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Monday, 28 April 2008


Family Fun at America's 'Bloodiest' Prison

By Justin T. Carreño
St. Francisville, Louisiana:-- Several times a year, one weekend in April and every weekend in October, a grand fair here on the banks of the Mississippi River, north of the capital Baton Rouge, near this small country outpost, the parish seat (and the only town) in West Felciana Parish, attracts thousands of visitors. Concessionaires sell hand-made arts and crafts, children take a shot at knocking a clown into a dunk tank, the smells of fried dough and cotton candy penetrate the air, and a rodeo and a horse show with a class-A drill team takes centre stage.

Another county fair, surely? Well, not quite.

Not with armed guards assigned to the clown at the dunk tank. Not with dealers of leather goods and paintings standing behind razor-thin wire fencing. Not with rodeo riders locked in a secured area segreated from spectators. Standard dress? Black- and-white striped outfits. Ball and chain, at least, for now, optional.

Welcome to a fun fair at Angola, America's largest high-security prison, the site of Louisiana's death row, and the home of some of the country's most dangerous felons.

In other words, a small-town, family-style county fair with a unique exception: The fair is held at what is sometimes referred to as the 'bloodiest prison in America' -- the Louisiana State Penitentiary. Nicknamed 'Angola,' after the African country, the maximum security prison houses Louisiana's most hardened and violent criminals, incarcerated for rape, murder, arson, and armed robbery. Angola is also the US's largest prison, with more than 5,000 inmates.

As I do every year, I made the 2.5-hour drive from New Orleans to view the Angola Rodeo.

For me, it's not about rodeos. I can take them or leave them. Rather, it's about that quirky juxtaposition of families and children, interacting with and being entertained by murderers and rapists. I like juxtapositions. For example, come to think of it, I was probably the only rodeo attendee that day who had been at the New Orleans Opera Association's version of West Side Story at Tulane the night before.

Driving down the long drive to the prison, I thought I was on my way to beautiful southern plantation. I crossed gentle creeks, passed untouched fields of wildflowers, and, as I got closer to the Angola's gates, groomed pastures with grand, evenly-spaced, lined oak trees with thick Spanish moss overflowing the limbs. Flanking the fields were newly painted white post-and-rail fences that added, not only a complimentary contrast to the green pastures, but also symmetry to the lined trees and fields.

My southern plantation theme was suddenly interrupted at the prison gate, where I was presented with a flier outlining this particular fun fair's rules: No weapons, no cell phones, no drugs, no alcohol, no cameras, no bags, no umbrellas, and no unlocked vehicles. And no 'skin.' (My female friend, accompanying me, was warned by the guard at the entry that she was revealing too much, and told to purchase a tee-shirt at the fairgrounds).

Otherwise, it was, as our guard added, "Welcome to the Big House! Enjoy the show!"

Through Angola's gates, the grounds are even more beautiful and well-groomed, with fields of soybean, wheat, and corn abounding. Cows and horses grazed pastures, adding a calm and quaintness to the area. It was serene, pastoral.

Once on the "fairgrounds," it's easy to forget that you're at a prison. At county fair, then. OK, surrounded by razor wire.

We got ice cream cones, and then strolled over to the arts and crafts area, under tents surrounded by yet more fence. Behind these fences were inmates who had hand-crafted sculptures, paintings, leather goods, and wood work. There were some beautiful pieces that no doubt took time and care to make, everything from rocking chairs to leather belts to drawings and paintings to wood carvings.

I took a piece I particularly liked -- a professionally-looking, already framed charcoal drawing of a detailed outdoor scene -- to its inmate artist. Eighty dollars, he told me. I asked how long it took him to draw the scene. About 80 hours, and even more time with the matting and framing, he said.

"All your art, you put a lot of time into it," I said.

"Well, I guess I got plenty of that!"

He said he had no training, and that everything he made was derived from a God-given talent.

My friend asked, imprudently, I thought, how much longer he had to his sentence.

