Updated: Jan 11, 2022
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 swamps, populated by snakes, alligators and black bear. I saw one interview with chief warden Burl Cain where he was saying that Angola is so large that if prisoners do attempt an escape or try to run off, they catch them before they ever get off the property. Warden Fontenot told me that the few prisoners who manage to escape generally get lost or give up and head back into the prison. They are usually caught coming back. Looking around at the thick, almost jungle like forests, lakes and swamps, I could well imagine how difficult it would be to escape this place on foot … to say nothing of the snakes, alligators and bears.
Our last stop was a large prison complex known as the Main Prison or A-Unit at Angola. It houses over 2000 prisoners in two matching units, sitting side by side, known as the east yard and west yard. A long walkway and corridor known as “the walk” runs the entire length of the main prison, dividing east and west. We toured the east yard facility and then headed for an adjacent unit housing the medical wards and the famous Angola Hospice Program I’d been reading about for years. Entering the hospice ward, I met Stacy Falgout, the hospice social worker who I’d been in touch with by email and phone making arrangement for the visit. Stacy showed me around and introduced me to the staff and the hospice volunteers who were then on the ward visiting their patients. It was an open ward with about 20 beds bordered on both sides by about eight private single rooms. Three or the private rooms on each side were dedicated for hospice patients, though sometimes used for other patients as well. I wandered around the ward on my own for a half an hour or so talking to the patients offering encouragement where I could.
One of the patients was receiving a visit from his brother who’d been brought over from the control unit near the front gate of Angola in leg shackles and handcuffs fixed to a belly chain two large guards and a captain accompanying him. I was later told that he had killed two men since arriving at Angola and was housed with the most violent, unmanageable prisoners in the special control unit. In my experience, it was quite amazing that they allowed this visit at all – a testament to the stature of the hospice program here at Angola.
After lunch I offered an in-service training for the hospice volunteers working with them on presence, deep listening and other communication skills. We worked individually with being present to our own physical sensations, breathing, emotions and thoughts and then in pairs with being present to another and the practice of deep listening. We talked about doing our personal work in order to provide a more healing presence for our patients and about deeply tuning into our patients, to their experience and needs. Then men responded very well to the mindfulness and listening exercises, some reporting what felt like for them extraordinary experiences of attention and relaxation. I also led and abbreviated process on Karpman’s Drama Triangle and my own Radical Responsibility model for personal transformation. This worked stimulated a very lively dialogue that engaged the entire group.
At one point our session was interrupted by a code alert. One of the hospice patients had fallen and had been taken to the trauma room. Several of the volunteers went to be with the patient and the rest of us took a break while we waited for news of the patient’s condition. After a while we heard that he was okay and would soon be returned to the ward. It’s always a challenge delivering programs in a correctional setting. Our session was also interrupted by the call to “pill” line (medications) and by the institutional count. Men were also called away to their jobs in a few cases. Overall the session went very well though and the men were quite impressed with the powerful impact produced by bringing direct attention to their own experience and being more present with another.
We finished around 4:30 pm and after saying goodbye to everyone I headed for my car, somewhat amazed that I was allow to drive around on my own in this maximum security penitentiary and prison farm. I was spending the night in a B&B in a historic Mississippi river town called St. Francisville about 30 minutes from Angola, so I could return the next day to participate in the annual appreciation banquet recognizing the service and contributions of the inmate hospice volunteers.
Arriving at the front gate the next morning, I had a completely different experience, nothing unusual for a correctional facility. The guards asked me to park my car and go into a building for a dog sniff search. It appeared that I wouldn’t be driving into the facility in my own are this time. Eventually, someone discovered that I was on a list of banquet guests who had permission to drive their personal cars into the facility, but they still wanted to search my car. At one point, I said I guess it makes a difference when the warden comes to meet you. “Oh, were you here with Warden Fontenot yesterday,” apparently recognizing me now, asked one of the guards. I said yes, and everything changed instantly. They just waved me through with no further ado. Clearly the warden has clout!
After passing through several sets of steel security doors opened one at a time by the guards, I found myself in the large and spacious visiting room of the main prison where the banquet was being held. The hospice staff, Stacy, Courtney and Sandy, greeted me warmly as I entered and handed me a ticket for the raffle. There were probably 30 or more long tables set up in the room and the hospice volunteers and their guests were spread out through the room, which could easily have accommodated several hundred more people. Spotting a coffee machine, I headed off to pour myself a cup and then sought out some of the prisoners I’d met yesterday on the hospice ward and during the training. This appreciation banquet for the inmate hospice volunteers was a relaxed event lasting some six hours. There were talks, including mine, hilarious skits put on by the volunteers, award presentations, raffle drawings and more. I got around and talk with just about everyone of the thirty or so men in the hospice program. Each of the men was permitted to bring one guest to the event. Most brought a friend from inside the prison. A few had invited family members from outside. A number of hospice professionals from the outside community who had been involved in supporting the Angola hospice program were also there.
For me it was a great honor and joyous occasion to spend the day with these dedicated men, who despite their situation (most have life sentences or sentences of 90 years or more) spend their time serving their fellow prisoners who are dying. There were two very special moments for me. After my talk, the men gave me one of their famous quilts made of retired t-shirts and sweatshirts that had been worn by the hospice volunteers as the attend to their patients … maroon colored with the Angola hospice program logo emblazoned on the front. Tears came to my eyes as I accepted this gift and honor from the men at Angola. The other even more special moment was watching the new volunteers receive their hospice program t-shirts and the veteran volunteers receive pins recognizing years of service in the program. A half dozen or so of the men had been with the program since the beginning, serving the terminally ill prisoners at Angola continuously for the past 13 years.
Driving back along the tree-lined main road to the front gates of Angola after the banquet, I felt deep sadness about the reality these men face everyday … the prospect that they will never leave Angola, never taste freedom in that way again; and at the same time, I felt joyful and grateful to have met these courageous men who were making the best of an extremely dark situation by reaching out to and caring for their fellow prisoners at the end of life, just as they would their own mother or father, sister or brother, spouse or best friend.
With Gratitude to the Angola Hospice Volunteers at Louisiana State Penitentiary:
Lafayette, Eugene, Darren, Nolan, Eric, Lawrence, Vashon, Albert, George, Jeffery, Randolph, Scott, Anthony, Anthony, Donald, Lane, Jerry, Morris, Donald, Ronald, Steve, Charles, Harun, Sherman, Justin, Troy, Steve, Isaac, Frank, Gary, Jerry, and Diego.