Dispatch From Angola: Faith-Based Slavery in a Louisiana Prison

Would Jesus, himself a prisoner on death row and executed, approve of this all?

From: Colorlines
By: Liliana Segura
Aug 4th 2011

“Welcome to the 46th annual Angola Prison Rodeo, the Wildest Show in the South!” It’s 9 a.m. and I’m driving through the gates of Louisiana State Penitentiary, otherwise known as Angola, and listening to KLSP, 91.7 FM. In the surrounding area, 91.7 is the province of American Family Radio, a conservative Christian station, but upon entering 70712—the prison has its own zip code—it becomes “the incarceration station,” currently playing factoids set to jaunty music. “Did you know that the Louisiana State Penitentiary had the first four-year accredited college program in prison in the United States?”

“Unique” is one way Warden Burl Cain likes to describe his prison, and it would be impossible to argue otherwise. With grazing cattle and rolling hills in the distance, it’s hard not to admire its strange, sprawling beauty, even as the towers come into view. The prison itself is absent from my GPS’s “points of interest,” yet Angola’s Prison View Golf Course—the first public golf course on the grounds of a state penitentiary—is not. At Angola’s official museum, opened by Cain in 1998, a retired electric chair and rusty prison contraband are displayed adjacent to a gift shop selling mugs and tote bags reading: “Angola: A Gated Community.”

Angola is the largest maximum security in the country, sitting on 18,000 acres of farmland and home to 5,200 men. Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate of adult prisoners in the United States; thanks to the state’s unforgiving sentencing laws, at least 90 percent of Angola’s prisoners will die there. It’s a large-scale embodiment of a national phenomenon: elderly inmates are the country’s fastest growing prisoner population.

Yet Angola is also lauded as a revolution in corrections, its story told many times: Angola was once the “bloodiest prison in America,” where inmates slept with magazine catalogs strapped to their chests to protect themselves from stabbings. Things began to turn around in the 1970s, when a federal judge ordered a major overhaul. But most of the credit has gone to Warden Cain for imposing order through a new model of incarceration.

Like all of Angola’s wardens, Cain has continued the tradition of hard labor: most inmates work in the fields eight hours a day, five days a week, harvesting hundreds of acres of soybeans, wheat, corn, and cotton—picked by hand and sold by Prison Enterprises, the business arm of the Louisiana Department of Corrections. But unlike his predecessors, Cain, an evangelical Christian, has also made it his mission to bring God to Angola. Inmate ministers tell new prisoners that they can either work on their “moral rehabilitation” or remain a “predator”—“the choice is yours.” The radio station plays gospel music. On the walls leading to the execution chamber are two murals: Elijah ascending to Heaven and Daniel facing the lion. One of Cain’s favorite anecdotes is the execution of Antonio James, a born-again Christian whose hand he held just before giving the go-ahead to end his life. As James lay on the gurney waiting for lethal drugs to enter his veins, Cain said, “Antonio, the chariot is here…you are about to see Jesus.”

Angola_prison_rider2.jpgI’ve come to Angola for the area’s biggest tourist attraction: the sole surviving prison rodeo in the country. Five Sundays a year, thousands of visitors drive down this road toward an inmate-constructed, 10,000-seat arena to watch Louisiana’s most feared criminals compete in harrowing events like “convict poker” (four prisoners sit around a card table and are ambushed by a bull; last one seated wins); “guts and glory” (a poker chip is tied to the forehead of a bull and inmates try to grab it off); and the perennial crowd pleaser, “bull riding.” Prisoners can win prize money, but have no chance to practice before entering the ring. Critics and fans alike compare them to the gladiators of ancient Rome.

The rodeo long precedes Cain, but today it has become an extension of his philosophy of submission through “Experiencing God,” as the Southern Baptist instructional course he’s instituted at Angola is called. Proceeds pay for inmate funerals, maintenance on Angola’s inmate-constructed chapels, and programs aimed at “moral rehabilitation.” Cain once told Christianity Today that the program helps inmates “accept they’re in prison and that it’s God’s will that maybe they don’t get out—and that while you’re here you do your best for him.” The rodeo may break bodies, but Cain is in the business of saving souls.

