Sunday, March 14, 2010

Going to prison, or at least next to a prison - a scary prison

The Louisiana State Penetentiary at Angola is the largest and most notorious prison in the US.  It was the setting for Dead Man Walking and has been featured in several other films and novels.  Since there is a museum there right outside the gate, it was worth a visit.  Angola began as a plantation and existed in the state's correctional system exactly as that well into the twentieth century.  Inmates - almost all black and almost all serving life sentences - were loaned out to neighboring plantations when they weren't busy working the sugar and cotton fields within the prison's 18,000 acres.  Today, there remains a not-entirely-metaphoric (or hyperbolic) argument that Angola is still a real-life functioning plantation on the Mississippi.  In the mid-twentieth century the state and national press began uncovering salacious horror stories of "life" inside this prison.  It was representative of the corrections approach in several deep-south states, where a system of "trustee" rule had taken hold where the staff selected inmates to administer work and discipline in the prison population.  Naturally, a great many of these "Trusty" bosses were violent offenders.  And thus a horrendous economy of torture and rape took hold and ruled the prison for decades and made national headlines.  Eventually a Supreme Court decision in 1971 forced an end to the state laws laying out the Trusty system in LA, MS, TX, and AR but the shadows of it continue on to this day.  In the early 1970's three inmates who had been active in the Black Panther movement within the prison attempting to combat the Trusty System were accused of killing a guard and placed in solitary confinement.  Two of the three remained in Solitary for 36 years until a visit two years ago from Detroit congressman John Conyers caused the state to move them out into the general population, while the third was paroled from solitary in 2001.  The Angola 3 are among the most well-known causes in prison reform activist circles today, along with Mumia Abul-Jamal.  There is heated rhetoric on both sides of these issues but at a place like Angola it is hard to imagine how these men stand rightly accused.

The prison today touts it's reforms in the last twenty years.  The museum is fairly open about the repuatation of the prison.  The warden, Burl Cain, is something of a celebrity - his name is all over everything and there are big photos of him in rescue gear helping out in Katrina.  They advertise their prison rodeo quite heavily and warden Cain is in a bunch of videos talking about a very spiritual approach to corrections.  That and work on the plantation - his theory is that if you work the convicts hard all day they'll be too tired to fight.

Prison is in every way one of my darkest fears.  I wonder where the line is that "normal" people fall across to end up there.  How many bad decisions or how much bad luck separate me from that existence?  Or is my skin color and income enough to protect me forever?  I don't know, there's probably some Freudian issues at work here, but it is an imposing thought.  It's important now and then to know that this world exists in America.

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