America’s largest river travels from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, effectively cutting the country in half. The Mississippi travels south and becomes wider, deeper and more treacherous as rivers join in to make the Mississippi mighty.
In central Louisiana, the Red River flows into the Mississippi adding more size to the river. Just below this point, The Mississippi has, over time, made an effort to change its course. The Atchafalaya River is the natural course for the river to reach its goal of emptying into the Gulf of Mexico
Huge locks were built by the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1930’s in an effort to insure the river followed its historical route. Had the locks not been built, the traditional Mississippi would have become a docile waterway and the deep water ports of New Orleans and Baton Rouge would not exist. Added to this situation, the new route of the river, armed with its increased flow could cause the swamps of South Louisiana to vanish—washed away by the force and volume of the enlarged river.
I mention this geography lesson regarding the river because just below the point that the Atchafalaya begins, on the opposite bank of the Mississippi lies a fertile area bordered on three sides by a bend in the river. The river is a mile wide at this point and is impossible to cross due to the distance, wicked current, swirls and debris. Most springs, the river overflows and leaves silt, mud, water, fish and poisonous snakes across the land.
The area today is home to arguably the most infamous prison in the country, The Louisiana State Prison, better known as Angola. The penitentiary encompasses an area of 18,000 acres, a land mass larger than Manhattan Island.
The original Angola was a plantation of 8,000 acres. Besides farming and raising cattle, the plantation also served as a slave breeding farm. Slaves were brought to Angola to procreate and have babies that could then be sold into slavery. It was a very profitable business. It was called Angola because most of the Negro slaves came from the African nation of Angola. The plantation was so profitable that two smaller, adjoining plantations were purchased to bring the total to the above mentioned 18,000 acres. The slave farm came to an end after the Civil War.
In 1880, Angola was made into a prison and began housing convicts. The prison grew as facilities were built to house the convicts, most of whom were serving life sentences. The floods along the Mississippi became particularly severe from 1900 to the 1930s. The prisoners provided the labor to build the levees using nothing but shovels and wheelbarrows. When a slave died from the back breaking work, his remains were thrown into the dirt and his body became part of the levee.
Those were trying times in Louisiana, with the floods, the Depression, and finally the Second World War. Angola became a forgotten issue and consequently, sunk into disrepair and neglect. Funds for running the prison were severely reduced and inmate services became deplorable. In this environment, Angola earned the reputation as the worst prison in America.
The prison, from its inception, has held primarily black inmates, comprising seventy-five percent of the population. The total prison population has exceeded 5000 for years. He who goes to Angola stays in Angola. The few who get out are indeed fortunate. Louisiana has strict sentencing laws and most serious crimes carry life sentences with little or no chance of parole.
Angola was a brutal place. New prisoners became sex slaves to the experienced prisoners. Fights and murders occurred regularly. With minimum guards, it was as blues singer Solomon Burke sang, “Only the Strong Survive.” Food and clothing were lacking. Most prisoners worked outside on the farm from sunup to dark in scorching heat, insect infested fields, with little to eat or drink. It was extremely hot and humid with both temperature and humidity regularly in the 90s. This was better than being confined to a cell all day where the temperatures regularly registered over 100 degrees with no breeze. Guards on horseback, armed with rifles and whips watched over the men in the fields. A prisoner best not stop working or he would feel the leather. Prisoners received one thirty minute break per day. The belief was that a tired prisoner was a docile prisoner.
In the early 1960s the deplorable conditions at Angola were finally addressed in Federal Court. A federal judge by the name of E. Gordon West took control of the prison. Change slowly took place. Over the next twenty years prisoner’s rights and conditions began to improve. Progressive wardens were assigned and today Angola is considered to be a model prison.
There is a ministerial program for prisoners wanting to become an ordained minister. Activities such as woodworking, painting, leather crafting, chorale, horticulture, animal husbandry (inmates maintain a herd of more than 2000 cattle), and more are offered to the inmates. Crops raised on “The Farm” as Angola is sometimes called, help feed the inmates and offer a source of income for prison programs. A prison newspaper is published. The Angola Prison Rodeo is world famous and requires many man hours to produce. Indeed, Angola has come a long way.
Recently, there has been much conversation regarding African-American life, Confederate flags and race relations. I am disappointed in how little history is considered in this debate. It is important to understand how these issues began, where we are today, and where we may go in the future.
Social media puts us on a faster track than most can understand or deal with. Our intellect is clouded by instant information and responses. We rush to judgments and beliefs that are often incorrect and ill conceived. The Angola story demonstrates how far we have come as a people.