A Gated Community

Angola_prison_tourist_2.jpgThe rodeo’s atmosphere is festive. Live music plays as families explore a massive crafts fair, checking out prisoner-made goods and an impressive variety of fried snacks, including “fried Coke,” a nod to one of the rodeo’s major sponsors. A billboard invites visitors to “Take Your Jail Cell Photos Here.” It’s not unlike a state fair, except that there are inmates everywhere. Wearing white t-shirts and dark pants, they sell art, leather goods, and concessions on behalf of a dizzying array of clubs—roast beef po-boys for the Horticulture Club, donuts for Vets Incarcerated.

“There’s really not much difference between this and a campus,” says Assistant Warden Cathy Fontenot, Angola’s head communications officer. “It’s like when you go to college and you’re looking for your major.”

The prison has invested heavily in its PR machinery and Cain has a reputation for being intolerant of negative coverage. Veteran journalist James Ridgeway was barred after writing an article that painted him in a less than favorable light, eventually winning back access with the ACLU’s help. Ridgeway’s troubles surely had as much to do with the years he has spent covering the plight of the Angola Three, a trio of Black Panthers convicted of killing a prison guard in 1972 and thrown into solitary confinement. Two of them, Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace, have remained locked in solitary for almost 40 years.

Fontenot bristles at the mention of the Angola Three. “We don’t have solitary confinement,” she says flatly. Instead, she explains, there’s “extended lockdown,” where prisoners are confined alone in 9-by-6 foot cells for 23 hours a day.

The first prisoner I meet is Lane Nelson, a model inmate selling subscriptions to Angola’s prisoner-run magazine, The Angolite. Sentenced to death for a 1981 murder, Nelson came within days of execution before his sentence was overturned and commuted to life.

Nelson picked cotton when he got off death row. “It was hard,” he chuckles. “You had to get a quota—you had to learn real quick.” Like most at Angola, Nelson had no experience in farm labor. Unlike most, he’s white. (Nelson is also the rare example of a convicted murderer who has left Angola; he was granted clemency and released in January.)

Just before the arrival of Warden Cain, Nelson published an article about five prisoners confined to “extended lockdown” the longest, among them Woodfox and Wallace. The article revealed how the history of solitary confinement is tied to the history of Angola itself:

Angola was a plantation first, housing slaves who cut sugar cane for the master. At the end of the 19th century it evolved into a prisoner lease system, with sentenced prisoners being rented to area companies. In 1901, Angola officially became a state-operated penitentiary, but in name only. It remained a plantation, with prisoners crowded into large wooden buildings and working from sunup to sundown in sugar cane and cotton fields—rain or shine, 12-14 hours a day, seven days a week.

Beatings aside, the most effective way to discipline prisoners was “short-term solitary confinement,” first in “an iron casket buried into the ground,” then the “pisser”—a series of windowless cells (“no bunk, no toilet, no ventilation”). Today, visitors to Angola’s museum can read part of this history in “The Angola Story,” a pamphlet that illustrates how much the prison has evolved.

Sentences, too, have evolved. “Lifers” in Louisiana were once eligible for parole in as little as five years. In 1926 the state legislature installed the “10-6 rule”: prisoners sentenced to life were eligible for release after 10 years and six months. This held true until the 1970s, which saw a precipitous decline in parole recommendations and the rise of “tough on crime” reforms that would soon dominate nationwide.

After the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1972 ruling in Furman v. Georgia, which briefly suspended the death penalty, Louisiana abolished parole for a range of violent crimes. “Within less than a decade Louisiana went from turning all lifers loose in ten-and-a-half years or less to keeping virtually all of them in prison for their natural lives,” writes historian Burk Foster. As former head of the Louisiana Department of Corrections C. Paul Phelps once warned, “the State of Louisiana is posturing itself to run probably the largest male old-folks home in the country.”

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Would Jesus, himself a prisoner on death row and executed, approve of this all?