Friday, May 13, 2016

A Plantation Called Angola, by Rita Monette

Louisiana Tidbit

A Plantation Called Angola
by Rita Monette

I haven’t done a Louisiana Tidbit in a while, so I decided to do something about Angola, since it turns up in my third book, The Secret in Mossy Swamp, from the Nikki Landry Swamp Legend Series.

The Farm

Angola Prison, officially titled The Louisiana State Penitentiary (LSP), and nicknamed “The Farm,” was originally a plantation, purchased and run by the slave trade of the 1800s. 

Today it is the largest maximum security prison in the United States, with 6,300 prisoners, and located on 18,000 acres of property. It is set in Louisiana’s West Feliciana Parish and is bordered on three sides by the Mississippi River.

From Plantation to Prison

Barracks 1901
When a Civil War Major, Samuel Lawrence James purchased the plantation property In 1880, he leased prisoners from the state of Louisiana to work the fields, which began the cruelty and abuse that ravaged the prison throughout the years.

In 1901 The Louisiana Department of Public Safety & Corrections acquired the property and opened the facilities as a prison.

As the years progressed at Angola, change came very slowly indeed. For many years, the state appropriated very few funds for the operation of Angola, and reported horrible conditions there went ignored by authorities.

Angola was designed to be as self-sufficient as possible; it functioned as a miniature community with a canning factory, a dairy, a mail system, a small ranch, repair shops, and a sugar mill. Prisoners raised food staples and cash crops. In the 1930s prisoners worked from dawn until dusk.

Crops produced at LSP include cabbage, corn, cotton, strawberry, okra, onions, peppers, soybeans, squash, tomatoes, and wheat. It is reported that each year the prison produces approximately four million pounds of vegetable crops, and In 2010 the prison had 2,000 head of cattle on the premises.

Angola Inspires Books and Movies

Angola 1934, Lead Belly in foreground
 Charles Wolfe and Kip Lornell, authors of The Life and Legend of Leadbelly, said that Angola was "probably as close to slavery as any person could come in 1930." Hardened criminals broke down upon being notified that they were being sent to Angola.

In Stephen King's book The Green Mile, and the adapted movie of the same name, the fictional setting of the Louisiana Cold Mountain Penitentiary was loosely based on life on death row at Angola in the 1930s.

The documentary, The Farm, and films such as Dead Man Walking, Monster's Ball, and I Love You Phillip Morris,  were partly filmed in Angola. 

Big Events Push Small Changes

Since it appeared no one was listening to their plight,  In 1952, 31 inmates at Angola took matters into their own hands. In protest of the prison's conditions, they cut their Achilles' tendons (referred to as the Heel String Gang.) This caused national news agencies to write stories about Angola. In its November 22, 1952 issue, Collier's Magazine referred to Angola as "the worst prison in America.”

Then, on December 5, 1956, five men escaped by digging out of the prison grounds and swimming across the Mississippi River. The Hope Star newspaper reported only one body was pulled from the river. One man was recaptured later in Texas, after returning to the United States from Mexico. He stated that two of his fellow escapees drowned, but this was disputed by then warden Maurice Sigler, who stated that he believed no more than one inmate drowned.

A Lasting Legacy

Folks raised in Louisiana have been imprinted with the legacy of Angola. Akin to hell itself, it was a place no one wanted to go. 

As evidence of how notorious the prison still was despite efforts to reform it,  on August 31, 2008, New Orleans mayor, Ray Nagin warned in a press conference that anybody who was caught looting in the city of New Orleans  during a hurricane evacuation would go directly to Angola Prison, stating  “...and God bless you when you go there.”

Angola Today

Angola after 2000
Today,  Angola still operates as a working farm. However, the prison has garnered some attention for it’s inmate rodeo and It’s semiannual Arts and Crafts Festival.

On one weekend in April and on every Sunday in October, Angola holds the Angola Prison Rodeo. On each occasion, thousands of visitors enter the prison complex. The idea of the rodeo was born in 1964, and it began in 1965. The 10,000-person stadium used for the rodeo opened in 2000. As part of the prison rodeo, the prison holds an Arts and Crafts Festival.

Information obtained from Wikipedia article. For more information and citations, see: