The Louisiana State Penitentiary, Angola Prison, is a sprawling old plantation on the Mississippi River. It was named, long ago, for the birthplace of the slaves who were brought here to work the land.

Now, Angola holds more than five-thousand prisoners, mostly African Americans. It still has the look of another time: long straight lines of black men march to work along the levees with shovels over their shoulders. They are trailed by guards on horseback, shotguns resting in their laps.

It used to be that a life sentence in Louisiana meant a maximum of ten years and six months behind bars. But, in the 1970s, the state’s politicians changed the definition. A life sentence in Louisiana now means just that. Unless they’re pardoned by the Governor, inmates today know they will never again see the outside world — that they will die inside Angola prison. Tossing Away the Keys is their story.

Recorded in Angola, Louisiana. Premiered April 29, 1990, on Weekend All Things Considered.

Update on Tossing Away the Keys

After the broadcast of Tossing Away the Keys, some of the prisoners profiled in the documentary were released from Angola.

    • Moreese Bickham, who spent 14 years on death row, was released from Angola in January 1996 after the Governor of Louisiana commuted his sentence to 75 years.He spends his days fishing near his home in Kalamath Falls, Oregon. In December, 2002 he lost his wife of 65 years, Ernestine.
    • Joe White was released from Angola in 1992, graduated from community college in Los Angeles, and is launching a career as a poet. He recorded an audio update for Sound Portraits in 1999.
    • Wilbert Rideau was granted freedom on January 9, 2005, after 44 years behind bars.
    • Ron Wikberg, associate editor of The Angolite, was released from Angola in 1994 and moved to Maryland to marry Kay Smith. He died of cancer shortly thereafter.
    • Donald Buffet died at the Louisiana State Penitentiary.
    • Henry Patterson died at the Louisiana State Penitentiary.
    • Monroe Green died on October 10th, 2004 at the Earl K. Long Medical Center in Baton Rouge after a 39-year confinement. He was buried in his hometown, where the funeral service was attended by dozens of family member and friends.

    This documentary comes from Sound Portraits Productions, a mission-driven independent production company that was created by Dave Isay in 1994. Sound Portraits was the predecessor to StoryCorps and was dedicated to telling stories that brought neglected American voices to a national audience.