Nancy A. Heitzeg, Ph.D, is a Professor of Sociology and Program Co-Director, Critical Studies of Race and Ethnicity at St Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Angola 3 News: Please tell us about your recent visit to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola this past month.
Nancy A. Heitzeg: I was at Angola with a University-level off-campus class I was teaching on Racism in the Criminal Justice System. Students and I were in New Orleans for a week where we met with Sister Helen Prejean and did some work for the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana. I had been to Angola once before and both tours were comparable.
I should say that it is surprisingly simple to get a tour at Angola – just call the Museum, fill out a form and just turn up. No background checks, no IDs and no trips through metal detectors—which, of course, I have experienced at other prisons even when I was an invited speaker. You can and we did even drive our own vehicle through the grounds on the tour with a tour guide who rides along. Of course matters would be much different if one was at Angola to visit an inmate.
A3N: What happened during the tour?
NAH: The tour is quite extensive—we were there for 6 hours—and consisted of the following stops/activities:
- Guard/employee Village: A small “town”—built by inmates of course—house about 200 employees that live and work there with their families. Kids are bused in and out of the prison gates to outside schools. The town sits in the shadow of the Warden’s new mansion atop a high hilltop—built again by inmate labor.
- The Dog Kennels: Angola is very proud of their dog breeding and training operation, which includes Bloodhounds, German Shepherds, Dobermans, Rottweilers, and wolves. They are attempting to breed a more “vicious” attack dog by crossing Shepherds with the metaphoric “black wolf” they have. It is Mengelian really. Dogs are trained to track and attack unruly and escaping inmates. Some are trained to sniff drugs and contraband—some sold to law enforcement.
- Point Look-Out: The inmate cemetery for those whose bodies are not claimed and removed by relatives after death. Angola now claims a “dignified burial” for inmates by actually giving them a coffin! A coffin made, of course, by other inmates—and a horse drawn hearse procession. The coffin-making work drew recent attention when Billy Graham’s wife Ruth was buried in one. Point Look-Out has recently been renamed—ironically—for the slain guard Brent Miller, which does not seem to bode well for Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, of the Angola 3, who were convicted of Miller’s 1972 death (note: Miller’s widow, Leontine Verrett, now questions their guilt and has called for a new investigation into the case).
- The Horse Barn: Angola loves its horses. They have quarter horses, Percherons, some thoroughbreds and mules. Again mad breeding experiments—crossing Percherons with mules and thoroughbreds—these, of course, are for sale at auction, often to law enforcement agencies.
- The “Red Hat”: The most chillingly evil place I have ever been. The Red Hat is a Louisiana “Historical Landmark”—it is a cement cellblock with maybe forty 8 x 8 cells. It is cold as ice regardless of the weather outside and still smells of death and suffering even though it is open to ventilation. The Red Hat was built in the 1930s and was used for disciplinary purposes and public execution. The original electric chair with its old generator and battery is there. This is the chair that failed to kill Willie Lee Francis the first time in 1947, so yes, they had to “execute” him twice. Anywhere from 6-13 inmates were thrown naked into a single cell for punishment. This facility was used until 1973! Tour guides tell the story of Charlie Frazier who murdered two guards in the cane fields and escaped. After apprehension and upon his extradition from Texas, he was put in the last cell on the left and the door and window were welded closed. He lived that way for 7 years until he became ill and died. This is supposed to be a great story of punishment and justice served.
- The New Death House: Tours do not go in, but the new larger death house is further inside the property. There were complaints that it was too close to the gate and outer perimeter. There was an escape from the old death house in the late 1990s where 3 inmates made it out and off the prison property.
- The Execution Chamber: Tours go right in and stand by the lethal injection table. Louisiana used the electric chair until 1991—there is still a ventilator which was used to clear the smell of burned flesh. The witness rooms are small. Louisiana does not allow an inmate’s family to witness an execution and Warden Cain edits and reads the inmate’s last words. Angola owns all of you, even this.
- Inmate “Dormitory”: Tours walk right into and through a “typical” 90 bed dormitory as if the inmates there were invisible. A bed and a trunk for possessions is what you get. Due to state budget crunches, Angola may go to double-bunks in these dorms.
- Lunch: For $3, tours can eat what the entire prison eats. The day I was there it was a grease soaked piece of fish, rice in bacon grease, a biscuit, 2 greasy cookies and some sugar flavored drink. Needless to say, we looked at the trays and went without.
- Visit with the editor of The Angolite: This takes place in the Visitor Center where inmates are bused to meet their guests and where parole hearings and other legal proceedings take place. Since the release of Wilbur Rideau, Kerry Myers has been the editor and the inmate who speaks to tours. He is a white middle-class man who is serving life without parole for the 2nd Degree Murder of his wife. Myers told 2 different versions of his crime when I visited so I looked up his case which is actually infamous—the subject of a book and TV movie. Unlike most inmates who spend at least 3 months and in many cases 10 years toiling in the fields planting by hand, Myers was offered a 20 cents an hour job at The Angolite just 45 days into his incarceration there. Race and class privilege rule even here.
- Radio Station: The “Incarceration Station” broadcasts live to all seven prison complexes at Angola. Inmate DJs play mostly gospel but it also serves as a means for communicating to all facilities during emergencies.
- Museum/Gift Shop: Here are many lots of displays of Angola’s history—weapons, a section on the Red Hat, the “heeling” incident, and “Gruesome Gertie,” which is the last electric chair, with photos of all executed inmates since 1981—the most recent in January 2010. There is a rodeo display, a section in Angola as portrayed in films such as Dead Man Walking and Monster’s Ball, a history of escape attempts and more. Angola’s reputation as “the bloodiest prison in America” is portrayed as an artifact of the past. We are led to believe that Angola is now a peaceful, humane institution where religion has ushered in a new era of calm, but the inmate who works as a janitor and likes to talk will tell you different. Warden Cain may run a less overtly brutal regime than previous wardens, but much repression is now just more hidden from public view. Warden Cain is quite adept at public relations. Of course you can buy Cain’s book at the gift shop and lots of junk with his name all over it, including small bales of cotton.
A3N: How much do you think things have changed since Angola was infamously labeled “the bloodiest prison in America?”
NAH: The tours are apparently part of Warden Burl Cain’s efforts to make Angola seem more humane, safe and open, in an effort to undo the image of Angola as “the bloodiest prison in America.” On the surface, I suppose what visitors see on the tour could reinforce that notion because there is regular interaction with inmate trustees, trips into inmate “dormitories” and never any sense of danger or risk. Of course, there is a great emphasis on the role of religion. For example, there is the new Graham Foundation Chapel, KLSP Incarceration Station that plays mostly gospel and the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary program. All of this emphasizes conservative evangelical Christianity over other faith traditions. Religion is clearly seen and used at Angola as a source of social control. Warden Cain has said that “the only true rehabilitation is moral.”
But many questions remain about what is unseen or unspoken unless you directly ask. Inmates still try to escape and as many as 1200 inmates—about 20% of the total population of over 5100—are in administrative segregation/lock-down at the notorious Camp J. These inmates are granted their one hour of “exercise” in an incredibly small dog kennel-like cage and are forced to remain handcuffed during their brief time out (this is apparently the response to inmates “flashing” female guards in the tower). An array of deadly weapons is still confiscated weekly, and there is reportedly on-going use of dogs and other force to control the population. Sexual assault is also reportedly still an issue and the obituary column in The Angolite often refers to deaths of relatively young inmates in Camp J without noting cause of death, as it does in other obituaries.
If allowed to, inmates also offer a critique of The World Famous Angola Rodeo, where inmates participate for cash prizes at great risk. There have been several inmate deaths at the rodeo as well as extreme injuries and on-going chronic conditions. Inmates are allowed to sell crafts at the rodeo but the Warden/prison takes a 20% cut. The rodeo makes approximately $1 million each weekend in October as the new arena (built by inmates in short order under Cain’s directive) seats 10,000. This is just one of several money-making endeavors at Angola that depends on neo-slave inmate labor starting at 2 cents per hour—the minimum wage had been raised to 4 cents per hour but was recently returned to 2 cents, according to the tour guide. The highest available wage for a few rare jobs is 20 cents per hour.
