Just a few of Louisiana’s condemned. Behind Texas, Louisiana executes more people than any other state in the nation – about one person a year.
More than a mile of cars lined the end of Highway 66 on a foggy morning in October. Tucked away in the rugged Tunica hills in the corner of Louisiana, we were quietly waiting to get into a place they call “The Farm”. Twenty miles from the nearest town, The Farm is a lost land of 18,000 acres of rolling greenery, surrounded on three sides by the murky waters of the mighty Mississippi River.
Not just an ordinary farm, we were at the gates of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. The largest prison in the United States, 63 percent of the men in its confines will die there. Originally a plantation manned by slaves from the African nation of Angola, the state started sending its prisoners to the area in the late 1800s. There wasn’t much of a concern for inmate welfare – 216 men had died in 1896 alone. Along with a history of natural disasters and violence, there were more than 10,000 “official” floggings between 1928 and 1940. When World War II came around, Angola was all but forgotten until the 60s when it had slipped back into medieval times. Such stress, chaos and fear had caused The Farm to change wardens 9 times between 1964 and 1968.
By 1973, violence was an everyday part of life at the Farm. Men were attacking each other with double-bladed swords, knives, hatchets, and even homemade shotguns. It was common practice for men to go to sleep at night with thick catalogues and steel plates tied to their stomachs underneath their shirts. Angola was a prison of gang warfare and chaos. Between 1972 and 1975, there were 40 murders and more than 350 serious stabbings in the prison. Throughout the 80s, violence continued with stories of kidnappings, escapes, and slain guards. In the museum, I saw pictures of hacked-up faces and bodies and the remains of a truck that had crashed through the front gates.
At 9am sharp, the line of cars slowly began to make its way through the front gates. Inching our way through the suspicious guards, we passed the infamous death row which lay right inside the perimeter. With clean sidewalks, well-maintained shrubbery and flowers, the modern building looked more like a doctor’s or lawyer’s office. But the bundles of razor wire along the roof and courtyard reminded us that there were 91 men inside, waiting to be poked by the lethal injection that the juries of Louisiana have cast upon them. Inside that building, the condemned men sit in their cells, 23 hours a day, year after year, awaiting their fates. One could only imagine what stories of horror lay inside those walls.
We headed out into the open plains of The Farm that stretched as far as the eye could see. Out on the horizon, among the rolling hills, I could barely make out the tops of the “outcamps” which housed some of the 5,100 inmates. Traveling down the main highway lined by white picket fences, herds of cow peacefully chewed the grass as flocks of birds took to the blue skies. I had to remind myself that I was in a prison.
Had this been an ordinary day, we would have seen why they call it The Farm. Holding the belief that an idle prisoner is a troublemaker, every able-bodied inmate at Angola is required to work. With schedules like those on the outside, inmates work 8-hour days, 5 days a week in the fields under the blazing Louisiana sun – and the watchful eyes of armed guards. At four cents an hour, a full-time weekly paycheck in the fields of Angola is $1.60, not even enough for a pack of smokes. In protest of working these fields, 31 inmates had sliced their own Achilles tendons back in 1951. There are many who say the conditions can only be described as “slave labor”.
Confiscated weapons on display at the museum. Take note of the “homemade shotgun” in the center.
Despite its violent and problematic past, things are slowly changing for the better under current warden Burl Cain. A Southern Baptist, Cain has established a four-year accredited college for theology (the only one of its kind in the nation), a church, and a prison museum which opened in 1998. More importantly, he constantly supports the 30 or so self-help organizations in Angola such as the Human Relations Club and the Substance Abuse Clinic. The Angolite, LSP’s bimonthly magazine, has been praised around the nation its in-depth reporting.
Yet it’s a strange fact to know that Cain has killed more than most of the men in his prison. As warden, he is responsible for executing death sentences that Louisiana’s juries have handed down for certain heinous crimes. While he has no opinion in the matter nor directly acts as the executioner, he holds the hands of each one of the men as they die and prays with them. It’s a job that can take its toll on a man. One of Cain’s predecessors, Warden C. Murray Henderson, was convicted of shooting his wife 5 times.
Far in the middle of the warden’s rolling grasslands, guards waved us into an open parking area where the line of cars began to accumulate. Buzzing around on ATVs and galloping through the fields on horseback, the guards wandered as far as the eye could see. Among the most underpaid and uneducated correctional officers in the nation, there are more than 1,500 of them keeping Louisiana’s predators behind bars. They range from middle-aged women, to old white-haired men, to boys who haven’t even grown hair on their faces yet.
Walking into the enclosed area surrounding the stadiums, I found myself in a world run by convicts. They were cooking, cleaning, selling souvenirs, playing in bands, doing soundchecks, and preparing livestock. Some were welcoming visitors and mixing in with the rest of the crowd as if they were free men working a regular job. But the white collared shirts with the words “Rodeo Worker” on the back let everyone know that they didn’t drive in through the gates this morning. These are some of the prison’s most trusted convicts – men who have long histories of good behavior or rehabilitation behind bars, or those who are nearing the end of their sentences.
Despite the smiles on their faces and welcoming gestures, there seems to be something unnerving about mixing and mingling with convicts. Angola is not like the prisons you hear about on the news, where the majority of inmates are relatively harmless drug addicts: 90 percent of the men at The Farm are violent offenders; almost half of them are in for homicide. I find it’s a natural reaction to slowly scoot away from a group of these men or start to get the shakes when accidentally stepping on a toe.
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