Angola’s Greatest Escape
It’s two months before my visit to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, and I’m on the phone with former assistant warden Cathy Fontenot. She knows better than most what goes on there. She worked at Angola for close to 20 years.
Angola is the largest maximum security prison in the country. It became known as “The Bloodiest Prison in the South” a distinction acknowledged at its historical museum in the 1960s and ’70s because of its high incidence of violence inflicted by both inmates and guards. Built 136 years ago on the site of a vast slave plantation, Angola is called Angola because Angola is “the area in Africa where the former slaves came from.”
Today, a 10,000-seat arena on the prison grounds plays host to a series of life-threatening bloodsport games pitting prisoners against wild horses and 2,000-pound Brahma bulls. Prisoners compete for the chance to win some money, but they may be mauled, or worse, in the process. This is the Angola Prison Rodeo. Covered extensively in media and academia for its Roman Colosseum-esque setup, it’s a massive, biannual event for the penitentiary. But what’s discussed far less is Angola’s prisoner arts and crafts fair that’s held in tandem with the rodeo.
Photo: Ross McDermott/American Festivals Project
People travel far and wide to attend the entire festival, which takes place over one weekend in April and every Sunday in October. The rodeo is a storied tradition for Angola, and its tagline “Guts and Glory” is emblazoned on everything from T-shirts you can buy at the gift shop to bottles of barbecue sauce for sale at a souvenir stand. The craft fair is but a footnote on Angola’s website and in its rodeo advertisements, but ticket sales reveal that people are almost as interested in shopping as they are in ogling the mayhem inside the arena. Fontenot says that 18,000 tickets were sold for one record weekend. The rodeo sells out at 10,000, meaning that on that particular weekend, 8,000 people bought tickets just for the arts and crafts.
My ticket to the two-day event arrives in a window envelope with the words “THE WILDEST SHOW IN THE SOUTH” printed on the back. I’ve been denied a press pass, with little explanation given beyond the large amount of media requests the rodeo receives and the inability of the prison to grant each one. I suspect, however, that the refusal has more to do with the recent controversy-laden resignation of warden Burl Cain and most likely extends to many other outlets. (Once there, I see neither professional photographers nor film crews throughout the entire weekend.)
But this is a public gathering. Anyone who purchases a $20 ticket can go, and so I do.
Exactly 3.2 miles from the penitentiary, the single-lane highway of cars slows to a 10-mile-per-hour trudge. I roll down my window, and take a stapled handout printed on yellow paper from a correctional officer. The second page reads, “NOTICE: You are about to enter a penal institution. By entering this institution, you have consented to a search of your person, property and vehicle.”
“You Are Entering the Land of New Beginnings,” reads the sign over the entrance gate, even though for the majority of its incarcerated residents, Angola is the end-of-the-line. The land is beautiful, bucolic defined: yawning green hills, the calm glassy surface of the Mississippi River, grazing cows and their calves, purposeful flower beds of pink and yellow tulips. Angola covers 18,000 acres. Manhattan-sized.
“You Are Entering the Land of New Beginnings,” reads the sign over the entrance gate, even though for the majority of its incarcerated residents, Angola is the end-of-the-line or, more plainly put, the end. Reported statistics range. Some, like Fontenot, cite that 97 percent of the 6,000-plus men locked up at Angola will never get out. Others put the figure closer to 75 percent. I can see the prison towers in the distance as my car inches along the dirt path, one in a serpentine line of trucks and vans crawling towards the field where COs direct parking from ATVs. There’s only one way into Angola.
White “Did You Know?” signs border the dirt path. “Did you know that Angola has an offender organization called The Toy Show that produces toys and refurbishes bicycles for underprivileged children?” I didn’t. I also didn’t know that Angola is the only prison with its own zip code (but maybe that’s because it’s not), or that Angola breeds a horse called the Louisiana Warmblood. More signage boasts that Angola is the only prison in the world with a prisoner-operated radio station, a prisoner-run TV station, and a prisoner-edited newspaper, The Angolite. Other signs tout Angola Prison Rodeo’s “gold sponsors” Baton Rouge Chevrolet and GMC dealer Gerry Lane Enterprises, and also Coca-Cola. At the front gate, a CO removes my phone charger from my purse and scrutinizes my hand sanitizer before telling me that the rest is fine as another CO hollers, “No knives! No weapons! No knives! No weapons!”
Despite this, there’s no denying the carnival-like atmosphere, particularly just inside the chain link fence entrance. Kids ride the five-car ferris wheel, and bounce in a bounce house, and stand on line for the merry-go-round. But the ferris wheel creaks precariously, the bounce house needs a good bath, and the merry-go-round’s horses are tire scraps cut to look like horses. COs operate the rides and civilians man the food counters, but inmates cook everything, including Louisiana staples like crawfish, etouffee, gumbo, jambalaya, and beignets.
Photo: Ross McDermott/American Festivals Project
“We made it happen, and we did all the cooking,” calls one inmate in a white work shirt from behind a ribs stand. “If we don’t have it, we’re going to find it for you, because this is your day. I know at two o’clock you want to go look at the bulls. We’re going to be here, and we ain’t going to run out.”
“Getting selected to be in the crafts show is like running for political office,” an inmate trustee named Lionel tells me. “It can take years.”
For Lionel, it took two. He’s a military veteran, which made him eligible to serve in the prison’s honor guard. That eventual membership, in turn, granted him direct entry into the craft show. For non-veterans, there’s no set route. The key prerequisite across the board is an untarnished behavioral record, not just to get into the craft fair and sell your work, but to earn access to the hobby shop to create that work in the first place. Inmates in good standing are permitted hobby shop access during their free time; free time itself is only attainable after an unspecified amount of time served, which varies from inmate to inmate. It’s a huge privilege for inmates to gain entry to the arts and crafts fair, and there’s a host of reward motivations at play. For starters, the festival provides them their sole opportunity to interact with the general public.
