Dooney & Bourke knockoff purses and stainless steel crosses line a long row of picnic tables at the Angola Prison Rodeo craft sale. The artisans wait close behind in a parallel craggy row, separated from their wares by a chain-link fence. There's a lot of sitting, smoking, staring among those in prison-issued garb. There's less selling.
"Hey, do you know John Kinsel?" a prisoner is asking as he guides me down the row of artist inmates. Blank stares. A shake of the head. "John Kinsel? Anybody?" Nobody knows him.
"Right here," says a man, who's gripping the fence with one raised arm and holding a cigarette with the other. "I'm John Kinsel." He smiles.
Eleven years in prison has aged Kinsel, whose plight we detailed in this week's cover story. After being charged with raping a child, Kinsel was convicted to life without parole based almost exclusively on the nine-year-old's testimony. Even when the girl came forward as an adult and said she had made the accusations up, and even after a judge ordered a new trial, he's still behind bars: or in today's case, a long sheath of wire.
Kinsel spends every free minute in Angola's hobby shop, where he makes earrings, necklaces, rings and bracelets to sell at the prison rodeo craft show. His is the only stall with a sign: "Garbage Can Jewelers, Incarcerated" it reads, with two overturned trash cans spewing painted trash. "It's an attention getter," he explains. He stares out at the few customers who pause in front of his stall, neither extinguishing his cigarette nor budging from his post. Kinsel is a casual businessman, making one-word suggestions to women who look halfway interested.
"Earrings?" he asks one.
He doesn't give a shit if she buys them or not. She doesn't. Anyway, a good chunk of the sale would go to Burl Cain, Angola's warden. "Burl takes 42 percent on credit cards and 20 percent on cash," Kinsel says. With what's left over, Kinsel buys cigarettes, clothes, shoes and food.
Kinsel has two prison tattoos: a naked lady on his left arm and a hellish looking skull on his right. He doesn't exactly look like a jewelry lover, but there is one piece he won't part with. Around his ring finger, Kinsel wears a silver band he made bearing the letters AMA. He tells his friends it stands for Another Mad American, but he tells me it really stands for Adrienne Marie Alberts -- his ex-girlfriend whose daughter put him in prison. The ring is as permanent as his tattoos.
Or, to make a grimmer simile, it's as permanent as his prison sentence: life without parole. Kinsel keeps mostly to himself at Angola, but there are two men he counts as close friends. Neither of them thinks he has much of a shot at getting out, even with an active case in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
One friend is Curtis Tullos, a burly man with a big laugh. He's what is called a "trustee" -- an inmate who has been in prison long enough with a clean enough record to gain the trust of prison personnel. Trustees are granted certain privileges, like being able to wander freely among the people at the prison rodeo. Today, Tullos is selling his handcrafted rocking horses and seesaws to families at the craft fair. He encourages kids passing by to get on the seesaw; his gregarious salesmanship has moved a few units.
Tullos tells us he killed two men who raped his sister. He's served 30 years of two life sentences. Even though Kinsel is in for rape, a crime that once led Tullos to take two lives, Tullos says he never believed there was ample evidence to convict Kinsel. "I could be extremely biased in John's case, " he said, "but John's circumstances aren't strong enough."
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Tullos says he hopes that Kinsel gets a new trial, but that he's been in the system long enough to understand how rarely that happens. "Every head they turn loose, the less money they make," he says.
Across the concrete prison grounds is Kinsel's other close friend, Lonnie Easterwood. He's selling intricate wooden balls that expand into myriad compartments when twisted a certain way. ("I've had a lot of time to figure stuff out," he tells us.) Easterwood is on year 32 of a life +40 sentence for first-degree murder.
He says he's seen fewer and fewer of his friends leave over the years. Years ago, he says, prison guards would give out bulletins every week that informed prisoners when they had a shot at a new trial, parole, or release. Now, he no longer sees the sheets being handed out. "There's no sense in wasting a blank sheet of paper," he said.
It's why Easterwood thinks Kinsel will have to stick around for a while, likely for life. "I'm doing the time, I knew what I did was wrong," he says. "Maybe I don't deserve a chance. But John does."