A Modern Day Slave Plantation Exists, and It’s Thriving in the Heart of America

This was written by Laura Dimon for PolicyMic
May 8, 2014

It was 1972. Thousands of American troops were battling communist forces in Vietnam. Nixon had won re-election by a landslide, but Watergate would soon usher in his demise. Space travel and technology were advancing rapidly.

Change was brewing across America, but one place stood still, frozen in time: Louisiana State Penitentiary, commonly known as Angola. When Robert King arrived that year, he felt as though he’d stepped into the past.

Read the full story here.

Forty years in solitary confinement and counting

By Tim Franks Radio 4, Crossing Continents
April 4, 2012
From: BBC Radio 4

As two men in Louisiana complete 40 years in solitary confinement this month, the use of total isolation in US prisons is on the rise. What does this do to a prisoner’s state of mind?

Robert King paces the front room of his small, one-storey house in Austin, Texas.

“I imagine I could put my cell inside this room about six times,” he says. “Probably more.”

For 29 years Robert King occupied a cell nine feet by six – just under three metres by two – for at least 23 hours a day.

He spent most of his time incarcerated in one of the toughest prisons in the United States – Louisiana State Penitentiary.

The prison, the largest in the US, is nicknamed Angola after the plantation that once stood on its site, worked by slaves shipped in from Africa. King, who was released from prison in 2001, still calls himself one of the Angola Three – three men who have been the focus of a long-running international justice campaign.

“Start Quote

It’s impossible to get dipped in waste and not come up stinking”

Robert King Angola Three

Between them, they have served more than 100 years in solitary. All three say they were imprisoned for crimes they did not commit, and where convictions were only obtained after blatant mistrials.

King has the open face, lean physique and broad chest of a man in good shape, even on the cusp of his 70th birthday.

And he is reluctant to delve too deeply into what those years in solitary were like, beyond saying that “it’s impossible to get dipped in waste and not come up stinking”.

There is, he says, a physical toll to long-term isolation: “People become old and infirm before their time.”

But more, there is a psychological effect. He stayed strong, he says, but it was “scary” to see how others crumpled through lack of human contact.
Robert King Robert King spent nearly three decades in solitary confinement in the Louisiana State Penitentiary

Angola in the 1960s and 1970s was a place known for its brutal forced labour, its sexual slavery and its violence. Even so, Robert King is on record as saying that solitary was much, much worse.

His reticence is not matched by Nick Trenticosta, the lawyer for the other two members of the Angola Three – Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox.

“I have interviewed a number of of people who’ve spent 10-12 years in solitary confinement,” says Mr Trenticosta, in his basement legal offices in New Orleans.

“Almost all of the people are severely damaged. They’re potted plants. Their will to live really doesn’t exist any more.

“They become shells of their former selves. If I take them to the visitors’ area, it’ll be two hours before I can get an answer to my questions, and then I might just hear gobbledygook.”

Back in the early 1970s, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox were already in Angola, serving time for armed robbery.

They became involved in the Black Panther Party – they say in order to try to improve the abysmal conditions for prisoners. Then in 1972, a prison guard called Brent Miller was murdered.

Wallace and Woodfox were convicted, and placed in solitary – where, apart from a short spell in 2008 in a high security dormitory, they have remained ever since.

Both men have always maintained their innocence – saying that grave questions were raised about an inmate being secretly rewarded for his incriminating testimony, and pointing to the lack of forensic evidence linking them to the murder.

Wallace’s sister Vicky lives on the poor side of New Orleans, in the lower ninth ward. Her health has, she says, suffered from the constant worry about her brother – and he is not in good shape either.

Read the rest here

Listen to the full report on Crossing Continents on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday, 5 April at 11:00 BST and on Assignment on the BBC World Service

Herman’s House: The Film about Herman Wallace: 40 years in a box….

Please follow and support this unique and very much needed film about solitary confinenemt in Louisiana and the life and struggle of Herman Wallace, one of the Angola 3, and one of the many prisoners in Louisiana State Prison, Angola.




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.”

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

“God’s Own Warden”: Inside Angola Prison

From: SolitaryWatch:

July 28, 2011
by James Ridgeway

[SolitaryWatch] Editor’s Note: The latest issue of Mother Jones magazine includes James Ridgeway’s long article on Burl Cain, warden of the nation’s largest prison, and possibly its most notorious. The former slave plantation is known for the fact that 90 percent of its more than 5,000 prisoners will die behind bars, and also for holding two members of the “Angola 3″ in solitary confinement for nearly 40 years. More recently, it has also become known for the “miracle” wrought by its controversial warden, who is said to have transformed the prison with the help of Christianity.

