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04-24-2005, 01:30 PM
April 24, 2005


The evolution of Angola

Reinvention has been constant at Louisiana State Penitentiary


ANGOLA -- The story of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, like so
many stories in Louisiana history, is one of people, politics and
plantations. It's not a pretty story, but it's one that warden Burl Cain
and other prison reformers have worked hard to change.

"I think that there has been more human suffering in this place than in
any place in the world," said Cain, who has served as warden at Angola for
10 years, "longer than anybody in the history of Angola."

Cain bases his theory on stories repeated over generations of how Angola
began as a "slave-breeding plantation" along with tales of decades and
decades of inmate cruelty. The penitentiary today is far different, but it
is hard to escape its storied past.

Angola, which houses about 5,100 inmates, occupies 18,000 acres of the
richest farmland in the state. Like many older prisons in the South, it is
run like a big farm.

"Angola is the perfect place for a prison," said Jack Field, a member of
the board of the Louisiana State Penitentiary Museum. "It's guarded on
three sides by the Mississippi River and on the fourth side by the Tunica

Angola was Louisiana's third major prison. The first was the old New
Orleans City Jail described by University of Louisiana at Lafayette
Criminal Justice Associate Professor Burk Foster in "The Wall is Strong:
Corrections in Louisiana" as "a nasty place -- a dirty, insect-ridden
dumping place for men, women and children, who were mixed together for a
variety of criminal and noncriminal offenses."

Louisiana's first state penitentiary was built in 1835 at the corner of
6th and Laurel streets in Baton Rouge. Known as "the walls" for the
24-foot-high brick wall surrounding the facility, the prison contained
individual cells for the prisoners, who worked together in silence doing
factory or craft work, Foster wrote.

To save funds, the state began leasing the prisoners to plantation owners
who used them as laborers in exchange for their care. As Mark T. Carlton
wrote in "Politics and Punishment: A History of the Louisiana State Penal
System," "Louisiana leased her convicts to a number of private operators,
if possible for profit; but if profit was not possible, leasing was at
least a means of avoiding the expense of maintaining the prisoners."

In 1844, the penitentiary with all of its inmates was leased to the firm
of McHatton, Pratt and Co., which paid nothing for the lease, Carlton
wrote, with only the duty to maintain the penitentiary.

"And if the lessees were to prosper, little time could be devoted to
reforming or rehabilitating the convicts, for such distractions would cut
deeply into working hours and thus decrease profits," Carlton wrote.

In 1869, the lease was purchased by Maj. Samuel James, who also leased the
8,500-acre cotton plantation, Angola, from the widow of Isaac Franklin,
the Southern slave trader and planter. The name is said to have come from
the area in Africa that was the home of many of the plantation's former

Immediately James began moving convicts from the penitentiary in Baton
Rouge to Angola, which he actually purchased in 1880 for $100,000. Until
James died in 1894, he ran what Carlton called "the most cynical,
profit-oriented and brutal prison regime in Louisiana history."

James worked the convicts on his personal property and hired them out to
work on other plantations. "They worked the land, farming and cutting
timber, they performed as household servants, they traveled not only 'up
the river' but 'down the river' as well on Major James's' steamboat,
repairing and building levees in the never-ending struggle to contain the
Mississippi and protect the rich farmland," Foster wrote.

When James died suddenly in 1894, his descendants continued the lease
until it expired, and on Jan. 1, 1901, the state regained control of the
prison system.

"The Angola Story" a history developed by the Louisiana State Penitentiary
Museum, describes the early years of state control of Angola, when the
penitentiary was operated as a large prison farm by a board of control, a
three-member panel appointed by the governor. Under its auspices, the
state purchased Angola from James' heirs.

The Legislature abolished the board of control in 1916 and appointed Henry
L. Fuqua as general manager of the penitentiary. Fuqua instituted numerous
reforms including firing most of the security officers, establishing a
system of selected inmate trusty guards and getting rid of the traditional
black-and-white striped uniforms. In eight different purchases of
property, he secured the surrounding plantations, bringing the total
penitentiary acreage to its present 18,000. Partly because of the
reputation Fuqua made as a prison reformer, he was elected governor in

But the reforms did not last. Major floods in 1903, 1912, 1922 and 1927
ruined the crops, and coupled with the Great Depression, Angola was thrown
into economic chaos.

Even though life at Angola was difficult in the early part of the 20th
century, inmates had never been kept behind bars. During the years that
James ran the prison, inmates lived in the plantation's old slave cabins.
When the state took control, barracks were built for the inmates, who were
guarded by armed guards.

But after a major prison break in 1933 resulting in the death of two
prison guards, things changed drastically. The 1934-36 biennial report of
the Louisiana State Penitentiary described the changes brought on by the
big prison break as well as some 113 escapes from 1932-34. "The September
tragedy of 1933 showed clearly that trouble-makers must be segregated and
placed under conditions of very definite control," the report said.

