Saturday, July 23, 2016

The Angola Tour at LSA 2016 -- A Followup, Part I

A little less than two months ago, a group of about twenty or twenty-five law and society meeting attendants toured Angola, the Louisiana State Prison, which I previously advertised. The tour itself lasted about three or four hours, taking up a full day including travel time. By the end, we were mentally and physically exhausted; many of us retreated to our hotel rooms, not yet ready to discuss the day's events. Nothing dramatic happened, mind you. Instead, we were overwhelmed.

It would be difficult to describe the full tour in its entirety or everyone's reaction to it, so I have asked Keramet Reiter and Johann Koehler to help me describe it. Johann (a doctoral student at UC Berkeley's JSP program) has tweeted and blogged about the Angola tour (see his excellent review of Dead Man Walking written in light of the tour) and Keramet (an assistant professor at UC Irvine's CLS program) has generously provided her reflections (which I will later post in their entirety). I will add my recollections as well as my own take on the question of the ethics and history of penal tourism.

Today's post will be the first of two (perhaps more); each will be an amalgam of our collective reflections, memories, and assessments of that tour. In the second post, I will draw extensively on Keramet's reflections to discuss more directly some of the ethical issues that we had been concerned with while organizing the tour, the problem of show-piece (propaganda) tours, and our evaluation of the tour.  In the present post, I will offer a general description of the tour, to which I now turn.


if you haven’t been, [Louisiana State Penitentiary] is an exceedingly difficult place to describe. Perhaps you’re built to tolerate the humidity and the sweat that sticks to your neck no matter how fervently you waft the glossy brochure they hand you at the Visitor Centre. If you are, you’ll notice sooner than I did that there aren’t actually any walls surrounding the facility. 6,300 inmates are divided among innumerable clusters, each of which houses anywhere from a dozen to many hundreds of people, scattered across the prison’s 18,000 acre territory. But aside from the barbed fence surrounding those small clusters, the entire facility has no perimeter fence, no high wall, no barbed wire. “You don’t need ‘em,” the guard informs you, “when the bushes are filled with animals that’ll get the job done.” (Johann)


After travelling by school bus for about two hours, some of us a little car sick from the humid and bumpy ride, we arrived at the visitor center to wait for our tour guide. The visitor center consisted of multiple rooms of history, what some might call propaganda, some genuinely intersting (for sociolgoical or historical purposes) artifacts (including a few framed ancient issues of the prisoner-run newspaper, The Angolite), and especially the kind of attractions that have become rote for the common audience---exhibits of escape attempts and weapons. A related kind of exhibit reveals Angola's other sources of fame. Johann writes,
Next to a trite display that proudly attests to Angola’s impressive history at the forefront of progressive penal reform (you can make your own mind up) is an exhibit devoted to representations of Angola in popular media. Pride of place in that exhibit goes to Tim Robbins’ adaptation of Sister Helen Prejean’s Dead Man Walking, which was partly filmed on site.
The visitor center also includes a small store in which one can buy hot sauce made from the crops raised at the penitentiary to shirts and other items. Reflecting on the commercialization of prisons and prison tours, Keramet writes,
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.


When our tour guide arrived--a tall, sturdy man in a light pink suit and loafers, whom I did not at first realize was a retired prison guard--we all got back on to the bus and drove forward through the prison's gates. As we drove for what might have been a mile or two (we drove slowly), he pointed out the various crops grown on the prison's thousands of acres---it seemed like every fruit and vegetable that one could grow in the south---corn, okra, various kinds of berries, peppers, nuts,...---and several buildings. We had passed several housing units that we could only see at a distance before arriving and parking at one housing unit. As in many older prisons, the sallyport was the only entrance---all entire group squished in for both doors to close before we walked through, down a long open corridor. We passed two churches on either side and then twin dormitories on either side before entering a building.

The Prison Law Office

Our destination was the Prison Law Office. The Law Office consisted of parallel cubical/desk areas within the prison's law library. As one might expect (although it is disheartening to see in reality), it was a library but with few books or periodicals and no (visible) computers; it was reminiscent of the reading areas, where there are some tables for reading or research, and some waist-high bookshelves, with taller bookshelves on the perimeter. We took seats in this area and turned our attention to about eight men who ran the Prison Law Office. I have a poor sense of time generally, and even more so during our tour, but I would estimate we spent 30 or so minutes listening to them and asking them some questions.

