Louisiana: The State We're In; Angola
The following is a production of the public affairs department of WLPB. Louisiana: The State We're In. with Public Affairs director, Beth George. Good evening. Thank you for joining us on this first edition of the Louisiana: The State We're In. Tonight we examine with our guests and on film the state prison at Angola. We have with us This evening three knowledgeable guests. We have Mr. C. Paul Phelps, the secretary and head of the Department of Corrections. We also have with us Dr. Mark Carleton, research director for the Public Affairs Research Council, former professor of history at LSU, and author of a book on the history of Louisiana's penal system. And finally, we have with us this evening Representative Bobby Freeman of Plaquemine, a Louisiana State Representative, who is one of Governor Edwards' chief floor leaders in the House and a member of the House
Appropriations Committee. Angola has been in the news almost constantly since June 1975 when federal district Judge E. Gordon West issued a court order declaring the prison overcrowded and the living conditions deplorable. But the problems at Angola are not merely recent ones. Many of the problems facing the Department of Corrections today may be traced to the state prison system of the past. Angola, the center of Louisiana's prison system, is set deep in the Tunica Hills of West Feliciana Parish, some 60 miles from Baton Rouge. The present twists and turns some 20 miles through brush tangled countryside. The Legislature recently approved some $17.3 million dollars for a new road. It will make the prison more accessible to the outside world. But today, and for several years to come, many prison employees will travel the road daily to work at the 18,000-acre prison site hidden in the looping bend of Mississippi River, surrounded by levees and steep hills. Angola was first a cotton plantation purchased in the
1860s by Major Samuel Lawrence James, who for more than 25 years maintained a brutal profit-oriented prison regime in Louisiana. James in a convict lease arrangement with the state made enormous profits, working prisoners on levees, railroads, and plantations, including Angola. The profits could be achievedd only by cruel and inhumane treatment of prisoners. One legislator at the time charged that the death rate in the Louisiana penal system was about four times as great as the death rate in any other penitentiary in the United States. The state took control in 1901 of the prison system, bringing an immediate improvement in the treatment of convicts. But the idea that prisoners could be work-for-profit was still very much in vogue and farm and plantation work became the keystone of the new penal system. Today, farm work is once again being emphasized at Angola, not for profit but as a cure for idleness. Angola's new warden Angola's new warden, Ross Maggio, believes in keeping prisoners busy and cites reduced incidents of violence as a partial result of the increased farm work. But the positive effects of
his program are balanced against the problems of rehabilitation. For, as Louisiana has become increasingly urban, so has our prison population and farm work is no longer a marketable skill for prisoners returning to an urban environment. The grounds contain visible reminders of a cruel and crisis-ridden past. The building known as Red Hat, in memory of a time when dangerous prisoners had to wear red, has to be more easily identifiable stands vacant and crumbling. In 1951, a number of prisoners housed at Red Hats cut their heel tendons to avoid hard work in the fields and cruel punishment by guards in prison personnel. This series of bizarre self-mutilation has focused national attention on Angola. As one magazine labeled it, America's worst prison. Governor Earl K. Long appointed a special committee in April 1951 to investigate conditions at the prison. This committee was shocked and dismayed at the conditions existing in Angola. There were sensational charges of brutality, filthy conditions, rampant homosexual activities, the use of inmates as armed
guards, the almost complete absence of treatment programs, and the lack of medical facilities. Angola's first woman nurse gave the most revealing testimony to the committee. She claimed Angola was still in the Dark Ages with degenerates of every type. Psychopaths and neurotics huddled in bedside companionship with new arrivals in huge dormitories that smelled like the hold of a slave ship. She said there was no trade school, not even a library. And that a man sentenced to Angola, who could not read or write, left the prison the same way, with no effort made to help him stay out of the penitentiary when he was released. National attention brought change at Angola and an infusion of state money for improving prison facilities. In 1952 and 53, some eight million dollars was put into capital improvements at Angola. And on November 28, 1955, the new Angola was dedicated. The new prison facility was hailed as one of the most modern, progressive institutions. But even today, some 21 years later, those
buildings are still referred to as a new Angola. And the years have taken their toll. During the 60s, Louisiana's prison system and Angola were affected by a financial crunch and a soaring prison population. In tight money years, the Legislature had little appetite for pumping money into the prison system and conditions grew increasingly worse. In June of 1975, the federal government stepped in. Federal District Judge E. Gordon West issued a court order requiring sweeping changes at Angola. One of the major changes was a reduction of the inmate population to two thousand six hundred and forty- one, eliminating the overcrowding existing in dormitories and cell blocks. The department was ordered to increase the correctional staff at the prison and to provide various measures for reducing inmate violence, such as shakedown of inmates and inspections of all cell blocks, dormitories, work eating, and recreational areas on a daily basis. Prisoners known to be aggressive homosexuals and those deemed to present a threat of assault and violence on other inmates or civilian personnel were to be separated in cells or other
maximum security areas. Fire and health standards were to be upgraded, as well as medical services available to inmates. Ambulances, which provide transportation for inmates to hospitals when major medical care was necessary. But a full time medical staff was to be hired by the prison. Many of the changes required by the court order are evident at Angola today. And the recent passage of a 90 million dollar bond bill will enable other changes to be made. But many problems remain for Angola and the state's correctional system. Overcrowding in parish jails has forced construction of temporary housing at Angola, but estimates of increased prison population represent an ever increasing drain on the state's budget. And an expanded prison system must also deal with prisoners sentenced to longer terms for more serious crimes. Finally, there's a reluctance of some to decentralize Angola, resulting in a long range plan that requires more and more money to be spent at a prison site that is still rural and remote. The film we've just seen shows that the history of Angola poses many questions for the future of