The result was the infamous Red Hat Cellblock built in 1935. The facility,
which got its name from the red hats worn by workers in the tall fields of
sugarcane, had 40 cells of reinforced concrete reserved for the

"These troublesome convicts are housed there under absolute control," the
report said. "The occupant can't hold secret caucus with others; he can't
terrorize others; he can't stealthily leave his bed and approach a
sleeping man to do him harm while the guard is not looking -- he is under

The application to place the Red Hat Cellblock on the National Register of
Historic Places describes it as a "notorious place in Angola history and
legend." Inmates had tiny cells with concrete beds with what was described
by Angola's legendary nurse, Mary Margaret Daugherty, as "an odor that
would knock you down."

"There was no heat and no air in the building," said classification
officer Merriet Thomas. One thing the cellblock did have was an execution
chamber, where the electric chair was set up. "The old generator is still
sitting in the back behind the building," Thomas said.

Along with the new cellblock came guard towers manned by guards with
rifles and modern weapons, all causing writer Harnett Kane in a 1939 news
story to proclaim Angola as the "Alcatraz of the South."

In 1951, some 31 inmates slashed their heel tendons to protest conditions
at the prison. The incident brought nationwide attention to Angola, and in
a Collier's magazine story, the facility was labeled "America's Worst

In the following year, in his successful run for governor, Robert F.
Kennon campaigned on the need to "clean up" Angola. As a result, during
his term of office, the main prison complex was completed in 1955, convict
stripes were again eliminated and other major improvements were made to
the prison.

The improvements were short-lived. After a serious reduction in the
corrections budget in the early 1960s, Angola went through a period of
decline during which the prison became known as "the bloodiest prison in
the South" for the "number of inmate upon inmate assaults and deaths," the
museum-compiled history states.

Gov. Edwin Edwards appointed Elayne Hunt as director of corrections after
his election in 1972. She began a massive program of prison reform,
including the closing of the Red Hat Cellblock. "She said it was
inhumane," Thomas said.

After her death in 1976, her work of reform was continued by C. Paul
Phelps. Among the improvements were the building of four new camps, major
renovations to the existing facilities and better medical care for the

These days, because of the work of the prison staff and inmates, the
grounds at Angola are immaculate, crops are thriving, workers participate
in numerous prison industries, and there are a variety of educational
opportunities. It's not freedom, but things are far better than they were
in Angola's past.

In one project, Wheels for the World, inmates repair old wheelchairs and
ship them to needy people all over the world. At a vocational school,
inmates can learn a variety of skills including culinary arts, graphic
arts and auto mechanics. There's a Bible college, a mop and broom factory,
a fabrication shop and the main prison kitchen.

In one area of Angola, prison employees and inmates breed Percheron
horses. "These are a breed of war horses originally built for battle,"
said Master Sgt. Greg Eirick. "They average about 2,300 pounds."

The horses are used every day to haul vegetables and for plowing. "They're
for work, and that's what we use them for, especially with the cost of
gasoline and diesel today," Eirick said.

They also breed police horses, which have been sent all over the country.
"We're the only prison in the U.S. to do that," Cain said.

Most importantly, Angola remains a prison farm with "just field after
field after field, thousands of acres in cultivation," Jack Field said.

The prisoners operate a processing plant for the vegetable crops, where
they are freeze-blasted for cold storage. "That way we have fresh
vegetables year round," Thomas said.

Even executions at Angola are more humane. Before the state acquired a
portable electric chair in 1941, prisoners were executed by hanging. Since
1991, execution has been by lethal injection in a special room with a
separate viewing area for members of the victim's family, media and either
the inmate's religious adviser or his lawyer.

"Burl Cain tries to make sure that every inmate who gets on that table has
made peace with Jesus," Field said. "It's a pretty somber thing. We're
talking about lives."

Cain meets with an inmate on death row several times after his execution
date has been set. "I tell them not to meet Jesus with a lie," said Cain,
who understands the conflicts people have with the death penalty.

"Some of these inmates do horrible things," he said. "They can't live with
society, but the people do care. That's just American."

Inmates who die at Angola and whose families do not wish to bury them are
taken to the Angola graveyard. Point Lookout, the old Angola cemetery,
overlooks a newer cemetery, opened in 1996, where inmates are buried from
a 19th-century-style horse-driven hearse made by the inmates themselves
and first used in 1998. "Burials today are much different than they used
to be," Thomas said.

In 1998, the Louisiana State Penitentiary Museum was opened to preserve
Angola's historic past. Among the items on view are the original electric
chair, homemade contraband weapons, old records, photos from past floods,
a wall of tribute to officers who died in the line of duty and the new

"The museum is a wonderful thing for us," Cain said. "It's such a famous
prison and so historical. The museum is a reminder for us not to go back
to the old days at Angola."

Many of the items were collected from employees, who had taken them home
as souvenirs. "The employees saved things and brought them back," he said.

Cain has worked hard to emphasize the rehabilitation aspect of prison
life. "This place doesn't operate like the past at all," he said. "We call
this the land of new beginnings. When inmates come in, we don't care about
the past."


Source : The Advocate