It took the threat of an ACLU lawsuit for James Ridgeway to gain access to Angola. The resulting article offers an alternative narrative on the miracle at Angola. The opening section of the article follows; the full article can be read on MotherJones.com.

It was a chilly December morning when I got to the gates of Angola prison, and I was nervous as I waited to be admitted. To begin with, nothing looked the way it ought to have looked. The entrance, with its little yellow gatehouse and red brick sign, could have marked the gates of one of the smaller national parks. There was a museum with a gift shop, where I perused miniature handcuffs, jars of inmate-made jelly, and mugs that read “Angola: A Gated Community” before moving on to the exhibits, which include Gruesome Gertie, the only electric chair in which a prisoner was executed twice. (It didn’t take the first time, possibly because the executioners were visibly drunk.)

Read the rest here

Amnesty International Calls for Angola 3′s Release from 40 Years of Solitary Confinement

By: SolitaryWatch
June 7, 2011
by James Ridgeway and Jean Casella

Amnesty International has issued a press release, action alert, and detailed report on the case of the Angola 3, which has been extensively documented in Mother Jones (here, here, and here). The press release, issued yesterday, concerns the two members of the Angola 3 who remain in prison and have now entered their 40th year in solitary confinement.

The US state of Louisiana must immediately remove two inmates from the solitary confinement they were placed in almost 40 years ago, Amnesty International said today.

Albert Woodfox, 64, and Herman Wallace, 69, were placed in “Closed Cell Restriction (CCR)” in Louisiana State Penitentiary – known as Angola Prison – since they were convicted of the murder of a prison guard in 1972. Apart from very brief periods, they have been held in isolation ever since.

“The treatment to which Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace have been subjected for the past four decades is cruel and inhumane and a violation of the US’s obligations under international law,” said Guadalupe Marengo, Americas Deputy Director at Amnesty International.

The action alert urges readers to sign a petition to Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. The twelve-page report describes the apparent miscarriages of justice involved in Woodfox and Wallace’s original murder conviction, and then asks, “Why are they still in isolation?” It goes on to explain:

Read the rest here.

Please sign the Amnesty International Action Alert here!

Louisiana Prisoners and their Families Denied Contact Visits

From Freezulu

Recently inmates housed at Louisiana Penitentiary’s RC CCR (closed cell restrictions or solitary confinement) units have been denied normal contact visits and privileges. Even after contact visits have been approved and some visitors have travelled across the country at considerable expenses. This is primarily due to the actions of security officer Lt. Gail Smothers. In multiple instances, stretching back to 2009, Lt Smothers has denied visitors contact by creating rules which are not a part of the CCR contact visiting policy.

Inmates at LA State Prison are allowed ten (10) people at any time on their Approved visiting list. This list constitutes those individuals who have completed the prison’s necessary paperwork and who have submitted to a comprehensive police background check. Upon acceptance the applicant is listed on the inmate’s approved visiting list and may then visit up to 2 times a month.

Contact visiting is the normal policy for inmates at Angola. Only those inmates assigned to punitive housing units are restricted to non-contact visits. While CCR is a non-punitive housing unit, CCR inmates are allowed only 2 contact visits a month. All other visits received in a month by CCR inmates are held in CCR’s non-contact visiting booths (small, closet like spaces with inmates and visitor separated by a thick mesh screen). The reason given for this policy is the lack of visiting space for large numbers of contact visits on the RC CCR unit. As opposed to the main prison compound with its large visiting room capable of accomodating over 100 inmates and their visitors at a time with inmates run food concessions, CCR’s far smaller contact visiting room may only accommodate 30-40 people. Consequently, only 5 contacts may be scheduled each visiting day for the roughly 90 inmates housed in CCR.

Given such limited space for contact visits at CCR the units policy requires inmates to submit requests for approval often months in advance to reserve an available date. When a CCR inmate submits a request for contact visitation he is merely reserving a date. On that date any visitor from his visiting list who arrives – up to a total of 5 – may enjoy a visit under normal contact visiting procedures. This requirement is merely to insure that no more then 5 contact visits are scheduled for any visiting day. CCR inmates are NOT required to also seek approval for those visitors, since they are already on the Approved visiting list.

This is the point of contention between inmates, visitors and Lt. Smothers. Visitors, upon arriving at Louisiana State Prison are being allowed into the prison – but upon arrival at the CCR unit – being denied a contact visit and forced into non contact visiting booths. Lt. Smothers has repeatedly denied contact visits by claiming only visitors whose names are submitted in advance for a contact visit may then visit contact. CCR inmates are not required to submit the names of their visitors when requesting a visitation date.