“Now you’ll have two different types of inmates out there,” says Fontenot, laying it out in our phone conversation before my trip. “You’ll have inmates that you’ll be able to converse with freely.” These are trustees, she explains, like Lionel. “And then you’ll have inmates that are behind a barrier. It’s just a fence, and you can converse with them still, but they are not trustees, so they don’t have free roam like the other inmates that you’ll see out there.”
Photo: Bettina Hansen
Earning trustee status means serving “at least a decade without incident,” says Lee Cowan in a CBS Sunday Morning segment. Those who can walk the grounds, and sell their wares at their own booths, wear white work shirts with RODEO WORKER either professionally printed or scrawled in permanent marker on the back. There are hundreds of trustee artists out, and dozens of non-artist trustees wandering the booths before the rodeo’s set to begin.
The fair looks like any other swap meet, and it takes me the full two days to navigate each row of individual stalls thoroughly. Not every item for sale is unique. There are handmade wooden bowls and varnished picture frames aplenty; wooden roses that somehow smell like real roses at four different stands (described as “good gifts for a loved one” by one of the inmates selling them); homemade, off-brand Frozen and The Princess and the Frog toy boxes; leather belts embossed and spray-painted with Gucci and Michael Kors logos; wooden tables; metal grills; LSU-decaled everything; leather Bible covers; and so many professional-quality glider rocking chairs that you’d have to close your eyes and point to pick the best one.
But there are some finds. An inmate named Calvin showcases a bench he crafted out of a prison door from the early 1900s. He discovered the door after the prison tore down an old building on the property, and Calvin asked his work supervisor if he could save it. “It’s a piece of history,” he says. Another man named Aaron built a dining table out of mahogany and set an original oil painting of bulls and mountains and cowboys underneath glass for the tabletop. I ask Aaron if anything inspired him. “Someone asked me to make it,” he says, “but he never showed up.”
Some sellers energetically engage with the passing crowd, describing their work processes and indulging idling tourists in the latter’s apparent knee-jerk need to haggle. Other craftsmen sit with family members and eat, letting their work speak for itself. Angola’s regular visitor policy generally imposes a number of restrictions: a maximum of two hours per visit, a maximum of five visitors at once. By contrast, each day of the festival presents a rare eight hours of mostly uninterrupted and unregulated visitor time. It’s under the covered area that showcases a solid amount of paintings the art in arts and crafts where I find the other type of inmate Fontenot tells me about: the inmates behind a barrier. These guys can sell their stuff, but there’s a different dynamic at play. Alongside a rack of vibrant acrylic artwork, there’s a handwritten sign that reads, “Look for Rooster’ behind the fence with the red hat”; penned directly onto a wooden easel in another row are the directions “SEE RAY,” followed by a long arrow pointing to the barrier. None of the inmates are allowed to handle money instead there’s an exchange process, where the inmate writes the purchase information on a ticket labeled “Offender Hobbycraft Receipt,” the purchaser takes the ticket to a cashier kiosk to pay, then returns with a slip for the inmate.
Some sellers energetically engage with the passing crowd, describing their work processes and indulging idling tourists in the latter’s apparent knee-jerk need to haggle. It’s strange going through this process with someone corralled behind a barbed wire fence. I can shake hands with the trustee who sells me a collection of illustrated kids’ books, but I can do nothing more than wave at the guy behind the fence who made a wooden puzzle game called “Angola’s Greatest Escape” that I buy for a friend. Trustees sell on behalf of non-trustee inmates too, even those absent from the festival entirely. Lionel’s trying to sell a handmade wooden swing that he made, as well as a handmade wooden ship that his buddy built. “He couldn’t come out today,” he says of his friend.
“If you have behavioral issues, you aren’t allowed to be out and directly interact with the public,” says Melissa Schrift, an anthropology professor at East Tennessee State University who studied both the rodeo and craft fair extensively in the early 2000s. “It’s a smart form of behavior control because a large number of guys are invested in making sure this continues.” But it’s worth noting that behavioral issues are highly subjective, and prisoners are afforded limited resources to contest false accusations made by guards.
Lionel is enrolled in Angola’s Bible college, studying Scripture, the languages of Scripture, and “sidewalk ministry” at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary branch that former warden Burl Cain opened on prison grounds in 1995. Lionel is easy to talk to, and he recognizes my chai necklace immediately. He’s excited to review the Hebrew alphabet, which he learned his freshman year. He cares little that I’m not in the market for a handmade wooden swing. (Would that I could, but I don’t have a truck.)
He says he’s happy just to chat. I visit him intermittently over the course of the weekend, and when I return home, I buy prison stamps on JPay, a pay-per-use email service incarcerated individuals can use to communicate with those in the outside world. It costs 30 cents for both parties to send a single page of email text. It’s in email that he walks me through his journey at Angola. Lionel is 39 years old. He’s been incarcerated since 2000, and at Angola since 2003, though he doesn’t tell me why. When he first arrived here at age 26, prison authorities placed him in administrative segregation solitary confinement restricting him to a cell six feet wide and eight feet tall for 23 hours a day. He thought he’d only be in administrative segregation for 90 days, but 90 days turned into three and a half years. By day, he slept. At night, he played dominoes and read fantasy novels.
The Angola Prison Rodeo. Photo: Bettina Hansen
“I was on 23-hour lockdown for so long that I thought they were never going to let me out of my cell,” he writes. “When they finally did, I felt as though it was some sort of trick or something, and that they were going to come back and get me without notice. It was a crazy feeling, my friend. That is why I wouldn’t wish that type of punishment on anyone.”
