March 21, 2010
Just outside the entrance to the largest penitentiary in the United States is an open to the public museum about this notorious prison. A sugar plantation in the 1700’s, the slaves that worked here were mostly from Angola, thus the name.
In the late 1800’s this plantation contracted prison labor and simply continued slavery in a different form. The abuses were so great, the state eventually bought three neighboring plantations and built the first facility. The abuses, however, didn’t stop. Conditions were brutal. Mounted, rifle carrying trusty’s, under threat for their own lives, ran the work crews. In one recorded incident, a trusty approached a “Red Hat” inmate and told him he would give him a chance to escape because they were from the same town and knew each others family. When the inmate declined, the trusty told him, they intend to kill you anyway.
No one was allowed to talk to or even look at a Red Hat inmate. In the punishment block, beds were cement with no blanket or padding, no toilet or water. Inmates were sometimes welded into their cells. In Angola, solitary confinement could last years, not months.
Another verified incident, an inmate was not allowed closer than 15 feet to an officer. The officer threw the inmate a tool he needed. When it landed too close, the inmate protested he couldn’t pick it up. The officer assured him it was okay to move closer just this time. When he did, he was shot. A planned execution.
The beatings and mistreatment, poor food and horrible conditions were exposed and ordered cleaned up. Instead, the abuses continued well into the 1950’s.
A typical cell without a window.
The showers had only cold water and were expected to serve 400 men. These conditions were not changed until 1955.
The long prod was used to motivate anyone working too slowly.
Reform began after 8 inmates slashed and severed their achilles tendons rendering themselves crippled and unable to work. The prison had no doctor but did have a nurse. When the incident became before a review board, Nurse Daughtry testified to the horrible conditions inside the prison and Governor Long ordered the place cleaned up once and for all.
While the past was brutal, reforms have brought humanizing changes to Angola. This prison will someday be an old folks home because of life sentences. The cost to warehouse human beings could send all of them to Harvard.
The inmates built this hearse and make satin lined wooden coffins for their dead to have a dignified funeral.
They have the rest of their lives to maintain sanity in captivity, a job of its own. Inmates here have jobs; they work in menial labor for 4 cents to 35 cents a day. They box, play ball, and compete in a once a year rodeo attended by 10,000 outside spectators. Its their high point of the year. They have a newspaper and a radio station. Laundry, print shop, bakery, and so on, their own micro city services.
Prisons are in some ways a cross section of our current society. Freddy Fender, Leadbelly, famous singers served time here. This is the only prison that had an inmate who secured a patent for an invention while incarcerated. In the gift shop, you can buy CD’s of inmate songs. The Museum itself is very well done and gives unvarnished evidence of the brutal past and the more hopeful future. For more photos check my link:http://picasaweb.google.com/1579penn/32010Angola#
It currently holds approximately 5000 inmates, all men, and most of them lifers. At one time, any prisoner in Louisiana sentenced to 40 years was automatically moved to Angola. Officer Dixon, who runs the museum, told us “…all the bad guys come here.”