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January / February 2009

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Angola is situated on an antebellum plantation named after the African country whose inhabitants had been captured as slaves and transported to the New World. It is Louisiana’s oldest prison and the nation’s largest prison.

The post-Civil War Reconstruction era brought widespread unemployment, poverty, and despair for the newly freed slaves, as well for the former Confederate soldiers and their families. This period was marked by social disorder and the need for cheap labor to reconstruct Louisiana’s infrastructure. Work was sorely needed on the levees along Mississippi River and on the devastated railways and roads.

One way to address these labor-intensive public work projects was by “leasing convicts.” In 1880, former Confederate Maj. Samuel James purchased Angola, an 8,000-acre plantation in West Feliciana Parish, and offered to confine Louisiana prisoners in the former slave quarters close to the Mississippi’s levees at no cost to the state. In exchange, Maj. James kept the profits from their enforced labor. This arrangement was passed on to his son upon James’s death in 1894.  

Thus began a long period of penal servitude coupled with sheer brutality. The life expectancy of a prisoner was about five years, even after the state acquired the prison plantation in 1901. Living conditions were extremely unsanitary, and diseases such as tuberculosis and malaria were rampant. Prisoners were guarded by mounted and armed “convict bosses.” Prisoners were often desperate to escape the harsh conditions.

During the early part of the 20th century, the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola was expanded to 18,000 acres of prime river farmland. Angola is now the largest maximum security prison in the United States and was once reputed to be the most dangerous and bloodiest prison in the South.

That legacy is still on view at the museum just outside the prison walls. The curator, a retired officer, helps provide a framework. Exhibits include photographs and newspaper articles documenting Angola’s harsh penal conditions and desperate criminals. Escapes were not uncommon, with dangerous convicts tracked by bloodhounds. One display showed crude shanks and other tools and equipment, including a whiskey still, that had been cobbled together by prisoners from contraband. Another case displayed guards’ whips and straps.

The history of Angola also included women sentenced to lives of drudgery, washing, ironing, and mending of clothes—often with their children—until the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women opened in 1973.

The Louisiana State Prison today is a very different institution, in good measure through the reforms of its current warden, Burl Cain. Those reforms are both organizational and philosophic. Mary Anthony—who escorted a VVA contingent that included myself, Dave Simmons, Michael Keating, and Alan and Norma Manuel—told us that Angola incarcerates 5,100 men and employs 1,800 men and women. There are six separate inmate housing areas. The largest is the Main Prison Complex, followed by the Reception Center and four Out Camps (C, D, F, and J) each with 600-700 prisoners. Angola is subdivided into these smaller units, each with its own assistant wardens and classification, security, and support staff.

Angola is a vast facility, with many broad fields set aside for agriculture. During our tour, we saw prisoners cultivating collard and mustard greens with hand tools. Armed guards on sturdy Angola mules supervised the field workers. Anthony pointed out the long flat-bed trailers, called “hootenannies,” that transport prisoners.

Many of the prisoners work eight hours a day, five days a week, in commercial agricultural production managed by Prison Enterprises or they cultivate crops for their own consumption. Every year, they process more than a million pounds of tomatoes, onions, cabbage, okra, peppers, squash, beans, and strawberries. Some of the crops are flash-frozen by prisoners at an on-site facility and stored for winter use.

LSP also maintains a large herd of some 1,500 beef cattle. More than 225 horses are used in daily farm operations as well as in ceremonial events, such as funerals. At a large on-site stable—manned by prisoners—massive horses and oversized mules are bred and cared for.

The facility is so vast that sometimes all preconceptions of a prison disappear. Many wooded areas are pristine and bucolic. Two large lakes and many ponds support a wide variety of wildlife, including herons, egrets, and armadillos. The waterways and marshes have many alligators and abundant fish. In fact, some convicts have been apprehended swimming across the prison lake; they mistakenly thought they were crossing the Mississippi to freedom.