Lionel is serving a life without parole, or LWOP, sentence. He’s hopeful, though, that his fate could change if the Louisiana state legislature passes one of several proposed bills that would allow certain people serving LWOP sentences to have their parole reconsidered.
“I know that I am not the same person that I was in the year 2000,” he says. “At the same time, I can feel the pain of the victims and their families. I am in the shoes of both parties.”
Prison is meant to satisfy several functions. One is incapacitation, removing offenders from society. Another is deterrence, sending an ironclad message that crime has consequences. A third, as Lionel and other inmates I meet talk about at great length, is punishment. “Life sentence means life sentence in Louisiana,” says Steve, an inmate who’s been locked up since 1978. Despite some positive efforts in the state, parole reform is a delicate political proposition in Louisiana. Senate Bill 424, which would have made some inmates like Lionel eligible for parole, failed by a nay vote of 23 to 14 yea’s in May; a separate campaign to reform juvenile life without parole failed at the last minute. There are innumerable, lingering reasons why prison is the penultimate punishment, second only to the death penalty, but we’ll get to those. And there’s a fourth intended aim of incarceration, but we’ll get to that, too.
“We started this to entertain, well, the inmates, and the folks that work here.”
Because right now, it’s rodeo time. Angola fully acknowledges that its rodeo participants receive no training. The rodeo website describes its inmates as “inexperienced” and its bulls as “angry,” chief among them, “the meanest, toughest Brahma bull available.” A rodeo contest called Convict Poker comes with the disclaimer, “It’s the ultimate poker game, and even winning has a price.” The object of the game is to be the last “inmate cowboy” remaining seated at a poker table; the catch is that a wild bull (egged on by professional rodeo clowns) is on the loose.
“We started this to entertain, well, the inmates, and the folks that work here,” booms the rodeo announcer’s voice over the PA system, and the crowd of 10,000 assembled ticketholders plus one section of inmates allowed entry as spectators quiets. The announcer trots into the arena on a well-trained horse, and for the first time since entering the stadium, I notice the several dozen inmate competitors in black and white striped work shirts sitting on either side of the pens that hold the animals. I’d read that Angola did away with convict stripes in the 1910s, but apparently the prison brings those retro uniforms back for the rodeo, like throwback night at a professional baseball game directed by Quentin Tarantino. Angola’s “Rough Riders,” inmates on the penitentiary’s drill team, race on horseback into the arena, waving flags. Among the flags, there are two that look very much like flags of the Confederacy in the hands of two black inmates. I Google “Confederate flags” on my phone. It turns out that Mississippi has the only state flag that still clings to the Confederate battle flag emblem; a number of inmates hail from Mississippi.
“And now,” booms the announcer’s voice. “It’s time for the greatest song this world has ever known.” We all stand, and we place our hands over our hearts, and we listen to an inmate with thinning hair sing “God Bless America.” One of the professional horse-stunting women hired by the rodeo gallops in waving an American flag. “The most beautiful move of all,” crows the announcer. “It reminds us of the freedom and liberty we enjoy to watch the rodeo.”
Prisoners in the rodeo stands. Photo: Cooper Neill/Getty Images
The 10,000 ticketholders cheer. The spectating prisoners look on.
Angola is just one of the 1,719 state prisons in the United States. That number, says the Prison Policy Initiative, does not factor in the “102 federal prisons, 942 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,283 local jails,” or the uncounted military prisons and immigration detention centers. All together, the US prison system holds a total of 2.3 million people. One in 110 adults in the US are currently incarcerated, and one in 36 adults are either incarcerated or on parole or probation. It’s estimated that 65 million Americans have criminal records.
The rate of violent crime is at a near-record low in this country, while mass incarceration is at a near-record high. Don’t be fooled into thinking that this relationship is causal; it’s not, and as reported in The Guardian‘s coverage of a 2015 study, “the sharp increase in prison numbers has had a negligible effect on the downward trend in crime.”
How did we get to this current state of mass incarceration? “Mostly it’s a series of really draconian sentencing policies that started being enforced in the 1990s,” says Elsa Chen, an associate professor of political science at Santa Clara University whose research focuses on sentencing outcomes and prisoner reentry. Mandatory minimum laws require that no less than a specific amount of time be served. Repeat offender laws like three-strikes necessitate life sentences without parole. Truth in sentencing laws generally require offenders to serve greater portions of their sentences regardless of their behavior in prison.
“With only 5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. has more than 20 percent of the world’s prison population.”
“You are creating a system where more people are entering prisons,” adds Alex Friedmann, associate director of the Human Rights Defense Center and managing editor of its monthly publication Prison Legal News. “They’re spending longer periods of time there, and fewer people are getting out on the backend, so you’re creating a bottleneck.”
That prisons are crowded is not news. Neither is the overrepresentation of incarcerated people of color. Black men and women account for 37.6 percent of the total prison population, despite only accounting for 13 percent of the total U.S. population; black men are incarcerated at a rate “more than six times higher than that of white men, according to the Pew Research Center ” And as legal scholar Michelle Alexander writes in her 2015 book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, “More African American adults are under correctional control today in prison or jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850.”
Here at Angola, black inmates make up 80 percent of the prison population.
“There are racial disparities at every stage of the justice system,” says Friedmann. “Everything from policing and arrest, to conviction rates, to sentencing in terms of who goes to prison, who gets probation, and who gets community sanctions, and also in terms of length of sentence. There is another inequity that cuts across all racial lines, in terms of prison population who’s arrested, who’s convicted, who’s sentenced, who goes to prison and that’s socioeconomic. Our current prison system is largely reserved for people who are poor.”
