Inside Angola: Faith-Based Slavery in a Louisiana Prison
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Inside the arena, near a group of EMTs is one of the younger guys. Aldric Lathen, a tall black man with hazel eyes and a sly smile, has family coming next week. A few rodeos ago, he says, he broke two ribs — “I got pancaked between two horses” — and once, he saw a bull cut a man’s face open. “Every time I talk to my grandma she’s trying to talk me out of [competing],” says Lathen. When I run into him later, he says with a grin, “I found out what I’m competing in: bull riding.”
Well before noon, Fontenot announces it’s lunchtime. “It’s sad that there has to be a place like this,” she says reflectively as I eat deep fried shrimp on a stick. At the same time, “these men have made this their community. They are somebody here.” I ask if there is one myth about Angola she would like to dispel. She answers quickly, with a sigh: “That we’re a Southern slave plantation. People like that mystique.”
The road that leads to Angola is Highway 66, winding 20 miles from the town of St. Francisville. At the turnoff for 66, a sign announces, “RODEO: SOLD OUT” across from a cabin advertising hot lunches. It’s called Plantation Specialties.
Wanda Callender, the co-owner, grew up on the grounds at Angola, where her father was a farm supervisor. “It was a wonderful place to be raised,” she says. “We had skating and volleyball and basketball and dances on Friday and Saturday night.” The inmates “used to cut our yards,” she recalls, saying they were often offered cold drinks. Today, three of Callender’s children work at Angola. One, a nurse named Cody, stops in.
Cody and his mother agree that Angola is good for the inmates; several even turn out to be “good people.” Still, says Callender firmly, “I believe that whenever you commit a crime that you should spend your time.” Even if they could be paroled, she says, “a lot of them don’t wanna be out.” Inmates who worked for her father wound up coming right back after being released, she explains. “My daddy was like a dad to them. So what they end up doing is, they come back to the people . . . who have basically taken care of them.”
Cody disagrees. Given a shot at parole, he says, “I believe some of them would take a second chance.”
Less than two miles away lies Butler Greenwood, a sprawling plantation where majestic oak trees drip with Spanish moss, forming a canopy over meticulously preserved Victorian architecture. The owner, a writer named Anne Butler, has converted it into a popular bed and breakfast, where she was once shot and nearly killed by her then-husband, Murray Henderson, a former warden at Angola.
Despite being a victim of violent crime, Butler is critical of natural life sentences. “There’s a point when there’s not any point in keeping an elderly inmate,” she says. “That’s beyond punishment.” She met Henderson while researching a pair of books about Angola, detailed historical narratives that breathed humanity into the most unsympathetic of characters.
One tells the story of an inmate who, in 1948, murdered his abusive boss, Rubye Spillman, and disguised in her clothes, drowned in the Mississippi River trying to escape. It was a brutal era — prisoners were disciplined through “whippings with a heavy strap or solitary confinement in so-called dungeons” — but Angola’s free residents remembered it fondly. As Spillman’s daughter recalled, “I was the princess, and my daddy and mother were the king and queen, and we had servants, and we didn’t want for anything.”