We entered the Main Prison through a double-gated sally port. At the Louisiana Prison Industries building, license plates and vinyl mattresses are manufactured. Other operations include metal fabrication, a print shop, and a silkscreen shop. Vocational instruction, funded by Louisiana Technical College, teaches culinary arts, auto body, and auto mechanics, welding, carpentry, and horticulture. LSP’s rehabilitative efforts include a heavy emphasis on education. Angola is the only American prison with an on-site college-level Theological Seminary degree program, operated by the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

In the new Angola, prisoners have organized independent and self-funded programs. At the Toy Shop, Vietnam veterans Tom Joyner and Peter Mule build custom wooden toys from salvaged materials. The toys—wooden trucks, cars, and planes, and whimsical pull toys—are donated to Louisiana charities.

Down the hallway is the Bike Shop, managed by Vietnam veteran Kenneth Vickers, where abandoned and unclaimed bicycles are refurbished, then donated to the Catholic Church and local parishes. Prisoners strip down the bikes, salvaging usable parts, then rebuild new ones. The program has been so successful that sheriffs’ offices from around the region deliver busted bikes to Angola.

A similar program, called Two From Three, recycles and rebuilds wheelchairs. Several thousand refurbished wheelchairs have been donated by the prisoners to the poor of Guatemala. Outside the Toy Shop, prisoners sparred in a boxing ring while others worked speed and heavy bags.

LSP has three communications programs run by prisoners. FM Radio station KLSP, “The Incarceration Station,” is the only FCC-licensed radio station on the grounds of a maximum security prison. The station broadcasts predominantly gospel music and news about Angola life. Prisoners also publish an award-winning magazine, The Angolite: The Prison News Magazine. It started out as a simple prison gossip sheet in 1931 but now has national and international circulation. The Angolite features articles about Louisiana and national prison issues. Coverage in the July/August issue on Nevada’s proposal to close the historic Nevada State Prison underscores its up-to-date reporting. Most recently, the administration has permitted prisoners to operate their own television station. Reporters from the magazine and the television attended the VVA Chapter 689 Veterans Day banquet.

Although part of Warden Cain’s revitalization of Angola is its industry, not everyone participates in the life of the hive. We witnessed a prisoner who marched, hands cuffed behind his back, down a straight walk penned in by 12-foot chainlink fencing wrapped in razor wire. Three hours per week, these segregated men leave their cells to exercise along narrow walkways. Recently arrived prisoners are processed through the more segregated Reception Center, then they are gradually brought into the general Angola population.

The infamous Red Hat Cellblock, now on the National Register, used to confine the most dangerous and violent prisoners. These men were required to wear hats swiped with red paint when they worked in the fields. They lived in small, unheated cells with concrete slabs for beds. The windows contained only bars: no glass for protection from the winter chill; no screen to protect against the summer’s insects. The abandoned facility, silhouetted against fields of winter wheat, still has a decrepit electric chair in a neighboring building with wires attached to a rusted generator.

The Red Hat Cellblock was built in 1933 in response to the bloodiest escape in Angola history, led by Charlie Frazier, an outlaw who ran with Pretty Boy Floyd and Bonnie and Clyde. When Frazier finally was apprehended and returned to Angola, he was put in the last cell of the Red Hat Cellblock, and the steel door to his cell was welded shut. He died seven years later.

The new Death Row complex has administrative segregation cells for the most recalcitrant prisoners. Administrators report serious prison violence has substantially declined over the last 15-20 years from 1,500 assaults a year to fewer than 300. Escape attempts also have become rare, despite 90 percent of the prisoners having extremely long or life sentences.

A system—sometimes subtle, sometimes coercive—encourages inmates to participate in the community and its activities. The laws of give and take, the laws of privileges and punishment, are always in action. Everything is a privilege that can be taken away; from one privilege, others accrue.