Wealthy people can hire expensive lawyers more adept at negotiating plea bargains and hiring expert witnesses. Wealthy people can more easily go to drug and alcohol rehab. Wealthy people less often find themselves in desperate situations where crime is the most readily available option. Let’s look at more numbers:
35.1 that’s Louisiana’s recidivism rate, or the percentage of re-arrests, re-convictions, and re-incarcerations following felony time served. Is it any surprise that Louisiana is the prison capital of the world?
Photo: Bettina Hansen
We can talk about high housing costs, and low high school graduation rates. We can talk about high incidence of substance abuse, and limited availability of addiction treatment and mental health care. There are tons of numbers we can throw out there, but the long and short of it is: The American poor, many of whom are people are color, are screwed. The cards are stacked against them, and there’s little opportunity within the bounds of the law to prosper.
Sometimes, they turn to crime. Once in prison, their sentences are long, and their options are limited. They were poor before, but now Angola will introduce them to a new economy that pays next to nothing, and can incentivize risking everything.
“What’d you think of the rodeo?” an inmate named Mchawi asks me near closing time on Sunday. Mchawi, born Nathaniel, is 62 years old. He’s been locked up since 1977, and at Angola since 1979. An avid practitioner of tai chi, Mchawi says that for years he survived the abysmal food issued in prison by maintaining a macrobiotic diet, eating brown rice shipped in by a friend named Mrs. Rosenfield, who is now deceased. It’s illegal to send food packages to inmates these days.
“It was hard to watch,” I tell him. I sat through the entire spectacle on Saturday, but I skipped out after the first 20 minutes of the two-hour show on Sunday. Sitting among the cheering crowd of 10,000, I looked on as inmates ran terrified from six charging bulls, found themselves thrown from bucking horses, and endured near face-stamping from every animal out there. The energy in the stands felt no different than that of a particularly rough professional football game. Say what you will about the NFL, but players there are paid hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars to put their bodies in harm’s way.
“If you win an event at the rodeo, which is extremely difficult to do, you might win $15 to a $100, which is a lot of money in prison. But the odds are against you.”
“If you win an event at the rodeo, which is extremely difficult to do, you might win $15 to a $100, which is a lot of money in prison,” says anthropologist Schrift. “But the odds are against you.” The most an inmate can walk away with at the rodeo is $500, and that prize goes to the man who can grab the poker chip off the horns of that “meanest, toughest Brahma bull available,” anointing him the champion of “Guts and Glory.” The website’s schedule of events reads, “This is the last event of the day, and perhaps the most exciting.”
Mchawi nods towards the arena. “It’s exploitation. It’s the Colosseum all over again.”
“I think it would be hard to argue that the rodeo is not exploitative at many levels,” echoes Schrift. “You know, the racial dynamics of it, everything about it is very strange.”
Is a hundred dollars worth the risk? For some, it is. The economics of prison life make participating in the rodeo or its less dangerous counterpart, the craft show all but obligatory. Prisoners at Angola can make as little as 2 cents an hour, though all of the inmates I speak to make at least 4, which means that it costs an inmate an entire day’s wage to send one email via JPay. Income cannot be earned by those in solitary confinement, and is necessary to avoid eating in the cafeteria, which, says Lionel, “is a gross setting 78 percent of the time.” The first level of inmate labor is called working cell blocks, which entails working around the prison for eight hours a day. Lionel says the work is strenuous, but he didn’t mind it after three years in a six-by-eight cell. After that, it’s 90 days in the fields. I ask him what that means.
“The fields are basically farm work to the extreme,” he writes. Angola is, after all, a working farm, a point of fact laid bare in the 1998 documentary The Farm: Angola, USA. “It’s like a big plantation in days gone by,” Burl Cain remarks in the film. “We hate to call it that, in a way, but it kind of is, because we have the, you know, the it’s inmates in prison.”
Inmates refer to the main body of prisoners excluding those on death row, those in solitary confinement, and those in protective custody as “the general population.” They’re still locked up, but their movements are comparatively less restricted. They can attend class in prison vocational schools to learn trades (i.e. carpentry, welding, collision repair, cooking, electrical), work regular jobs on prison grounds, and get their G.E.D.s. Some jobs at Angola pay 20 cents an hour, but that’s the max as far as hourly pay goes.
Inmates behind the fence at the craft fair. Photo: Ross McDermott/American Festivals Project
Seminary is the only form of higher education offered at Angola, potentially due in large part to Congress’s now-defunct 1994 bill forbidding prisoners from receiving Pell grants, a program that Obama announced he would be reinstating last year. For right now, however, degrees in theology and pastoral ministries are the only university-equivalent options at Angola. It took Lionel two attempts applying to Bible college before he was accepted. He’s one of the lucky few. According to Lionel, only 123 men at Angola are enrolled in the program; that means that, at this time, only 123 men at Angola are in line to receive their degrees. For most of the other 5,500-plus, it’s the 4 cent an hour life, or lockdown. And this is not unique to Louisiana.
“A lot of time inmates make just pennies per hour,” says Chen, adding that Texas state penitentiaries don’t pay their inmates an hourly wage at all. They can’t make money while they’re awaiting trial, and oftentimes providing for their own defense zaps whatever savings they may have. Many inmates owe money for child support, medical expenses, and debt collectors upon release. “That means while they’re incarcerated, their resources are just going to be depleted. And once they come out they’ll have nothing, or negative money, so less than nothing.”
Friedmann, himself a former inmate who served 10 years in Tennessee, adds that prisoners have two chief concerns upon release, residence and employment, but an ex-offender’s criminal record presents a huge hurdle. “You’ve got to have somewhere to stay and somewhere to start earning wages so you can earn a living, but we’ve created a system that is not conducive to either of those.” He cites restrictions on convicted felons living in public housing, or staying with people who live in public housing, options that could be viable otherwise. Many employers, he continues, are not willing to hire ex-offenders. Being branded a felon is a lingering punishment, a classification that yields infinite more residual punishments as time presses on.
