Inside Angola: Faith-Based Slavery in a Louisiana Prison
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“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 prison 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.”
I’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.