Prisoners who work as dog handlers hold some of the most coveted jobs at Angola. They work with bloodhounds, shepherds, and a wolf in Angola’s breeding and training program, which is used for law enforcement activities. These prisoners enjoy a surprising amount of autonomy; their cells are air-conditioned (no small comfort in Louisiana); and they have extensive interaction with staff trainers and with the dogs. Besides, they receive the highest pay: 20 cents per hour.

One of Warden Cain’s innovations was to let the prisoners build a hearse and their own coffins. Before that, the men were buried without ceremony in the boxes in which coffins were shipped. Now, for those men whose bodies are not claimed by family members on the outside, massive Angola horses draw the handsome, hand-carved hearse bearing the prisoner’s coffin to the Point Lookout cemeteries, followed by a cortège of grieving, singing prisoners. Ninety percent of those who come to Angola, Mary Anthony said, will die in Angola.

T.P. Hubert is a former Nevada warden. He is an adjunct professor of criminal justice at the University of Nevada and the chair of VVA’s Veterans Incarcerated Committee.


The final preparations for the Veterans Day Awards Banquet were underway as our group arrived at the David C. Knapp Training Academy at Camp F in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. This is where most members of Camp F VETS live. The core of that organization is VVA Chapter 689, which, because the prison requires that veterans’ organizations be all-inclusive, has expanded its membership.

 We were welcomed by our VVA 689 hosts: William aKissinger, president; George Woodcock, vice president; and the master of ceremonies, Kenny Young. A white prison bus ferried additional guests from the front gate, including several members of the VVA Louisiana State Council and special guests CSM Chad Lynch and SFC Bonnie Hymel of the U.S. Army National Guard, who had recently returned from tours in Iraq. Other guests included Professor Dave Haidle of Wheaton College and Paul Jones, administrator of the Louisiana War Veterans Home. The Angolite editor, Kerry Myers, introduced himself as he supervised the set-up of the television camera.

 In the gathering twilight, the Camp F veterans stood at attention during the Striking of the Colors ceremony and while “Taps” was played. The banquet fare on this Marine Corp Birthday featured lasagna with Angola-grown sweet potatoes and eggplant. The program, entitled “He’s My Brother,” was organized “to celebrate those we serve.” It provided an opportunity for the Camp F VETS to present awards to their own outstanding members and to recognize the support they receive from LSP staff and from friends in the community. Guests and staff spoke about the many contributions the Angola incarcerated veterans provided in the prison and to surrounding Louisiana communities.

Dave Haidle addressed the religious and spiritual efforts of the veterans at Angola. Jones expressed his appreciation of the support that the Camp F veterans have provided to the homeless and disadvantaged war veterans in Louisiana. He seemed especially impressed by the Camp F VETS band that had entertained at the Veterans Home. Dave Simmons spoke briefly about VVA’s Veterans Against Drugs program. Allen Manuel presented a VVA Region 7 Special Recognition Award to Warden Burl Cain for his support of incarcerated veterans.

However, Warden Cain stole the evening when he announced without fanfare that he was giving the Camp F VETS one of his APCs. The armored vehicle will help Chapter 689 in its work with geriatric prisoners in Angola’s nationally recognized hospice care program.

BY Dave Simmons

I was honored to be a guest of VVA Chapter 689 at its Veterans Day Banquet on November 10. As the Program Director of Veterans Against Drugs, I have had many opportunities to meet with VVA members who have developed different ways of promoting the VAD programs in communities across the country.

VVA Chapter 689 is an incarcerated chapter that is working on many veteran-support and community-service programs in Louisiana. Several members of Chapter 689 work with the general penitentiary population using the Veterans Against Drugs programs. The focus of their message is related to VAD’s Anti-Drug and Anti-Violence Core Values.

The Veterans Against Drugs Program is adaptable to any age group, community, or ethnic population and has a powerful message. Many Chapter 689 members told me that their incarceration was a direct result of drug and alcohol abuse. These men are concerned about their own families and the increasing problems of drug abuse, gang violence, and how they affect the lives of their children and grandchildren. They support programs that send a strong anti-drug and anti-violence message.


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