“If you don’t have any money, how are you supposed to succeed?”
Both Friedmann and Chen advocate raising prisoner wages. Earning a fairer wage, the argument stands, will prevent inmates from being released straight into poverty.
“If you don’t have any money, how are you supposed to succeed?” says Chen. “And if you continue not to have money because now you have a criminal record and you can’t get a job, I mean, I don’t understand why people are so surprised when people recidivate.”
Moreover, inmates at Angola and many other prisons who aren’t sentenced to lockdown, work. Most prisoner labor keeps most prisons running. Prisoners cook, prisoners clean, prisoners farm the fields, and prisoners man the prison gas stations. Calvin, the inmate who crafted the bench out of a 1900s prison door, was transferred to Angola because of his skill in heavy machinery as a crane operator. “I work for the warden,” he says. “He’s my boss.” Aaron, the woodworker and painter, is a carpenter by trade. He points to the wood scaffolding that covers part of the hobbycraft area. “I built that,” he says. There’s a long history of prisoners providing labor for the outside world, too. Starbucks, Microsoft, Dell, Wal-Mart, J.C. Penney, and Victoria’s Secret have all used prison labor through various private subcontractors for various periods of time until compelled to stop because of public pressure. Orange is the New Black‘s third season lifted Victoria’s Secret’s involvement for its own plot. But as the Washington Post points out, the adaptation is not entirely one-to-one: “On Orange is the New Black, the inmates make $1 per hour, a big pay raise: Most prison jobs at Litchfield pay closer to 10 cents an hour.”
Prison Enterprises is a state-run organization that monetizes inmate-made products in Louisiana state prisons, operating under the mission “to lower the cost of incarceration by providing job opportunities to offenders that instill occupational and skills training, while producing quality products and services.” At Angola, inmates make mops and brooms, signs, mattresses and pillows, metal fabrication and powder coating, and license plates, all at that aforementioned 2 to 20 cents an hour. Agriculture, cattle herding, horse training, and tractor repair are among the other industries managed at Angola by Prison Enterprises.
Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Another organization, UNICOR, proudly stands by its methodologies on the federal level. The government program formerly known as Federal Prison Industries describes itself as “a critical component of the Bureau of Prisons’ comprehensive efforts to improve offender reentry.” UNICOR boasts not one but two punny taglines: “UNICOR: We’re life changing” and “When the prisoners work, so does the system.”
Does the system really work, though? UNICOR claims to reduce recidivism “by providing inmates the skills needed to join the workforce upon release.” Sure, you can argue that vocational training, like the programs provided by UNICOR and the trade schools offered at Angola, equips inmates with practical tools that they can carry into the real world. But prison laborers are not commensurately paid. They’re not protected by OSHA. They’re forbidden from organizing into unions. They’re not eligible for workers’ comp. Inmates can be ordered to work for nothing. None of this is illegal. I first meet Mchawi by way of his woodburning piece at Angola’s craft fair. His artwork is good, but I’m more compelled by his piece’s accompanying, handwritten sign: “Thanks to the 13th Amendment, you can now own this pyrography for $400.”
“The 13th Amendment did not end slavery,” Mchawi explains. “But only moved it from open view of the world, and put it behind the walls of the prison system.”
The amendment’s exact text reads: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
Except as a punishment for crime. In other words, the 13th Amendment left wiggle room, I learn on the grounds of a former plantation.
“Literally, prisoners are slaves of the state,” Friedmann later clarifies. “And they can be forced to provide labor for free, like slaves.”
“He gets this rush, and when he wins the money from competing it makes him feel as though he is worth something in life.”
Okay, say you’re at Angola, making 4 cents an hour either in your trade, or in the fields, or working cell blocks. That’s 32 cents a day. By the end of year one, you still won’t have reached $100. Winning an event at the rodeo could earn you more than the equivalent of one entire year’s pay. It could also land you in the prison hospital. Steve, who I meet on Sunday just outside the arena entrance selling acrylic paintings of bayou scenes, says he’s seen his fair share of rodeo-related injuries over the past 36 years of his incarceration. “I’ve seen guys paralyzed from the waist down. The first year, one guy got bucked off a horse, had a heart attack, and died. Probably scared him.” A couple of other older guys tell me that story, too.
I don’t get a chance to speak with anyone who competes in the rodeo. I ask every single one of the fifty-some-odd craftsman inmates I meet over the course of the weekend, but no one has first-hand “cowboy” experience. Mchawi says he attended the rodeo once, the year he arrived at Angola in 1979. “I saw a man thrown 30 to 40 feet, like a dart. Been out here” in the craft area “ever since. Don’t know what happened to him. They took him away.”
Lionel tells me that he has a friend who competes. I ask him via email if he can relay my question to his friend. Why do this?
“My friend said that he competes for the thrill,” writes Lionel. “He said that he gets this rush, and when he wins the money from competing it makes him feel as though he is worth something in life. He said he now looks at life in the perspective that he has nothing to lose because the courts have taken everything that he loves away from him. That was kind of deep.”
Schrift says that Cain considered the rodeo a sort of “recreational rehabilitation.” In his view, the inmates get something out of the rodeo apart from money. Some get glory for their guts, in the form of engraved belt buckles that rodeo winners take home to their cells. But others, like Lionel’s friend, get self-worth.
