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Memoir sheds light on love with a lifer

“Five Thousand Brothers-in-Law: Love in Angola Prison” by Shannon Hager

Bellingham writer Shannon Hager has produced a book that rivals sand on the beach for its grit.

“Five Thousand Brothers-in-Law: Love in Angola Prison” is a memoir about her forbidden love affair with a five-time felon incarcerated in the Louisiana State Penitentiary. Better known as Angola, it is America’s largest maximum security prison, where nearly three-quarters of the inmates are serving life sentences without parole, and the majority of them are black.

Big Kidd was one of them.

He had already become a pastor in prison and host on the prison’s radio station when Hager arrived in 1992 as a public health nurse to manage the infection control department. They met when he interviewed her about the work she’d be doing at Angola.

He claimed to fall in love with her at their first meeting. It didn’t happen as quickly for her, but she was “enamored” of the prisoner population overall, finding it easier to get along with more of the prisoners than with her conservative co-workers. Like most of the jailers, she was white.

Any kind of fraternization between staff and inmates was prohibited. And for some, an interracial relationship was just as unpardonable. But as Big Kidd and Hager continued to work together, their mutual feelings grew.

Afraid of being busted if their affair were discovered, Hager quit working at Angola after two years and found a job in New Orleans instead. She stayed in touch with Big Kidd by accepting his collect phone calls from prison, and she visited his kin around Louisiana, getting acquainted with a haphazard network of siblings, kids and step-kids, many of whom seemed to be caught in – or bound for – a revolving-door life of crime and prison time.

“Five Thousand Brothers-in-Law” is an unvarnished look at racism, poverty, and systemic dysfunction – in the family, the streets, and the criminal justice system.

Hager began to realize that for some of the deeply impoverished, substance-abusing individuals she met, life behind bars was almost regarded as a step up, providing three guaranteed meals a day, a vermin-free living environment, maybe a chance to stay clear of drugs and alcohol, maybe a chance at some occupational training.

Eventually she and Big Kidd married in a ceremony held in the prison chapel, and his extended family and its problems became hers, as well.

Back when she had started working at Angola, Hager had been coached in how to avoid being “set up” by prisoners – not to use nicknames with them, not to contact their families, not to talk about personal things, not to have physical contact. Of course, with Big Kidd, she had disregarded all of those rules.

Even before becoming Mrs. Big Kidd, Hager began to feel that on some level she had, indeed, succumbed to a setup, even though she loved her man.

But it took the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath to force her into thinking about what she wanted her future to look like.

“Five Thousand Brothers-in-Law” is an unvarnished look at racism, poverty, and systemic dysfunction – in the family, the streets, and the criminal justice system. It is a mesmerizing tragedy.

The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at bkmonger@nwlink.com.

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