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Inmates Are Captive Oscars Audience

March 20, 1999

ANGOLA, La. (AP) _ Drive down the winding two-lane road through the desolate Tunica Hills, stop at the gates for a search, then go past stacks of razor-wire, through long flat fields patrolled by shotgun-toting guards on horseback.

When you reach the low-slung main building, you’ve reached the most exclusive Oscar party in the world.

``We’ll have a handful of people together watching TV,″ said Cathy Jett, a spokeswoman for the Angola state prison. ``It’s pretty exciting for the prisoners and the rest of us. You don’t get nominated for an Oscar every day when you’re at Angola.″

While champagne flows in Hollywood, some of the stars and a co-director of ``The Farm,″ one of the most acclaimed documentaries of 1998, will be gathered in a cinderblock room, drinking the bitter coffee brewed at the nation’s largest prison.

``No champagne here, we don’t even drink the prison brew,″ said inmate Wilbert Rideau, co-director of the movie and a noted journalist for his book on prison life and the prison magazine he edits monthly. ``But we’ll be celebrating just the same. That’s the thing about prison, you take your celebrations anytime and anywhere you can.″

``The Farm″ has already won a long list of awards from groups including the National Society of Film Critics, the New York Film Critics Circle and the Sundance Film Festival. It was shown on A&E and in England and soon begins a theater run.

Filmed over the course of more than a year, the movie follows the lives of six prisoners _ all sentenced to spend the rest of their lives at Angola, Louisiana’s maximum security prison.

``I liked the movie because I thought it showed us the way we really are,″ said Angola warden Burl Cain. ``It showed that these are real people, people who have done something bad, but haven’t stopped being humans. Haven’t stopped hoping.″

Two men, John Brown and Logan ``Bones″ Theriot, die during the film. Brown was executed after 12 years on death row for a murder he committed to get money to buy drugs. Theriot, who murdered his wife, died of cancer.

Of the remaining four, George Crawford and Eugene Tannehill were each convicted of murder, George Ashanti Witherspoon for armed robbery and a shootout that wounded two police officers, and Vincent Simmons for a rape conviction.

All remain at Angola as does Rideau, 57, who has been at the prison for 38 years.

``What we wanted to do was show real prisoners living real lives,″ Rideau said. ``People come here and disappear for the rest of the world. We wanted to show what happens after that.″

``I guess what it did was it made people know I still exist,″ said Tannehill, 64. ``Many wouldn’t think so after 40 years in prison.″

Almost all of Angola’s 5,000 inmates work, most in the sunbaked fields that make up the bulk of the prison sitting in a remote bend of the Mississippi River.

Inmates at Angola are serving some of the longest sentences in the country and over 85 percent of those sent to the prison will die there. Statistics released last week show Louisiana has the nation’s highest percentage of prisoners compared to state population.

The movie did not enrich its stars. Prisoners make 4 cents to 20 cents an hour for their prison jobs and get nothing for projects like the film.

``It’s been showing all over the world. I’m sure they did OK with it,″ Rideau said. ``But we didn’t get a penny. Nobody even treated us to an ice cream cone. We’re just people on the plantation working for our rent.″

Rideau, Tannehill and Witherspoon are all trusties and get to watch the Oscars with a group of other trusties, guards and prison officials. Crawford and Simmons must remain in their cells but could watch the show on a TV set placed in the corridor outside their cells, Jett said.

``When they showed the movie for the people here, you could have heard a pin drop,″ Witherspoon said. ``Everyone thought it was a really good movie, really well done, so we’re hopeful about the Oscar.″

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