Photo: Cooper Neill/Getty Images
“Corrections means correct his deviant behavior,” Cain tells Cowan in his CBS Sunday Morning segment. “So I am charged with correcting him, that’s my job. It’s not lock and feed and torture and torment.” This is an oft-repeated refrain for Cain, along with “moral rehabilitation,” the rodeo being the shiniest, public-facing example of that effort, in addition to the seminary he founded on prison grounds. While scandal riddled his long tenure at Angola including, but not limited to, charges of “grossly inadequate medical care” and “indescribable heat” in death row cells constituting cruel and unusual punishment, not to mention personal accusations against Cain of ethics breaches that have since been cleared, though the circumstances surrounding that dismissal are suspicious his point cannot be discredited. Rehabilitation is, in fact, the fourth intended purpose of prison, Friedmann says.
It’s the least prioritized function of prison, says Friedmann. Chen agrees, noting that most inmates are on waiting lists to receive rehabilitative services, like drug treatment, education, and work training.
“The objective of the Angola Prison Rodeo remains to provide the prison population at Louisiana State Penitentiary with an opportunity for positive behavior changes,” reads Angola Museum’s website, before detailing that rodeo ticket sales go back into funding the arena facilities first and foremost, and future chapel construction second. “Additional funds may also be donated to other worthy causes, including the Inmate Welfare Fund at Louisiana State Penitentiary.” That fund pays for educational and recreational supplies; it’s unclear whether it also contributes to any substance abuse or mental health treatment programming. CBS Sunday Morning reports that the October 2015 event “expected to net close to $4 million.”
In what other world besides prison would “artist” be a person’s best career option? But then there’s the craft fair, the other way to make money and achieve self-worth at Angola, if granted the privilege. It may not boast the “glory” of the rodeo, but it’s comparatively peril-free, provides better moneymaking odds, and allows inmates to hone more useful skills. In what other world besides prison would “artist” be a person’s best career option?
An inmate with two teardrops tattooed on his cheekbone tells me that one woman bought two of his metal and pecan wood grills, or “Louisiana ovens,” at 8 a.m. this morning, an hour before the fair officially opened. “I guarantee my work,” he says. “$450 each, but all prices are negotiable.”
Calvin says he’s selling his prison-door bench for $1,000. When I walk away, a graying husband and wife wearing tucked in polo shirts whisper deliberations to one another. “It’ll last a lifetime,” I hear Calvin say. Aaron says he wants to get $700 for the table that his commissioning client skipped out on. I find Aaron on Sunday, just before closing. He says he sold the table for $600.
Pricing runs the gamut. Calvin’s bench is the most expensive item I come across on the fairgrounds. The kids’ books I buy are $2 each. The wooden puzzle game is $14. The faux designer belts range from $15 to $25. Paintings start at $30 and cap at $125.
“Prices were cut off by Cain,” says Schrift of the fair’s management during her research period in the early 2000s. “He wanted things to be affordable.”
A chunk of what inmates make at the fair, many trustees confirm, funnels right back into ordering supplies. “We have to get our own materials,” an inmate tells a woman with orange hair eating pink cotton candy as he wipes his forehead with a handkerchief. “Whatever money we have.”
Items for sale at the Angola Prison craft fair. Photo: Bettina Hansen
“You don’t want this hope chest?” another inmate asks me, and I immediately feel guilty for admiring it with no intention of buying. “I’ve got to sell this hope chest so I can buy supplies, and make more hope chests.”
There’s an approved vendor list, and a strict policy over keeping track of materials in hobby shop lockers. If any items go missing, inmates are liable to lose hobby shop privileges. There’s a real incentive to stick to the rules; their income is at stake.
“This is a business for them,” says former assistant warden Fontenot. “They can send a lot of this money home. We’ve had some inmates send it to victims’ organizations. I personally loved when they did that. They provide for themselves so their families don’t have to throughout the year. It gives them a sense of responsibility.” Fontenot adds that offenders keep their total sales minus taxes, specifying that a small percentage is taken out to cover the show’s overhead, plus another for shoppers that use credit cards. “The most that was ever taken out was 18 percent.”
That wooden puzzle game, Angola’s Greatest Escape the object is to move a square labeled INMATE around the barriers (WARDENS, GUN TOWERS, BLOOD HOUNDS) to the opening at the base, the FREEDOM DOOR. When I first see it, I chalk it up to wishful thinking, that the artist must love a dark joke. But by the end of the weekend, that “freedom door” feels less like a fantasy translated into craft. Purchase this game, and this prisoner is $14 further from absolute zero.
“Inmate painters repeatedly remarked that negative depictions of prison life simply did not sell.”
Schrift says she was disappointed by the fair when she first visited. She’d been expecting some real evidence of “outsider art,” pieces created from scavenged objects and recycled materials. “There was a lot of really shitty art,” she laughs. “There wasn’t the same sort of autobiographical folk art that I had expected.” She writes in her 2006 scholarly paper Angola Prison Art: Captivity, Creativity, and Consumerism that she did see birdhouses made of boots labeled “Boot Camp,” and sculptural works constructed from cigarette packs, but those were her observed outliers of the bunch. Many visitors are surprised not to see more art revealing the harshness of prison life, says Fontenot. “But really few of those things have that edge on them like you’d expect. It’s funny because people come, and they want to see that, and it’s like, you know, we can’t tell them what to do.”
When I ask the trustee artists what inspired their work, I too conditioned by movies and HBO serials am expecting their answers to reveal deep commentaries about life behind bars. Most don’t, at least not at first.
“Inmate painters repeatedly remarked that negative depictions of prison life simply did not sell,” writes Schrift. “By and large, inmates consciously and strategically produce for a tourist market comprised primarily of rural Southerners.” That marketing strategy holds true today. Lots of bayou scenes, lots of farm life, lots of animals. Jazz abstracts, Zatarain’s still lifes, bulldogs playing poker. I spot one acrylic depicting bales of cotton in a field. I look underneath a tablecloth, and see four more just like it.