He responded, solemnly, "I will die here. I have been here since I was 19, and I'm almost 40. I made such stupid mistakes when I was young.'

Thankfully, my friend didn't ask more.

The inmate-artist bent down and picked up an amazing, intricate three-dimensional wood carving of an outdoor scene with ducks in flight. How much? I asked. He said the work wasn't for sale. He made it, he said, for his father, who he hadn't seen in years and was supposed to visit him that day. Except his dad contacted him, and told him he wouldn't be able to make it, and he couldn't predict when he would, in fact, be able visit.

He was stoic. Yet the inmate's painful countenance portrayed otherwise.

I said, "Well, he may come when you least suspect it."

He said, "Maybe."

I bought the drawing.

"Your work is beautiful," I said.

He lit up.

There are possibly people in prison who have been reformed. I'm not so naive to think that this man might not strike out again, only judging from my five-minute conversation. But what if he could actually redeem himself. We will never know because he will never see freedom. It seems that the punishment that society inflicts on many violent criminals extends beyond the terms of which they are
sentenced. What a waste!

Our legal system is quick to sentence people, but once they are behind lock-and-key we forget about them. They are dehumanized. Yet this man I bought art from very much had the same need to make something of himself as many of us do on the outside. They need hope and they need the will to achieve.

The rodeo is the Angola fair's main event. The prisoners don't have much opportunity to practice during the year so they are not particularly good at staying on the bucking bronco or the bull, but they do have
something that attracts spectators -- guts! Many of the events focus on courage, rather than skill. Like the poker table event, wherein four inmates play poker at a table while bulls are released into the arena and eventually ravage the table, chairs, and men. The last man sitting wins.

One of the first events was bull riding. One prisoner was tossed into the air and landed hard. Normally the rodeo clowns chase off the bull and the inmate, ironically, flees to the cell where the participants are kept. But this time, the rider didn't have a chance. The bull didn't respond to the clowns. You could see the fear in his face as the bull rushed forward, gored him with his horns and stepped on him. (Maybe he had the same fear in his face as did the girl he raped or the man he shot dead).

The announcer made it clear that all participants are given the best medical treatment available. One EMT grabbed his legs, another his arms, and they carried him out of the arena to an ambulance.

The prison is named Angola because it used to be a plantation site where its owner had imported African slave labor from Angola. He believed that Angolans were particularly good workers. In the early days of the prison, slaves and inmates worked along side each other.

The site is located in a bend of the Mississippi, thus surrounded by the river on three sides, portending constant threat of flooding. One of the first missions was to establish good levees, which still today do not keep the prison totally safe from flooding. Prisoners and slaves built the levees, and if they died doing so, as some did, they were tossed into the levees to help shore them. At the time prison guards were so scarce prisoners were recruited as trustees to keep watch over other prisoners.

Over time, Angola grew. So did its dysfunction. It became notorious as being the 'bloodiest prison in America.' That is until the current warden, Burl Cain, set out to make it a 'productive' community with "good citizens,' through what he called "moral rehabilitation." 'Moral' people are not criminals, he contended.

Cain is a devout and able Christian, and his ideology pervades the prison. He worked against corruption, and retooled Angola as a working farm. Albeit, where the average sentence is 88 years and the minimum, 40 years.

Cain likes to spend time with those being put to death. He holds their hand as they are injected with the lethal cocktail and prays with them.

Prisoner carpenters make bespoke caskets for the executed. Later, a funeral ceremony is held for the dead led by a cortege with a horse-drawn hearse driven by an inmate.

All inmates are encouraged to attend Bible study. Some become prison 'lawyers' or inmate ministers.

Cain believes that the majority of inmates must have hope. He believes that "moral rehabilitation" has pulled Angola out of the Dark Ages and has made it one of the most progressive and relatively peaceful prisons in the United States.

The motivating drive for all involved? The Angola Prison Rodeo, Cain contends.
(Justin T. Carreño is a writer who lives in New Orleans).