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Inside Angola: Faith-Based Slavery in a Louisiana Prison

The country's largest maximum security prison features a private golf course, an evangelical Christian warden, and has been compared to a slave plantation.

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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.”

‘I Came to Angola Young’

Anthony Diggs would know. He’s a volunteer at Angola’s hospice, where dying prisoners spend their last days. Although state law theoretically allows some prisoners to apply for medical parole, few at Angola are eligible. Most of the men Diggs cares for “can’t do anything for themselves,” he says. “They’re confined to wheelchairs, age-stricken, and they can’t harm no one.” A large black man with a thick New Orleans drawl, Diggs is selling gator-skin belts next to a photo display featuring “the Hospice Caregiver’s Prayer.” Diggs also tends the grounds where most will be laid to rest, one of two cemeteries called Point Lookout.

Angola’s funerals have become stately rituals under Warden Cain, with a horse-led carriage delivering inmate-constructed caskets to grave sites. Like the hospice, this is meant to imbue dignity in death, but for Diggs, it’s cold comfort. “I came [to Angola] young, and a lot of the guys used to run on the football fields with me. They were in their forties then. Now they’re running at 60 years old,” says Diggs. “It scares me. I don’t want to be in that same position, in that bed, where a new hospice volunteer has to help me.”

Not far from Diggs, a covered pavilion stands with a long chain link fence running alongside it. On one side of the fence is a line of prisoners; their arts and crafts are displayed on tables on the opposite side. “These are the guys that are not yet trustees,” Fontenot explains as we walk briskly past.

Becoming a trustee means better work privileges, including the right to earn 20 cents an hour for their labor, rather than the starting 2 cent rate. Like “extended lockdown,” the trustee system is rooted in a less benevolent era. First established at Parchman Farm, the notorious plantation prison in Mississippi, “trustys” were convict guards chosen to keep their fellow inmates in line. At the top were “trusty shooters” who kept watch over men working the fields.

Prisoners who compete in the rodeo must be free of disciplinary infractions, and a relatively small number actually get in the ring. “It’s mostly for younger guys,” Lamont Mathews, an older black prisoner with thick glasses tells me from behind the fence. “They can heal quicker.”

 
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