Angola State Prison, Louisiana, 2011. Wages Start at 2 Cents an Hour

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photo: Eufala, Alabama slaves pose for a photo op in 1859

Inside Angola: Faith-Based Slavery in a Louisiana Prison

    By Liliana Segura, ColorLines

Posted on August 11, 2011, Printed on August 12, 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 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

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.

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

The  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

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

‘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

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.”

Plantation Specialties


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.”

“It was slave labor,” Butler says. “They were waited on hand and foot.”

Butler also wrote a profile of the man who started the rodeo, a Texas
cowboy named Jack Favor. Framed for murder, he nevertheless fell in
line at Angola, helping make the rodeo a profitable venture. In recent
years, the money involved has led to charges of corruption. In 2004, a
former rodeo producer told the FBI that Cain had forced him to donate to
Angola’s chapel fund in order to keep his contract. In 2009, a retired
horse trainer pleaded guilty to mail fraud in connection to a racket
involving Angola’s horses. That year, the rodeo produced $2,463,822 in

“There has always been something going on up there that shouldn’t,” Butler says.

Cain has long been accused of ethical lapses. He was most publicly
unmasked by journalist Daniel Bergner, who was granted rare access to
Angola in the 1990s. When Cain tried to extort him, he refused, was
barred from the prison, and sued his way back in. Bergner’s reporting
sparked a state investigation, which Cain cast as a fight between good
and evil. “The Devil’s going to get him,” Cain told the state senate’s
judiciary committee.

Bergner also provided glimpses of how some inmates perceived Cain’s
embrace of certain elements of Angola’s past, including replacing some
tractors and trucks with mule- and horse-drawn wagons. “‘He likes it to
look like slavery times,’ the inmates observed.”

‘Army of the Lord’

Warden Cain ambles confidently toward the reporters outside the rodeo
arena. Corpulent and affable, with bright white hair, I recall the way
one former Angola prisoner described him to me: “a verbal magician.”

“We’re gonna have a big performance today,” Cain tells us. “You’re
actually helping us promote it and do our sales, so thank you so much.”
Cain describes the rodeo as “a gigantic morale builder” for prisoners
and a “deterrent” for their children, adding that it’s ultimately about
public safety: “This rodeo prevents victims of violent crime.” I ask
Cain about his philosophy of “moral rehabilitation,” whether redemption
at Angola is possible only through Jesus. “We don’t care,” he shrugs.
“We’re looking for the morality that we find in religion.”

Entering the arena, a banner reads: “DID YOU KNOW: Angola Prison
Rodeo Helps Send Offender Missionaries to Other DOC Institutions
Throughout Louisiana.”

The crowd is still getting settled when suddenly a long, sonorous
trumpet note cuts through the noise. Three white horses gallop
gracefully into the arena, carrying riders dressed as angels, in flowing
robes, gold sashes, and feathered wings. As a cheer rises from the
stands, a fourth rider bursts forth, carrying a flag that announces:
“Jesus Is Coming.”

“Behold, for I am coming soon!” a voice booms as a fifth rider
charges across the arena, his robes flapping dramatically behind him. “I
am the Alpha and the Omega. The first and the last. The beginning and
the end.” The verses are from the Book of Revelation, that final battle
between good and evil. Triumphant music plays as six more horses run
out, adorned with crosses from head to toe, their breast straps reading
“Army of the Lord.”

The riders gallop in formation. The crowd goes wild. The rodeo has officially begun.

Up next are the Angola Rough Riders. Dressed in the convict stripes
worn by all competitors, they carry a series of flags. An older black
inmate carries the Confederate flag. Another holds the flag of the Army
of the Trans-Mississippi, the Confederate army that represented Texas,
Arkansas, Missouri and Louisiana in the Civil War. “Those are the flags
that have flown over Louisiana,” explains a PR official when I ask if
the symbolism isn’t a bit . . . fraught. “It’s historical.”

The first event, “Bust Out,” is over before it starts. Eight chutes
open simultaneously, releasing eight bucking bulls with inmates on top.
They hit the dirt in seconds, scurrying off to safety. The next
contest,  bareback riding, ends similarly. Then, during an event called
“Pinball,” the action intensifies: A chute bursts open and a massive
bull slams its horns into a heavyset inmate, throwing him several feet
in the air, his baseball hat flying off his head. The crowd shrieks with
a mixture of horror and excitement. He lays immobile on the ground
until a pair of EMTs grab his arms and run him off the field.

It’s a violent spectacle, admittedly entertaining. Event winners pump
their fists in the air exuberantly, probably the highlight of their
year. But for all the hair-raising moments, the most unsettling part may
be the strange symbolism of the opening pageantry. Putting a
Confederate flag in a black man’s hands on a former slave plantation
seems a little too deliberate for an institution that claims to have
shed its darker past.

“I have always said, and I continue to say, that if slavery had
persisted up until 2010, into the modern day, that would probably have
been a well-run slave plantation,” Wilbert Rideau says. “I think it
would have evolved into what exists right now at Angola.” We’re in his
living room in Baton Rouge, with his wife, Linda.

Once labeled “the most rehabilitated prisoner in the world,” Rideau
spent 44 years locked up for a murder he committed after a botched bank
robbery when he was 19. While at Angola, he became the influential
editor of The Angolite, winning the prestigious George Polk Award and
co-directing the Oscar-nominated documentary, “The Farm.” With Linda’s
help, Rideau finally won his freedom in 2005.

Rideau once accused the rodeo of “exploiting the inmates for the
amusement of others,” as he recalls in his memoir, In the Place of
Justice. But “later on, I learned the purpose,” he says. “All of the

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