AuthorQuigley, William

TABLE OF CONTENTS INTRODUCTION I. Angola Today II. Angola in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries A. The Worst Prison in the United States, 1812-1844 B. Convict Leasing, 1844 to Civil War C. Post-Civil War Reinstatement of Convict Leasing and Re-enslavement 1. Angola Plantation Prison, 1869 2. Louisiana Takes Back Control of Angola, 1900 3. Heel Slashings, 1951 D. Angola in the 1960s: Bloodiest Prison in the South E. Angola in the 1970s: Medieval, Squalid and Horrifying 1. Why Angola Prison Litigation Did Not Arise Until the 1970s 2. Sinclair Litigation Opens the Federal Courthouse Doors 3. Major Litigation Erupts in 1971 with Haynes Williams Case F. Angola in the 1980s and 1990s III. Angola 2000 to Present CONCLUSION: ANGOLA SHOULD BE CLOSED INTRODUCTION

"I think that there has been more human suffering in this place than in any place in the world."

Burl Cain, Warden of Angola Penitentiary. (2)

Louisiana owns the shameful distinction of having its main prison named the worst in the United States in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; first by Alexis de Tocqueville in 1831, and then again by Collier's magazine in 1952. (3) Called Angola for the cotton plantation it once was, Louisiana State Penitentiary is today the largest maximum-security penitentiary in the country. (4) In the wake of the Civil War, the prison quickly demonstrated its usefulness in maintaining control over former slaves by profitably leasing them out for backbreaking work until they died. (5) By 1868, the population of the state penitentiary, which was two-thirds white before the Civil War, was now more than two-thirds black. (6)

The cruelty continued into the next century; in the 1950s, dozens of men slashed their own heel tendons to protest the brutality of Angola. (7) Inmates knew the place as a sexual jungle where the weak were sold into slavery to the powerful and violent. (8) In the 1960s, it was called "the bloodiest prison in the South." (9) An inspection team from the American Bar Association described conditions in the 1970s as "medieval, squalid and horrifying." (10) Later that decade, a conservative federal judge declared the prison an extreme public emergency with conditions that "shock[ed] the conscience" and flagrantly violated basic constitutional requirements. (11) A 1991 report by the United States Department of Justice found its medical care "grossly inadequate." (12) Recent reports demonstrate that Angola Penitentiary continues to be operated as a racist plantation with abysmal medical conditions, officially sanctioned violence, and the solitary confinement of hundreds. (13)

All the while, Louisiana has persisted in its scheme to intentionally incarcerate more of its people than any state in the country. (14) For that reason, this article details the horrendous history and current operation of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola and calls for its closure. Louisiana has proven again and again it lacks the ability and the will to run Angola in a manner consistent with constitutional and human rights. Angola's continued operation despite its history and pattern of illegality ultimately says more about the free citizens and elected officials of Louisiana than it does about those held within its walls.


    Over six thousand prisoners live at Angola, which is officially known as the Louisiana State Penitentiary. (15) More than eighty-five percent of the men serving time in Angola will die there. (16) The average sentence for prisoners at Angola exceeds ninety years. (17) Spread out over eighteen thousand acres, or twenty-eight square miles, Angola is the largest maximum-security prison in both Louisiana and the United States. (18) It is the centerpiece of the incarceration system in Louisiana, which for many years has imprisoned more of its people than any other state in the nation. (19) The prison takes its name from the original eight thousand-acre plantation owned by Isaac Franklin that was dubbed Angola after the homeland of its first slaves. (20) After the Civil War, Angola Plantation was used to put prisoners to work planting and picking cotton for the profit of the man who leased the rights to their labor, a former Confederate major named Samuel James. (21)

    Inside the prison are six main fenced areas called camps. (22) The main prison complex area houses about 2,500 prisoners, while five smaller camps hold another several thousand men. (23) Most prisoners at Angola live in large and open dormitory-style buildings. (24) Each dorm room has beds for eighty inmates. (25) There is, of course, no air conditioning. (26) Each of the six camps has its own wardens, security, and support staff. (27)