This was by far the most stimulating, and I would argue important, part of the tour--getting to listen to and speak with the men who did the important work of trying to ensure rights were respected within one the nation's most notorious prisons and to give its inmates the slightest chance of release from a prison with the largest population of lifers. I will return to the importance of speaking with inmates during a prison tour, but for now, I want to emphasize what I (and I think others) learned from it.

I think many of us were struck by their professionalism and their commitment to their work---this impression was not from a lowered sense of expectations because they were incarcerated people (far from it). Instead, I was mentally comparing them to, for example, undergraduates, law students, or paralegals who would run a similar office out of a law school or community center, and finding these men more impressive. Indeed, they were essentially doing the work of lawyers, but without any formal training (no law school) except what had been handed down from previous and existing members of the office. And like lawyers, they were working what sounded like 60-hour work weeks (while getting "paid" for an eight-hour day---more on this later). They emphasized the importance of confidentiality and what efforts they took to protect their clients' information and also protect files from other incarcerated men for whom there might actual legal restrictions preventing them from seeing material in the file. I think many of us were also impressed by their resourcefulness but also their ability to get anything done without a fully equipped library, let alone internet access. As an example, they relied on CDs that compiled case law (something like a CD version of LexisNexis) and specific law reviews or newsletters that compile prison law-relevant cases. However, the CDs came out once a year or less and the newsletters likewise had delays. Consequently, new cases may have come through with potential consequences for their legal strategy, but they had no way of knowing---the consequence could be their case gets rejected or they miss the opportunity to challenge something that they now have a strong basis for challenging.

A series of thoughts ran through my mind during this session---respect and gratitude to these men for their work, Milovanovic and Thomas's work on jailhouse lawyers, Calavita and Jenness's work on the inmate grievance system, and a general desire to examine the work of a prison's prisoner-run law office from any number of perspectives (resistance, professionalization, gap studies, bureaucracy, policy/doctrinal, etc.). I was disappointed when our time came to an end---there were so many questions I wanted to ask. At the same time I wondered if they saw our visit as a net positive or net negative---they rarely spoke with outsiders, so we may have been a welcome visit; on the other hand, they were overworked and understaffed with too much to do in too little time and we had just taken up their precious time.

As we retraced our steps, we again passed the dormitories. It was nearly lunchtime and through the dim, horizontal shade/slots that served as windows, I could just barely make out some men preparing lunch for their dormitories. Our guide explained that in these wings, the inmates ate in their cells. This was the closest we came to their living space, a point I will return to later. Before exiting the unit, we entered one of the two churches. (If my memory and understanding are correct, this was the Catholic church, directly across from what I think was the non-denominational Christian church.) It looked much like other churches one sees in the South---an alter facing rows of pews and colorful decorations. What was unique about this church in Angola was that everything had been made with prison labor---our guide emphasized that no state funding had gone to the construction of this church; instead, it benefited from some donations from local religious organizations and individuals. He especially pointed to a beautiful large mural that had been painted by a prisoner.


The rest of the tour primarily took place on the bus transcending what felt like a very large expanse. More fields and crops. It was during this portion of the tour that we learned of the prison's natural barriers---the Mississippi and an extremely dense forest, the one that even if you could fit your body between the thick foliage was filled with critters, as Johann noted above. Our guide told us about his night in the forrest when one prisoner had attempted to escape and our guide was one of the men assigned to sit in the wilderness and wait should the escapee happen past him in the night. He emphasized how scared he---this large, strong man---was that night; he was armed with a gun, but had few shells, and was given a flashlight, but instructed to keep it off except for emergencies. It was one of several moments on the tour during which we glimpsed the way in which prison guards at Angola were treated better than the prisoners, but still much worse than a typical first-world employee.

