The Bird Man of Angola

by Kilian McGowan, C.P.

It all began with a letter from Louisiana State Prison dated November 12, 1992.

The author of the letter was Dennis S. Lennon (Convict #95183) and I'll let him tell his story:

"I'm presently serving a life sentence in LA State Prison at Angola, Louisiana. Since 1986 I have been confined to a maximum security unit where I spend 23 hours a day in a small cell.

"Due to the length of my sentence and the time that I have been incarcerated, I have lost virtually all contact with family and friends. This loss of contact bears heavily on my mind and at times it seems that I'm looking down at a tunnel with no end in sight.

"I was raised in a religious family and recently have been turning more to God and His promises for consolation. I'm asking if you might find space in your publication to print my letter seeking correspondence.

"A letter from anyone would help morale and dissipate the loneliness that has become my everyday companion. Thank you for any consideration you may give to my request."

Dennis' next letter had a beautiful colored bird on the envelope and I asked him where he learned his art. I found that his mother was an artist and she had taught him some fundamentals of sketching and painting/coloring his birds and flowers. I also learned that he was a six-foot white male born in December, 1951. At the date of this writing, he had been imprisoned for almost 17 years.

"I have a life-sentence for several robberies. I'm in maximum security because when younger I had attempted to escape. We have a caged-in yard here, but I only go there when I'm desperate for some breathable air. Otherwise, we can come out of our cell for an hour a day.

"I do get lonely for outside contact. Angola is a swampy area surrounded by the Mississippi river. Sometimes you say to yourself `Is there any end to this?'

"I've been here for some years now and I've seen men go totally mad. I've seen several commit suicide. I hope and pray that I never go to such extremes. Eventually, I hope to get released. I have a clean record, so there's hope there."

Favorite Studies

In a letter several months later, Dennis wrote the following: "I see that I am corresponding with the Editor of "Compassion." You're probably very busy. Yes, I'm doing the best I can to survive prison. I keep as busy as possible. I study astronomy, world history and the history of the Christian Church.

"Astronomy makes me awe-struck as to the greatness of God. It helps me to think on it. You know that our galaxy is huge. Try to visualize 600 quadrillion miles - the diameter of our galaxy. If we were to have a space shuttle that could travel at the speed of light (186+ thousand miles per second), it would take that vessel one hundred thousand years to cross our galaxy. God can cross it in less than a moment.

"Anyway, I believe that God is nearby to each one of us. And thank you for the compliment on my art."

Putting On Forgiveness

In late 1993, Dennis reported some good news: a woman lawyer in New Orleans had taken an interest in his case and was now devoted to the task of reducing his sentence. And a family in New Hampshire had offered him work on their farm. His spirits were lifted . . .

"After all these years, there seems to be a good opportunity for me. I have drawn close to God and that seems to have been my best move. I'm not in prison for murder or rape. I'm here for being involved in robberies with my step-brothers and sister and her boy-friend. They all testified against me to get off with a light sentence, and thney did get it -- six months suspended. I got life! I used to be very bitter about this, but over the years I've put bitterness behind me. Hate eats a soul up. And I know that if I could not forgive them, God could not forgive me. I hold no bitterness for my in-laws. I forgave them and I have not heard from them since the trial."

Pardon Postponed

At the beginning of 1994 I received another letter from Dennis . . . and the news was not so good: "I'm back from court and have been resentenced. Things did not turn out as well as I had hoped. The judge was not able to free me and I was a little disappointed. The judge did lower my sentence. I am now eligible for parole in five years and my life sentence was reduced to 105 years. There was opposition from my step-family and others who told the judge theyt opposed my release.

"I am not angry and I'm forgiving. Jesus our Lord tells us to be or we won't be forgiven. I am deeply grateful for Mrs. Berrigan who worked so hard on my case. Even though she was selected to be a federal judge, she proceeded to continue her interest and help in my case. If you could have seen her at work you would have been proud of her. I think she's wonderful.

"I'm a lover of astronomy, an amateur, of course, but when I see what's way out there it makes me think of God. How boundless the expanse of the heavens is, and he invites us to look (Isaiah 40:26). And I do, because it's really amazing. Just think, the north star is 1500 times b righter than our sun. Polaris is 400 light years from earth. It takes 400 years for a beam of light to leave Polaris and reach earth. If you see into our nearest galaxy called Andromeda, you're seeing light that left there 250 million years ago . . . God is truly great."

A Life Wasted

After I had reread all the letters of Dennis Lennon, I said to myself: What is gained by keeping a man like this in prison? He certainly is rehabilitated. He is a threat to no one. Twenty years in prison is punishment enough for his crime. I've read that in some states the average time in prison for murderers is only ten years. In one of my last letters, I wrote to him requesting, if he wished, to recap his story. The following were his answers:

In a letter I wrote to him in January, 1997, I asked: "How do you cope?'

A return letter contained the answer: "How do I cope? Well, I pray and I get encouragement from the Scriptures -- a little each day. I think of the Scriptures as God's long letter to us. I read a lot and I love astronomy. Then, of course, I have my art work."

Kilian McGowan, C.P. was founding editor of the Passionists Compassion until his death in July, 1998

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