To re- approve a visitor as a visitor is a rule only Lt. Smothers has decided to create and enforce. A rule she has no authority to impose as she is not involved in any manner with approving visitors or scheduling visits. Those procedures are the responsibility of the institutes Investigative Service Dept. and CCR’s Assistant Warden.

The difficulties this has created for visitors in wasted money, time and travel has already been addressed by verbal complaints to Lt. Smothers’ superiors up to the unit’s Assistant Warden and by submitting grievances through the institutions Administrative Remedy Procedure (A.R.P.). A grievance procedure available for inmates to seek relieve for wrongs within the institution.

In April 2010, RC CCR col. Menzia resolved a grievance filed by verbally informing Lt. Smothers of the proper contact visiting policy and ordering how to stop denying inmates and their visitors approved contact visits.

Approximately 1 week later, Col. Menzia was transferred to another unit as a new Assistant Warden. Immediately afterwards Lt. Smothers returned to her previous practices. Over the weekend of April 24th and 25th Lt. Smothers denied at least 2 inmates their pre-approved contact visits without proper authority, with one visitor having travelled from California. When incidents like this occur inmates and their visitors are left without recourse as over the weekend Lt. Smothers may be the highest ranking officer on duty at CCR. No appeal can be made to any superior at that time.

This presents an identifiable hardship as many family members and friends must plan months in advance to schedule their contact visits – as they come from long distances and may only visit a few times a year they specifically plan for contact visits, which entails the costs of flight tickets, rental cars, hotels reservations and often time taken off from work.

Inmates with elderly or infirm family members schedule contact visits for the extra room and ease provided versus the cramped and difficult conditions of the non-contact visiting booths.
When Lt. Smothers then denies approved contact visits without authority, inmates are not recredited with a contact visit for that month, nor are visitors reimbursed their expenses.

Those concerned can help stop Lt. Smothers by calling warden Burl Cain’s office at (001) 225-655-4411 or Secretary of Corrections James LeBlanc. Letters of concern may be faxed to (001) 225 655-2319.


On behalf of all my fellow inmates, Kenny Zulu Whitmore.

Angola Prisoner Released From Solitary Confinement After ACLU Urging


Prompted by a letter from lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana, officials at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola have transferred Hymel Varnado to a shared cell after forcing him to endure 12 years of solitary confinement for no legitimate reason.

“For over a century, it’s been clear that prolonged isolation has severe medical consequences, and in 1890 the US Supreme Court found that it can cause mental illness and that it is often too severe a punishment,” said Marjorie R. Esman, Executive Director of the ACLU of Louisiana. “It shouldn’t have taken over a century for the Warden of Angola to recognize that no one should be isolated from human contact without a very good reason.”

Varnado, who has no record of escape attempts, assaulting staff or harming himself or others, was transferred to a shared cell on Dec. 30, 2009, after ACLU lawyers wrote to Angola’s Warden Burl Cain urging that Varnado be placed in a less restrictive setting and explaining the many medical reports and court rulings showing that prolonged isolation is dangerous and cruel.

Since his arrival at Angola in May 1997, Varnado has spent almost his entire time in an individual cell 23 hours a day. He was allowed to exercise alone in a fenced yard three times a week. His isolation caused him to experience psychological torture on a daily basis, including sleep deprivation and acute psychological pain.

Varnado was placed in solitary confinement not because of his behavior while in prison, but because he was young – 21 – at the time of his incarceration. In fact, he was released from solitary into a dormitory for several months last year and although he did well there and his health improved, he was returned to solitary when the dorm was closed.

“Logic, as well as human decency, demand that we allow people to interact with others,” said Esman. “The evidence has been clear for long enough that isolation causes illness. Hymel Varnado did not need to be isolated from other prisoners, and he spent years deprived of his ability to function for no reason other than that he was young when he committed his crimes. We’re delighted that Mr. Varnado will now be able to have human companionship.”

The United States holds tens of thousands of inmates in long-term solitary confinement. Louisiana subjects a disproportionate number of prisoners to isolation despite the extensive evidence of harm of solitary confinement. Some, such as the Angola 3, were forced to endure more than three decades of isolation in solitary confinement.

“We are honored to help Mr. Varnado usher in the new year in more humane conditions,” said Jim Swanson, an attorney with the law firm Fishman, Haygood, Phelps, Walmsley, Willis & Swanson, L.L.P. “He can now regain his health, and we hope this will serve as a reminder that long-term use of solitary confinement is contrary to the law and, more importantly, to human decency.”

A copy of the ACLU’s letter to Warden Cain may be found here. A copy of the notification of Mr. Varnado’s transfer may be found here.