Despite the supposedly benign tour, both students and I were horrified. There is a cavalier attitude, a blasé acceptance of capital punishment, mass incarceration and of course little critique of the class and race dynamics of the inmate population—80% of whom are black and nearly all of whom were poor, under-educated and dependent on a public defender at trial. There is passive acceptance and even sometimes celebration of Louisiana’s harsh sentences—it has the highest incarceration rate in the US—and of the fact that 90% of the inmates will die there and 80% will receive no visitors after 5 years.
Angola is reminiscent of Toni Morrison’s description of the plantation “Sweet Home” in her novel Beloved—a physically beautiful and natural space that is the site of great hidden suffering and degradation. It is a place where men are made to be docile “yes sir” and “yes ma’m” boys—where only the compliant and subservient are slightly rewarded, but are still disappeared, invisible and inconsequential to those inside and outside the gates. Yes, you can survive and maybe work a tolerable job there after decades of submission–but at what cost? And, what of the rest who resist?
Those who want to learn more should watch the films –The Farm and The Farm: 10 Years Down. A word of caution though: while much is revealed, they do, in my estimation, especially in the second film, over-estimate an inmate’s chances of leaving Angola and “success” of the moralistic program imposed by Warden Cain. The stories of George Crawford and Vincent Simmons are much more typical than those of Ashanti Witherspoon and Bishop Tannehill.
A3N: Many people call Angola Prison a “modern day slave plantation.” Do you think this is a fair label?
NAH: Absolutely. Angola was and is still is very much a plantation. At 18,000 acres, it is the largest prison in the US—the only prison with its own zip code. Mostly black men are still maintaining the same agricultural activity—planting, hoeing, picking cotton and other crops by hand—that slaves did originally. And they are doing so as captives who are compensated for their back-breaking labor with mere pennies per hour. While Warden Cain may not be Simon Legree, he is still a plantation master—albeit one who uses Christianity as a means of controlling the neo-slave labor under his watch. The very same practices and social control mechanism that existed under slavery persist—just under a new name.
My interest in Angola is as both a paradigm of the Southern transformation of plantations into prisons and as a prototype for what we now call the prison industrial complex. Many old plantations in the South became prisons after the Civil War. Angela Y. Davis traces the initial rise of the penitentiary system to the abolition of slavery, writing: “in the immediate aftermath of slavery, the southern states hastened to develop a criminal justice system that could legally restrict the possibilities of freedom for the newly released slaves.”
Slave Codes became Black Codes and criminalized a range of activities if the perpetrator was black. The newly acquired 15th Amendment right to vote was curtailed by tailoring of felony disenfranchisement laws to include crimes that were supposedly more frequently committed by blacks. And, the liberatory promise of the 13th Amendment – “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall exist in the United States” – contained a dangerous loophole: “except as a punishment for crime”. This allowed for the conversion of the old plantations to penitentiaries, and this, with the introduction of the convict lease system, permitted the South to continue to economically benefit from the unpaid labor of blacks.
The patterns established in the old south have proliferated and expanded throughout the US, as African Americans are disproportionately policed, prosecuted, convicted, disenfranchised and imprisoned in the prison industrial complex. There has been a corresponding shift from de jure racism codified explicitly into the law and to a de facto racism where people of color, especially African Americans, are subject to unequal protection of the laws, excessive surveillance, extreme segregation and neo-slave labor via incarceration—all in the name of “crime control”. It is the current manifestation of the legal legacy of the racialized transformations of plantations into prisons, of Slave Codes into Black Codes, of lynching into state-sponsored executions. The “imputation of crime to color” that Frederick Douglass warned of 125 years ago continues to the present.