The Quick 10: 10 Reasons You Don't Want to Go to Angola Prison

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If you have been following the Hurricane Gustav news (and it's kind of impossible not to), then you might already know that Ray Nagin, the mayor of New Orleans, issued a statement saying that anyone caught looting will automatically be sent to Angola Prison "“ do not pass go, do not collect $200. This might not sound like a huge deal, but usually to be sent to Angola (aka "The Farm") you have to have a sentence of 50 years to life. The word is that the prison isn't as horrible as it used to be, but when Nagin issued the statement, he added, "God bless you if you go there." So I'm assuming this is not a threat to be taken lightly. Anyway, in case you don't know what makes Angola so horrifying (I didn't before I wrote this), I thought I'd do the Q10 on it today"¦ thanks to Jason English for the idea. And thanks to the Angola Museum for the picture.

1. It's a working prison, meaning that inmates don't just sit around and watch T.V. all day. This stems from the 1800s, when inmates worked on constructing a levee. Now, they do lots of agricultural work "“ the prison sits on 18,000 acres of farm land.

2. Conditions were so abusive and the brutality was so bad that in 1952, 31 prisoners slashed their own Achilles' tendons to protest. Anyone who has ever cringed during that scene in Kill Bill when The Bride slashes Buck's Achilles' tendon with a scalpel knows how horrible that would be "“ especially doing it to yourself.

3. Of the 5,000-plus inmates, 86 percent are violent offenders and 52 percent are serving life sentences. There are 84 male inmates on death row and one woman.

prejean4. It's the home of Gruesome Gertie, the house electric chair. It's not currently used, but it was the main form of capital punishment for 50 years. It was the chair that sent Elmo Patrick Sonnier, the subject of the movie Dead Man Walking, to his death in 1984. It was last used for execution in 1991. It made an appearance in the movie Monster's Ball. That's Sister Helen Prejean in Angola to the left, the nun who counseled Sonnier and made their story famous.

5. Horrifyingly, Gruesome Gertie didn't always work as she should have. In 1946, teenager Willie Francis was to be executed in the chair for killing his employer at a local drugstore. But the prison guard who set the chair up was drunk at the time and didn't do it right. Once the switch was thrown, Francis apparently screamed, "Take it off! Let me breathe! I'm not dying!" They did, and Francis appealed to the Supreme Court, citing cruel and unusual punishment (among other things). The appeal was rejected, however, and Willie Francis was executed (again) on May 9, 1947. I can't imagine the horror of going back to the electric chair after the first botched attempt.

6. It's where two of the Angola 3 were in solitary confinement since from 1972 until March 2008. Robert King Wilkerson, Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace were convicted of stabbing a prison guard to death. "Witnesses" included other inmates who were promised cigarettes and pardon recommendations for testifying. One prisoner repeatedly confessed to the murder over the years, but it's alleged that prison officials chose to ignore him in favor of putting the Angola 3 in solitary because they were leaders of the prison's Black Panther movement. Wilkerson was paroled in 2001, but Woodfox and Wallace remained in solitary until recently. Wallace said that for years, he would attend biweekly "hearings" to determine whether his behavior was good enough to spring him from solitary, but when he got to the room, he was simply handed a piece of paper saying that he was denied. He never got a chance to speak.

music7. Musicians have been telling the tale of Angola's horrors for years. Lead Belly, Freddy Fender, Robert Pete Williams, Aaron and Charles Neville, James Booker and rapper Juvenile are just a handful of people who have mentioned Angola in their works. Lead Belly actually served time in Angola from 1930 to 1934 for attempted homicide, Freddy Fender served about three years for marijuana possession, and James Booker spent six months at The Farm for heroin possession.

8. It sounds very Austin Powers "“ sharks with frickin' laser beams "“ but Warden Burl Cain uses wolves and bears to help guard the grounds. Although the bears are more of a bonus than a planned thing: when it was discovered that a 400+ pound black bear was living on prison grounds, Cain viewed it as a plus. "I love that bear being right where it is," he said. "I tell you what, none of our inmates are going to try to get out after dark and wander around when they might run into a big old bear. It's like having another guard at no cost to the taxpayer." It's probably not the only bear, though "“ prison officials think they might have up to ten living at The Farm. As for the wolves, Paste magazine reported in 2003 that the prison had recently acquired wolves to act as guard dogs. "You're more afraid of a wolf than you are of dogs," Cain said, "so if I have a wolf that'll bite, then the wolf will never have to bite anybody, because nobody will want to be challenged by the wolf."

9. Prisoners make their own coffins. At least, they could be. A coffin-making factory on the grounds keeps inmates busy, but it serves a purpose as well: prisoners who die and are not claimed by anyone are buried in them. This is a step up from the cardboard boxes they used to use for burials. That practice had to be stopped when a corpse fell through the bottom of the box.

10. There's not much mercy for those who act out. When one inmate got unruly at his trial in 2002, officers dealt with the problem by taping his mouth shut. Well, his whole head, almost. Paste quotes the the Baton Rouge newspaper The Advocate: "State Penitentiary security officerswrapped the bottom half of his face and all of his neck with duct tape, then wrapped a circle of tape under his jaw and over the top of his forehead."

However, Angola also has some things other prisons don't: its own radio station ("The Incarceration Station") and magazine produced by inmates, the annual Angola Prison Rodeo and a four-year bible college.

September 2, 2008 - 10:41am
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