    The present working conditions for the thousands of inmates at Angola are remarkably similar to the days of slavery. One reporter who recently visited Angola made this observation: "In the distance on this day, 100 black men toil, bent over in the field, while a single white officer on a horse sits above them, a shotgun on his lap." (28)

    Angola, like the rest of the Louisiana prison system, is big business. Every prisoner works eight hours a day, five days a week. (29) They work in the fields farming corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, tomatoes, cabbage, okra, onions, strawberries, beans, and peppers. (30) Others tend cattle or make products such as license plates and mattresses. (31) Fieldwork is done the old-fashioned way, by hand with tools, and what is harvested is sold by Prison Enterprises, the business arm of the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections. (32) According to the Times-Picayune, the Louisiana "prison system that leased its convicts as plantation labor in the 1800s has come full circle and is again a nexus for profit." (33)

    Prisoners today are paid as little as two cents an hour and are eligible for annual raises of four cents an hour; some who worked in highly skilled jobs and have many years of experience can earn as much as one dollar an hour. (34) With that money, prisoners have to pay for their medical care (including six dollars per "sick call," a request for care), basic toiletries such as toothpaste and soap, clothes, shoes, phone calls, extra food, and legal copies. (35)

    Angola employs over one thousand guards and hundreds of other individuals. (36) About two hundred of the guards and their families live on the grounds of the prison, (37) where--per Angola tradition--inmates cut their grass, wash their cars, and serve them in various capacities. (38) "All day long, men in white uniforms are cutting grass, painting houses, planting gardens, free of cost to the prison staff." (39)

    For decades, Angola has functioned as a system that even the institution itself admitted has "bordered on legalized slavery." (40) Whippings, beatings, brutality, and rape were once widespread, according to the sworn testimony of a nurse who worked at the prison. (41) Recent articles about Angola emphasize its similarity today to its uses of old. (42) One described it as "a modern day slave plantation" that continues to reflect "a time when black men did not have rights. In a state with the motto 'Union, justice, and confidence,' there is certainly a lingering stink of a bygone, ugly era for which 'union and justice' is simply not a fitting description." (43)

    Angola's brutal, violent, and racist legacy endures to this day. The persistent lack of meaningful reform demonstrates that Louisiana has neither the inclination nor the ability to run the Louisiana State Penitentiary in a way that respects the humans it cages. It should be closed.


    1. The Worst Prison in the United States, 1812-1844

      From the beginning of Louisiana's statehood in 1812, state prisoners were kept in sub-human conditions in the old Spanish colonial jail in New Orleans. (44) Alexis de Tocqueville visited the New Orleans prison in 1831 and was shocked by what he saw:

      [W]e found men together with hogs, in the midst of all odours and nuisances. In locking up the criminals, nobody thinks of rendering them better, but only of taming their malice; they are put in chains like ferocious beasts; and instead of being corrected, they are rendered brutal.... The place for convicted criminals in New Orleans cannot be called a prison: it is a horrid sink, in which they are thronged together, and which is fit only for those dirty animals found here together with the prisoners: it must be observed that those who are detained here are not slaves: it is the prison for persons free in the ordinary course of life. (45) Louisiana spent more than $179,000 to house state convicts in these appalling conditions between 1819 and 1832. (46) In an effort to save money, as well as introduce some type of prisoner rehabilitation, the Louisiana legislature decided in 1832 to close the New Orleans jail and build a state penitentiary. (47)

      Located in what is now downtown Baton Rouge, the first official Louisiana state penitentiary was constructed with the labor of at least one hundred prisoners. (48) The goal, according to the legislature, was "to turn out honest men." (49) More importantly, however, the new prison was expected to be financially self-supporting. (50) Upon completion of the penitentiary in Baton Rouge in 1835, the governor of Louisiana, in his message to the state legislature, "remarked that Louisiana was at last free from the reproach which had been attributed to her in a recent publication of having the worst prison in the United States." (51)

      The completed penitentiary, originally designed to hold one hundred people, was immediately overcrowded with more than three hundred prisoners. (52) The inmates were quickly put to work manufacturing cotton, leather, and woolen products. (53) Two main criticisms of the new prison emerged. First, local merchants opposed the prison's sale of these products on the open market because the low prices from prison labor undercut their business...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT