was held in protective custody in Baton Rouge. He ended up in a maximum security prison in north Louisiana, almost doubling my 572-mile round trip to see him back in Angola.
For the first 10 years of our marriage, I drove 286 miles every other Friday night from Houston to Baton Rouge to see him for two hours on Saturday at Angola. Cell phones didn’t exist. There was no way I could get help on the road if I needed it. Music was my only companion in the dark. When I hear that music, I’m on the road again, his sentence tearing at my heart.
Memories of that quarter century never fade – my sometimes dangerous highway trips, nothing more than a quick kiss hello and goodbye in a visiting room, the expensive monitored phone calls, the fear I felt if he couldn’t call.
He was paroled in 2006 after 40 years in prison. He had a heart murmur and a genetic disability that left him unable to open his eyes or move them up or down or side to side. Inmates taped his eyelids up every morning so he could see. Fear he would die stalked me every day.
Under Louisiana law, his crime was manslaughter. But he was convicted of felony murder. He was sentenced to death in 1965. Four eyewitnesses who saw what happened were never called to testify at his trial. We found out about them years later. They saw him fire an unaimed gun over his shoulder to scare the clerk chasing him across the parking lot from the store he tried to rob. There was no intent to kill. But the clerk bled out from the fatal shot. The clerk was holding a broom over his head with both hands as he chased Billy away and the bullet Billy fired hit the clerk in the left armpit and then the aorta. In 1972, the US Supreme Court overturned the death penalty nationwide, saving Billy Sinclair’s life.
In 1991, a popular book, “Women Who Love Men Who Kill,” portrayed the wives of prisoners convicted of murder as little girls lost, living a romantic fantasy, “compelled to dance with the masters of death.” Other reports and documentaries over the years painted similar pictures.
The Loren Chronicles is the first to tell a different story. Its founder writes that the “hundreds and thousands” of women who marry men in prison are as “diverse, quirky, open-hearted, misguided, optimistic, rational, irrational, well-considered and impulsive” as women who marry men in the free world. Megan Comfort, a psychologist who wrote the book“Doing Time Together” about women married to inmates, is one of the women quoted by The Loren Chronicle on how hard life is for the wives and girlfriends of inmates even though statistics show that prison marriage can reduce the recidivism rate.
In 2023 at age 85, I’m living with the husband I loved for the quarter century I fought to free him, a gainfully employed, 79-year-old still on parole after 58 years in Louisiana’s custody, leaving our lives in control of a corrupt government I despise.
Today, I have one goal left – helping the public understand women like me so they can get the support they deserve.