During this part of the tour, we also passed the prisoner cemetery, the dog cemetery, and the dog kennel. As Keramet notes,
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.
What struck me about the human cemetery was how few graves there seemed to be in light of how many prisoners had died since the prison's opening more than a hundred years ago. As Keramet notes, it was unclear where the cemetery ended, but the little white crosses demarcating graves visible were only a fraction of the number of men (and women) whose graves would be on the property. (Our guide noted that the vast majority of inmates were not picked up by their families, but were buried here.) We were told there was a smaller older cemetery nearby. As the bus continued up the road, I puzzled over where the other graves were or if the white crosses were simply new within the last decade or so.

Time and Money

We only got off the bus once before our final stop back at the visitor center. As we pulled up to a barn, some of us were focused on one of the prison's dogs laying in the shade until we realized our guide had gotten off the bus and had two of the men who worked at the barn to bring out one of the prison's most prized possessions---Big Boy, a magnificent, extremely large horse of the kind that used to pull the hearse that brought prisoners to the cemetery (the hearse was retired to the visitor center). We slowly got off the bus---unsure without instructions from the guide whether to stay put or disembark, but anxious to get into the comparative coolness of the hot, humid Southern summer air. Johann spoke with Terry, one of the men who worked in the barn and worked closely with Big Boy. Johann noted afterwards "Terry's pride in Big Boy's health." Terry was an older man who had been at Angola for a very long time. It was around this part of the tour, as I thought about the men who had lived most of their lives here, went to work in the fields during the day and the dormitories at night, that for me the enormity of time in Angola started to strike.

It was around this time that the Angola economy was explained to us. Angola is largely self-sufficient, a point our guide repeatedly noted. Most of the prisoners, as Johann summarizes,
labor in the fields to farm the produce that will feed the State’s incarcerated population. Inmates aren’t paid for this labor for the first three years, but upon the start of their fourth year, for each hour of labor, they make two cents: one goes in their pockets while the other goes into a ‘savings account’ that they may access upon earning a balance of $250. If you make it that long, it takes about fifteen years. Then you can buy a candy bar.
Additionally, everyone in Angola---including the guards---is paid for an eight-hour workday, despite the fact that everyone works more than eight hours a day. With this level of exploitation, one can understand how the prison is essentially self-sufficient. (It is worth noting that the economy of scale helps: even smaller prisons exploiting their prisoners to this extent are unlikely to prove self-sustaining.) Meager pay is an overstatement in this case, but it does make one wonder: why does the prison even pay the prisoners at all for their labor? I ask this not from a penny-pinching neo-liberal standpoint, but as a genuine question: Angola was a plantation named for the original home of its African slaves. The prisoners, now and throughout history, are primarily African-American, many likely descended from slaves; in the prison's early years, some prisoners and their families had worked the land as slaves. There is no hiding the history of or parallels to slavery at Louisiana State Penitentiary. But one does not need to: slavery itself is not illegal in American prisons---the 13th Amendment allows it. But if the prison were attempting to avoid accusations of modern-day slavery, paying someone (effectively) one penny per hour would be the thinnest form of symbolic compliance imaginable. I imagine the prison authorities are balancing an intent to reduce costs to the bare minimum and an effort to incentivize work. I want to emphasize the latter point: when is a penny an hour an incentive to work?

Again, the time-scale at Angola is striking. Our guide informed us that the average prison sentence at Angola was (somewhere around) 90 years. Advice for alcoholics and others trying to overcome some great difficult is to take it one day at a time. At Angola, that advice seems inadequate at best as one needs a different order of magnitude. Whereas we, free people on the outside, might think in terms of days and weeks, at Angola, I imagine one would think in terms of years and decades. At least, that seems to be the logic of the prison economy. This was just one of the points throughout the day where we confronted something so foreign---even though we had read about these things and studied them---that our normal experiences and our cognitive frameworks, at least for me, felt inadequate for comprehending what life was like at Angola.