“I try to make something for everyone,” says an inmate named Allan. He paints photo-realistic portrayals of New Orleans street scenes and the St. Louis Cathedral, in addition to different variants on the fleur de lis, including one that’s painted to look like leopard skin. An inmate behind the barrier creates commissioned portraits. He wears a gold wedding band and a salt-and-pepper mustache. I ask him if he takes commissions all year round. He says he tries.
Photo: Brianna Paciorka
Many of the men out here are entrepreneurs more than they are artists, despite all enviable skill involved. They’re not painting their feelings and emotions, necessarily. They’re painting to make a living. Judging by the success of canvases featuring smiling dogs, double rainbows, and adept cowboys, visitors at Angola’s arts and crafts fair don’t want to be depressed. Joy sells.
Neither, truthfully, do many of the artists. From within the confines of an 18,000-acre concrete and razorwire compound, art offers psychological reprieve.
“It takes your mind off things,” says Lionel.
“I can prioritize my time, and it keeps me out of trouble,” says Aaron.
“In here, you’ve got nothing but time,” says Allan. “You can choose to do good or to do bad. I choose the good.”
“What amazes me the most,” says Fontenot, “is for years I was a criminal justice scholar, and everything they taught us is not what these inmates do. If you give them the tools, their desire is not to be evil. Their desire is to be creative, and it comes out in really positive ways.” You can tell when Fontenot speaks about the arts and crafts fair that this is the part of her old job that she loved the most. It’s the event, she says, that she’s most proud to be associated with. “Prisons are not known for being expressive and allowing that kind of creativity to exist, but the fair brings a lot of peace to the prison.”
Research confirms Fontenot’s observation. Studies have found the prison arts movement effective in reducing prison violence by helping develop incarcerated individuals’ coping skills, boosting their self-esteem, and encouraging empathy. A collaborative study at Sing Sing Correctional Facility found that inmates enrolled in programming offered by non-profit Rehabilitation Through the Arts “had fewer infractions and spent fewer days in keeplock (locked in their cells as a disciplinary measure resulting from a violation of prison rules) than the control group of participants.”
Photo: Brianna Paciorka
John is, arguably, the most creative artist at this year’s fair. He doesn’t paint what the people want, and he doesn’t bring in much money. Incarcerated since the late 1980s, John writes and illustrates kids’ books set in the swamp and cartoon collections about hapless prison rodeo participants (in printed pamphlet form) for dollars, and paints surrealist Dali-inspired art that he rarely sells. He shows me a painting of a man stretching his face past the point of normal skin elasticity. John explains that the man pictured went to the country to paint, but he didn’t bring a mirror. It’s called “Self-Portrait.”
John is soft-spoken, and I’m charmed by his folksy booklets. He’s in his early sixties. “I should be out already,” he says when I ask him how long he has left at Angola. “The pardon board told me to be patient, so that’s what I’m doing. I’m being patient.” I buy several stories, including “The Adventures of Mud Man” because it’s John’s favorite, and “Quacky and the Bandit” because John says it’s a good one for little kids, and my friends just had a baby. I consider buying another called “Mom’s Work is Never Done.” I ask him if he has any kids. He says yes, but they’re all grown. Then I go to the bathroom and Google him. I learn that John is in Angola for homicide. He was convicted of murdering his wife.
This rattles me. I’d forgotten what everyone was doing here, in a way. I tumble into a dizzying Google spiral, there in the women’s restroom at Louisiana State Penitentiary. For most of the inmates whose first and last names I know, I find trial information on rape cases and graphic descriptions of murder scenes, the stuff Fontenot had told me about on the phone several months earlier, along with dozens more reports on armed robbery, incidents where no one died but somehow the offenders ended up here in lifer land. I can’t find Lionel. The grim facts of old cases scare me, and in that fear comes waves of doubt, plus something more disturbing: a noxious, cheap thrill. My sleuthing is a thinly veiled form of fetishization, only a stone’s throw from bragging at cocktail parties about fraternizing with murderers. How brave, right?
“This criminal record follows you around forever,” says Chen. The Ban the Box movement recently made strides with legislation surrounding employment applications, but as All of Us or None co-founder Dorsey Nunn wrote for the New York Times in April, “There are many other forms that ask about conviction history rental applications, insurance, student loans and housing, college admissions, public benefits, and voting rights.”
As I pull up news stories and summaries of trial decisions, I feel like I’m inflicting harm onto the men I’ve met, like I could hear the singe of a branding iron on their skin. These people are more than their crimes. They’re making kids’ books and puzzle games in what’s supposed to be the land of new beginnings. Everyone deserves a second chance. That’s what rehabilitation is all about.
“In here, you’ve got nothing but time. You can choose to do good or to do bad. I choose the good.”
Throughout the weekend, I have a hard time finding an entrypoint with the other tourists. I’m by myself, and I’m a stranger, and whenever I make eye contact and smile, the objects of my attention quickly avert their eyes and sidestep away. Finally, though, I get a couple Naval Academy guys wearing varying degrees of camo to talk to me. I ask Jeremiah and Dylan if they felt weird buying the beautiful model ship Dylan’s holding like a baby from an inmate.
“Not at all,” says Dylan.
“It’s like giving back,” says Jeremiah. I ask Jeremiah what he means. He shrugs it away and laughs.
