Updated: Jan 11
I’d been driving through thick, tall forests that blanket either side of the two land state road with an almost haunted feeling when suddenly the front gate of the Louisiana State Penitentiary loomed into view. I drove up to the checkpoint where two, uninformed and armed guards were checking cars and people in and out. I rolled down my window and gave the female guard my name and I.D. I told her I was here to provide and in-service training for the hospice program. She had my name on a list and told me to drive through and pull over just ahead and to wait there for someone to come escort me in. I assumed it was my contact, Stacy Falgout, the hospice social worker, when a petite, 30 something woman in jeans and a tee shirt pulled along side me in an SUV. I said, “Stacy … ?”, and the woman said, “No, I’m Warden Cathy Fontenot. I’m going to be your tour guide this morning. Follow me.” She took off at quite a clip and I stepped on it to catch up. We drove several miles along a tree-lined road through pastures with herds of cattle and horses before arriving at some kind of prison complex. She had me park my car there and told me to hop in. She was going to show me all over “The Farm,” the subject of an award-winning documentary of the same name.
The Louisiana State Penitentiary (LSP) consists of six prison complexes, housing a total of 5,200 men, spread over 18,000 acres of prime Louisiana farmland bordered on one side by the Mississippi River. Warden Fontenot proudly said, “We can grow anything on this land.” Each prison has its own warden who calls the shots at that facility. Warden Fontenot oversees education, treatment and religious programs at all the prisons and manages PR and media contacts for the entire penitentiary. She reports to chief warden Burl Cain, a renowned warden who’s been at LSP for 16 years. Warden Cain is credited with dramatically reducing the violence (down 70%) at this infamous penitentiary, once widely considered the worst prison in the country.
They attribute the dramatic drop in violence to innovative programming like LSP hospice program I was here to visit, the famous Angola prison rodeo, the many job training and educational programs offered at Angola, the award winning prisoner-run Angolite magazine, a prisoner-staffed radio station, and the many inmate organizations or clubs that provide a positive alternative to the gang culture that plagues so many prisons. While warden Cain has created a well regarded, decentralized management system at Angola, it is very clear the he’s the ultimate authority here. Warden Fontenot told me that he’s a stickler for detail and precision in every aspect of operations at The Farm. It was quite clear that both staff and prisoners alike take pride in their work at Angola.
The six prison complexes at Angola are named by letters, A through F. We visited most of these as we traversed the main and back roads of The Farm. Warden Fontenot, the consummate tour guide, kept up a steady, friendly banter, giving me a crash course in the history and current situation at Angola.
Over 50% of the 5,200 prisoners are serving life sentences and the rest are serving extremely long sentences. 85% to 90% of the men here will never leave Angola. The Farm produces enough food to supply most of the prisons in Louisiana. We drove past large groups of field hands, working crop rows with hoes by hand under the watchful eye of armed officers on horseback. The warden explained that new arrivals, who are young and healthy enough for hard labor in the hot sun, work in the fields here for at-least six months or until they demonstrated a willingness to get with the program at Angola. Due to the aging of the prison population here, a common phenomenon all across the country, they have had to cut way back on the number of acres under cultivation due to a shortage of prisoners young enough for the work.
A number of years back, Warden Cain switched from mechanized to horse and mule powered farming to save energy and avoid costly repairs to their tractors. Evidently, the prisoners went through clutches at an unusual rate. They have over 200 head of horses at Angola and breed their own mules for farming. We visited one of the horse barns where the Percherons are kept. One of the inmate handlers brought one of these beautiful, gentle animals out of its stall to greet us. The Percherons, one of the largest horse breeds, are used to pull wagons and the infamous hearse used for funerals at LSP.
Each prisoner who dies at Angola (sixty-five already this year, an unusually high number due to already sick prisoners being sent to Angola) and whose family does not take the body home for burial is given a traditional New Orleans style “second line” funeral at Angola, complete with a beautiful, black horse-drawn hearse built at Angola, driven by a tuxedo clad prisoners and accompanied by a prison jazz band. The hospice volunteers become very close and often quite bonded with their patients. In prison, the volunteers are really primary caregivers and surrogate family members, so the memorial services not only bring dignity to these deaths for the community of Angola, and it is very much a community, but they are also a very important part of the volunteers’ grieving process.
The mounted guards supervising prisoners working in the fields ride the taller Thoroughbreds, primarily for the height advantage these 16 to 17-hand high animals provide. Angola also produces beef for the entire prison system with over 2500 head of cattle grazing in The Farm’s pastures.
One of our early stops was the infamous “Red Hat” cell block, built in the 30’s to house the “worst of the worst,” including a serial killer and escape artist who had run with the like of Clyde Barrow, and only shut down in 1971. This concrete and steel cellblock looked like something out of the Dark Ages. As we walked along the narrow corridor between rows of dungeon-like cells, the warden related the story of that infamous escape artist who was welded into his cell here on the Red Hat cellblock. The name derived from the practice of dipping the hats of the prisoners housed here in red paint to clearly distinguish them from the other prisoners. Adjoining this fairly small cell block with perhaps twenty cells in all is the original execution chamber at Angola where those sentenced to death were executed in the electric chair until the chair was outlawed. A crude mockup of the original chair sits in this now decaying concrete chamber. The actual electric chair sits in the LSP museum just outside the front gates of Angola.
Louisiana is a death penalty state, although very few executions have been carried out since capital punishment became the law again here. Executions are now carried out by lethal injection. There are currently 86 men on death row at Angola. Warden Fontenot took me there. It is one of the more modern buildings at Angola. The warden explained that higher tech, more secure death row was built in the 1990’s after an escape attempt in which several guards were killed. The prisoners accused of the killings have yet to be tried. Apparently justice moves very slowly in Louisiana. Six long cellblocks radiate out from a central control unit, each with 18 individual cells continually monitored by guards and cameras. We stopped at the entrance to one of the cellblocks. The warden pointed to rows of photos of the men housed on that cellblock, photos accompanied by their name and the crimes they had been convicted of. She pointed to two who she said were classified as serial killers. We entered the cellblock and walked its entire length as the warden greeted the men and talk at length with a few of them who seemed to have requests of one kind or another. The warden clearly knew all the men by name and they her. I had noticed this all over the prison. Warden Fontenot seemed to know most of the staff and most of the prisoners by name wherever we went in this sprawling prison complex and farm. I said hello to each of the men on the cellblock, but conversation was not easy. We were accompanied by two big and very tough looking guards and the atmosphere was tense, or at least felt tense to me, even though the warden seemed quite relaxed as she leaned against the steel bars of the men’s cells asking how they were doing or listening to their requests.
As we continued on with the tour, Warden Fontenot took pains to point out the natural beauty of the land. The Farm is bordered on one side by the wide Mississippi river and surrounded on al other sides by thick forests, lakes and swam