It was now lunch time---or a little past. We exited the bus and ate in a cafeteria open to the public. Our guide informed us that, in years past, the cafeteria served the same food as the prisoners ate. At some point in the recent past, however, they changed the menu. When organizing the tour, we were told that our lunch options would be hamburgers or cheeseburgers. Keramet successfully asked if we might add a salad option, although we were skeptical of what that would be---I was expecting wilted iceberg lettuce and suggested that members of our group pack protein bars or other snacks. I never asked anyone how their burger was (a few did order a burger), but I think everyone was surprised by the salad: it was probably the best salad I have had. In addition to a little iceberg lettuce, there were mixed greens, kale, thinly sliced squash, bell pepper, blueberries, cranberries, cashews, sunflower seeds, edamame, and some other ingredients I do not recall, with a vinaigrette on the side. As we were finishing our meal, one of the men working in the cafeteria brought around silver-dollar-sized warm chocolate chip cookies. As our guide informed us, everything we ate (except the bags of chips) was grown by the prisoners at Angola.

The Land of New Beginnings

Our final stop was the old Death Row. Between the visitor center and the death row were parallel rows of a high metal fence lined with razor sharp barbed wire at the top and bottom. We were told that should a prisoner get inside, the guards would release the dogs into what became essentially a long dog run. Once we arrived at death row, we were greeted with the puzzling sign proclaiming, "You Are Entering The Land of New Beginnings." As Johann describes,
Even happening upon death row during the late afternoon after the sun has descended, the fans at full blast stand no chance against the formidable Louisiana air. I’m told that only one cluster in the entire prison enjoy air-conditioning, and it houses twelve inmates (the trusties). They’re not the ones on death row.
A long line of ten or twelve cells on the right and barred windows on the left with fans and TVs for every few cells. A list of the names of famous death row inmates and which cells they had occupied was posted above one of the cells. This was not the current death row---that was housed in a supermax-like facility deep in the property---but instead a glimpse of what death rows have looked like for a century or more around the country. The cells were the standard Big House style that had grown out of the nineteenth-century Auburn System: barred doors that roll from left to right, cells about six feet wide and eight feet deep. Facing the cell, one sees a metal bed affixed to the right wall and a combination toilet/sink in the left corner. The placement of the toilet makes it even more difficult to walk around or do jumping jacks or pushups, which would be barely possible if the toilet were at the foot of the bed, but presumably plumping made that placement impossible. The beds themselves were short--a six-foot-tall man would find it difficult to lay flat. One of the striking features is how much this set up resembled contemporary supermax cells (except those are entirely enclosed spaces---no barred door through which one might communicate with a neighbor), modern juvenile cells (which are unnervingly like supermax cells), or the standard cells many prisoners find themselves in, regardless of when their prison was constructed.

Outside of death row was an exhibit about executions at Angola. The electric chair that had long been used was on display--set off so one could not sit in it (unlike at some other facilities). The center of the room was filled with several display cases showing the garments worn and accouterments used (for example, to cut their hair) for the execution. Lists of prisoners executed by the state of Louisiana adorned the walls. With everyone inside this cramped space, our guide reported in matter-of-fact monotone the process by which an inmate was prepped and ultimately executed by lethal injection, its current method. He told us that in the month before execution, a guard of similar height, weight, and build, would stand in for the condemned person while the execution team would strap the guard into the gurney and make all the needed adjustments before the day of the execution to minimize the number of adjustments needed on the eve of the person's death. For the first time all day, and what seemed to be somewhat out of character, our guide engaged in the kind of gallows humor that seems to be standard for prison tours: he looked at us and said (inexact quote) "Next time, we might use you--or you," pointing to a few members of the group. With his narrative completed, he asked if we had any other questions, which a few asked. By this time, I think everyone, including our guide, was punchy. We had spent most of the day so far sitting on a bus, but between the oppressive heat and the enormity of our subject matter, we were exhausted. We slowly made our way back to the visitor center, used the facilities, and re-boarded the bus for our return to New Orleans.


With this description in mind, the next post will critically evaluate our tour. Drawing especially on Keramet's commentary, I will discuss the ethical and empirical issues confronting scholars and ordinary citizens. What is an ethical prison tour? Should prison tours exist? What factors might we consider when balancing the tendencies toward voyeurism with the need for documentation and investigation? By touring Angola, have we implicated ourselves in a larger system of exploitation and commodification? These are some of the issues we considered before, during, and after the tour, and with which we are still wrestling.


Another tour will be offered for those attending the ASC meeting in November. I will circulate information as it becomes available.


Did you join our tour and want to share your reflections? Leave a comment below or email me at

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