It’s an odd combination: guts and glory, arts and crafts. That the rodeo and the fair, two polar opposite events, occur side-by-side, on the same grounds, at the same time, feels no less bizarre upon leaving Angola than upon entering. Could that unshakeable strangeness be some sort of purposeful staging on the prison’s part? Each heightens the reality of the other so pointedly that the whole thing almost feels like a bad play, political theater so obvious in its messaging that no savvy modern audience would buy the setup as plausible. At the rodeo, prisoners are little more than meat. Their purpose is to provide entertainment to the moderately bloodthirsty masses. At the arts and crafts fair, inmates are businessmen, planning conservatively for their futures and achieving a few private moments of freedom. While the fair illuminates the faces that get lost in the statistics, pulling back the curtain on this country’s seemingly impenetrable prison industry and showcasing the individual people with individual stories, the rodeo spotlights the monolithic chaos that encompasses the criminal justice system. The universal and personal dance in an endless pas de deux; the trick is for the audience to care beyond the curtain call.
Photo: Bettina Hansen
When I’m home, Lionel emails me about God. Discovering seminary has been the greatest blessing of his life, he says. I go out on a limb, and tell him I first started feeling God in my life when my best friend passed away suddenly last year. I found God through loss. I ask him, did he find God when he lost his freedom? He tells me that he suffered a far greater loss once he was already locked away. His baby brother died at age 23. Lionel heard the news when he was on lockdown.
“I felt so empty inside after his death. I have a better understanding now, but still there is no closure in that area of my life because I was not allowed to attend the funeral. My friend, going through that crisis alone was the hardest thing I’ve ever experienced in my life. My prison sentence was nothing compared to my brother’s death. In the end, God made me stronger, and I guess the iron will that I possess now comes from that crisis.”
No one took home Lionel’s wooden swing. He didn’t sell it that day. A lady requested a ticket from him to purchase it, but never returned. When we leave, they stay. We get close with inmates at the Angola Prison Rodeo. We shake their hands, and compliment their skills, and eat their food, and listen to their songs, and buy their art. We hear about their lives, if we ask. Then, we watch them throw those lives on the line for a hundred bucks, for a reason to be, for glory. And later, we say goodbye, but we take them home with us in manners tangible and not. There’s no way not to.
- ^ high incidence of violence (articles.latimes.com)
- ^ the area in Africa where the former slaves came from (www.angolamuseum.org)
- ^ controversy-laden resignation of warden Burl Cain (theadvocate.com)
- ^ cite that 97 percent (www.pbs.org)
- ^ 6,000-plus men (www.theatlantic.com)
- ^ closer to 75 percent (www.theatlantic.com)
- ^ it’s not (books.google.com)
- ^ CBS Sunday Morning segment (www.cbsnews.com)
- ^ afforded limited resources (www.aclu.org)
- ^ “sidewalk ministry” (www.nytimes.com)
- ^ opened on prison grounds (www.doc.la.gov)
- ^ JPay (www.jpay.com)
- ^ positive efforts (gov.louisiana.gov)
- ^ nay vote of 23 to 14 yea’s (legiscan.com)
- ^ failed at the last minute (www.motherjones.com)
- ^ rodeo website (www.angolarodeo.com)
- ^ did away with convict stripes (www.angolamuseum.org)
- ^ the only state flag (www.washingtonpost.com)
- ^ 1,719 state prisons (www.prisonpolicy.org)
- ^ have criminal records (www.nelp.org)
- ^ reports the ACLU (www.aclu.org)
- ^ it’s not (www.brennancenter.org)
- ^ The Guardian’s coverage (www.theguardian.com)
- ^ current state of mass incarceration (sentencingproject.org)
- ^ three-strikes (www.nytimes.com)
- ^ account for 37.6 percent (www.bop.gov)
- ^ 13 percent of the total U.S. population (www.census.gov)
- ^ more than six times higher than that of white men (www.pewsocialtrends.org)
- ^ according to the (www.pewsocialtrends.org)
- ^ Pew Research Center (www.pewsocialtrends.org)
- ^ The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (newjimcrow.com)
- ^ current minimum wage (www.raisetheminimumwage.com)
- ^ rate of unemployment (www.bls.gov)
- ^ rank as one of the worst school systems (theadvocate.com)
- ^ poverty rate (www.nola.com)
- ^ recidivism rate (bjafactsheets.iir.com)
- ^ prison capital of the world (www.nola.com)
- ^ many of whom are people are color (www.census.gov)
- ^ now-defunct 1994 bill (www.economist.com)
- ^ Obama announced he would be reinstating (www.themarshallproject.org)
- ^ providing for their own defense (www.brennancenter.org)
- ^ all used prison labor (www.motherjones.com)
- ^ Washington Post points out (www.washingtonpost.com)
- ^ Prison Enterprises (www.prisonenterprises.org)
- ^ describes itself as (www.unicor.gov)
- ^ exact text (www.loc.gov)
- ^ belt buckles (www.vice.com)
- ^ oft-repeated (www.acton.org)
- ^ refrain (www.nytimes.com)
- ^ moral rehabilitation (www.theatlantic.com)
- ^ grossly inadequate medical care (theadvocate.com)
- ^ indescribable heat (www.nola.com)
- ^ ethics breaches that have since been cleared (theadvocate.com)
- ^ suspicious (theadvocate.com)
- ^ Angola Museum’s website (www.angolamuseum.org)
- ^ Angola Prison Art: Captivity, Creativity, and Consumerism (www.jstor.org)
- ^ collaborative study (www.rta-arts.org)
- ^ Ban the Box movement (bantheboxcampaign.org)
- ^ Dorsey Nunn wrote for the New York Times in April (www.nytimes.com)
- ^ Everyone deserves a second chance (medium.com)
- ^ through loss (www.racked.com)
- ^ Stephie Grob Plante (www.stephiegrobplante.com)
- ^ Julia Rubin (www.racked.com)
- ^ Spencer Woodman (twitter.com)