As a prison scholar, I have been inside prison and jail facilities across the United States and Europe. Sometimes I enter to conduct interviews with prisoners or staff, for research or advocacy; sometimes to assess a new facility or program; other times to take a group of students to educate them about conditions of confinement. I hesitate to use the word "tour" to describe how I enter prison facilities because the phrase has become charged in prison scholarship, where prison tourism is (rightly, I dare say) condemned as a potentially voyeuristic visit to an institution that is transformed into a human zoo by the tourist's gaze. In spite of this critique, I find that I learn something new with each prison I visit, and that the visits create unparalleled opportunities to talk concretely with students, colleagues, and the public about the utter inhumanity that pervades so many prisons, especially in the United States. To me, not every outsider's footfall across a prison threshold constitutes prison tourism.
Nonetheless, there are some prisons that are so famous, so integrated into prison lore, that I do simply want to tour them, to see the reality I have read about. Louisiana State Penitentiary, known colloquially as Angola, is one such prison -- so perpetually infamous that I simply wanted to see it for myself. I had visited other "plantation" prisons in Alabama and Georgia, but none with their own rodeo, cinematized death row, or substantial gift shop. In particular, I had imagined the Angola gift shop for years, because of a strange gift I was given in 2005.
I was working for Human Rights Watch when Hurricane Katrina hit. One of our researchers went to visit Angola, to document the human rights abuses taking place there as New Orleans flooded and prisoners, literally, disappeared. When the researcher returned to the Human Rights Watch offices in New York, she presented me with a gift: a plush little "beanie baby" dog, dressed in black-and-white prison stripes, stamped with the word "Angola." I have kept that odd memento for more than a decade, moving it from office to office, as a reminder of the many contradictions inherent in our prisons, especially the too easy commodification of suffering. As I entered Angola prison, through the gift shop, this summer, I was surprised to see shelves of those same, familiar little puffy prison dogs.
Later, on the tour, I was more surprised by another bunch of dogs. The only building in the entire, swampy facility, which both houses prisoners and has air conditioning, is the barn, bright white atop a sloping green hill at an edge of the property, where the prison's guard dogs are trained. Our tour guide told us that the most trusted prisoners in Angola earn the right to sleep in the air conditioned barn -- without guards -- and manage the dogs. I asked what exactly the dogs are trained to do. The tour guide said "guard the prison." When I had worked at Human Rights Watch, I had written about the use of dogs to attack prisoners and drag them out of their cells. I suspected the Angola dogs did more than "guard the prison." As our tour bus paused, the guide pointed out a single white cross marking a grave at the foot of the hill. A bill-board-style sign labeled the grave: "Ole Red used in music video by Blake Shelton." Here's where I sheepishly admit to loving Blake Shelton's country classic, "Ole Red," about a prisoner, sentenced to life for killing his wife and her lover, who earns the trust of the warden in prison and is given charge of the prison's guard dog. The prisoner trains the red-haired prison hound to sneak out of the prison on late night rendez-vous with a blue-tick hound beyond the prison gates. Next, the prisoner escapes, running "north" while Ole Red runs "south" to his blue-tick love. The refrain is cute: "Now there's red haired blue ticks all in the South. Love got me in here and love got me out." At Angola, Ole Red's grave, obviously in a place of honor, was a stark contrast to the sea of un-labeled white crosses a few hundred yards beyond, and across the road, marking the graves of the hundreds of prisoners who had died and been buried at Angola over decades of the prison's operation. I could barely make out the edge of the cemetery it was so vast.
At Angola, I felt more like a prison tourist than I ever had before. Maybe it was the commodification of beanie baby dogs and country music videos. Maybe it was being on the school bus that shuttled 25-or-so-of-us around the prison grounds, past housing units and barns and stables and rows of corn. Still, the images of the visit, from prisoners talking with us in the law library, to the prisoners grooming the horses in the stables, to the museum of execution implements, to the white barn full of dogs up on the hill have mingled with snapshots from Dead Man Walking, the Ole Red music video, and the annual prison rodeo, layering a raw lived reality into a cinematic imagination.