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I wanted to share some PPOTR snapshots with you. Angola Prison (Louisiana State Penitentiary) is the state’s maximum security prison. An 18,000 acre former slave plantation, Angola is the size of Manhattan. At the time of my visit, Angola was “home” to 5,400 men, over 4,500 of whom will die within its razor wire.
Angola is a strange place. Burl Cain, warden since 1994, has blurred the lines between church and state by implementing a regime of “moral rehabilitation”. Of the six interfaith chapels on prison grounds, four have been constructed under his watch.
As well as providing God, Cain also provides as many programmes as possible to keep the prisoners active. From harvesting tonnes of crops (“We never open a can of food in our kitchens,” said prison spokesperson Gary Young), to refurbing wheelchairs for charitable use; from the twice annual rodeo season to the dog-training facility; from the horse breeding programme to the prison hospice; and from the prison newspaper – The Angolite – to the prison’s own TV station, prisoners who tow the line are kept busy.
Of course, on my media tour, I wondered what I didn’t see: the death row, the solitary confinement cells, the staff quarters.
I did see worklines in the fields guarded by armed correctional officers on horseback. I was also provided a meal of beans, rice and fried chicken at the Warden’s Ranch House. I visited shortly after Thanksgiving so the Christmas decorations were going up.
All in all, on that sunny late autumn day, I was driven through what outwardly appeared to be a pastoral idyll. I focused my lens at the signage, the murals, the markings of the regime. I present this little snapshot not in an ironic way, but that it may confound some viewers and we might wonder what lies behind these very surface-level illustrations.
Troy West, Angola Inmate
Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate per capita of all US states. over 1,100 per 100,000 – that’s more than 1 in a 100. Angola (Louisiana State Penitentiary) is the mother of all prisons, carrying a weighty reputation and weightier history.
Only Georgia has a rate above 1 in a 100, as Louisiana does. The other Southern states make up the top five (Texas, Alabama and Mississippi).
These stats are due in most the more frequent sentencing of men to life without parole. The disproportionately high rate of prisoners who die within Southern prisons as compared to other state institutions makes for a very different culture.
Many photographers including Damon Winter and Lori Waselchuk have focused on the unique aspects of Angola culture. The rodeo is well known, the hospice less so, but least well known may be the football league.
In it, Angola warden Burl Cain states his philosophy, “Good food, good medicine, good play and good pray. Lose any of those elements and you’ll have violence in your prison, but you would in your home. You think about it.”
The inmates back up the third point. It’s a well done documentary and to think that over 70% of the men in the film won’t ever get out just blows my mind. (Source: 2008 LSP Report).
Watch closely from 4.03 onward.