Angola. Mr. Phelps, it seems that a pattern develops at the prison. A crisis occurs such as the heel slashing incident in 1951. Then, attention is focused on the prison and changes are made. But then over a period of time the prison is forgotten until the next crisis. Do you think that that's a pattern that we're destined to repeat over and over again? I don't know whether it will continue, Beth, but it's certainly a pattern, a pattern not only in this state, but in other states also. I think, however, that in the last few years the federal courts have established certain rights, certain requirements that states are required to fulfill if they're going to run a constitutional prison. Well, do you think that job once the federal government steps in, that they're going to be there forever? If you follow the pattern of suits in corrections, it parallels the movement, the uh civil rights
movement, the school integration. Well, Dr. Carleton, do you agree with Mr. Phelps that many of the problems present at Angola today are ones that were there in the past? Yes. You'll have tremendous pressures generated for aid to education, for aid to welfare and health services, aid to highways. And you see all these people are on the outside. They're free. They're voting. And as Earl Long once said, "There ain't no votes at Angola." And I think that has over the long haul made a tremendous amount of difference and has been, I think, the most pervasive problem faced by the corrections system. The people out here, most legislators who represent the people, are simply not interested in appropriating large sums of money for the most despised element of the population. Representative Freeman, do you see a political problem? That is, last session of the Legislature, there was some reluctance as far as appropriating money for prisons. Do you see that in the future it would be more and more difficult to appropriate greater and greater funds for prisons? Problem that we face in the Legislature,
is not how much you're going to spend particularly at prisons. But the, the issue has always been in the session as to where you're going to spend it. The biggest controversy was whether or not we would spend additional funds at Jackson Barracks, whether or not they would make a prison facility be it a health facility or not in New Orleans at the Pontchartrain Nursing Home. Um, some of the issues are political, such as the 19 million dollars that we appropriated for a road at Angola. So this is unnecessary that we don't have to. Of course, the Legislature did finally appropriate it and felt there was a need for it. But there's always the problem of putting the money in the penal system. It seems like the Legislature is in favor of taking care of human needs, but they kind of forget or try to forget that, that the inmates of the state also have human needs and there are also problems there that we're going to build up and generate on our own
if we don't take care of them. But don't you think there's the feeling that prisoners shouldn't be coddled too, that they should be punished? I mean that's sort of underlying everything. Well, it's the same as back home. You can punish a child, but does that mean you have to beat him or you, or you deny him things. Uh, I think that, uh, as far, as uh, means of Correction it's up to the experts in the field. I, I couldn't even elaborate on what's the best method of doing that, but I think of taking care of the human needs, the health needs, the medical needs of anyone that we have in our prison system or in our local jails should be taken care of. Do you see, though, an insurmountable problem in decentralizing the prison system? Maybe, Mr. Phelps, you'd like to address yourself to that. There's a problem there is proposed a prison for North Louisiana. That's correct. Claiborne Parish. But, it seems like every time the Department of Corrections would suggest a site there was a hue and cry, not in my parish, not a prison. Well, this is a very practical problem
for which there has really not been a solution. As long as the only major facility, correctional facility in the state was Angola, and as long as its reputation was what it was most people were afraid. Although they seem to be able to tolerate parish prisons and jails in their area, the thought of, uh, having a prison facility and the emotionalism that comes about when you talk about murderers and rapists and these sort of very heinous crimes, developed a great deal of fear on the part of the population in general and opposed to such moves. It seemed at times, though, that the department was sort of grasping at straws. Because, I remember, that maybe it wasn't a serious thought, but the idea of having a prison ship was proposed at one point by Mrs. Hunt, but then the idea of the Pontchartrain, um the nursing home in New Orleans, wasn't really checked out thoroughly. Do you think now that the department is
looking, has a better feel for a long range plan? Well, uh, the prison ship was checked very carefully and it was again a matter of economics that ships do not lend themselves to the kind of solutions that we were looking for. If you're looking for a facility to lock people up and keep 'em inside, a ship would be fine. But, uh, it did not offer the, the kind of things that you need in a, in a prison. The Pontchartrain Nursing Home was, in our opinion, a reasonable solution to a very serious problem we had. That is providing adequate medical care for probably the least offensive security people that we had. [Host] But it - [Phelps] But [Host] it didn't work out [Phelps] It did not work out for political reasons for there was, there was no reason then and there is no reason now why it could not
have worked out from a correctional or medical standpoint. But you can't ignore the political realities of Louisiana, I guess. And that's what you address yourself to in your book, Dr. Carleton. Politics has always been inextricably intertwined with prisons. Do you think it will always be that way? Of course, politics is involved in anything that a government does. It's involved in education, it's involved in highways, it's involved in anything to which the state appropriates money or has any power of setting standards, rules, or guidelines. But, I think the most difficult problem Corrections has faced up until recently is that the specialists whom Mr. Freeman mentioned a moment ago were not even installed there until the 1950s. During most of our correctional history, since 1835, Corrections has not been run by experts. It's been run by politicians. And, uh, with I think extremely longstanding severe problems and difficulties. There's, uh, also a continuing problem that is, uh, at the prison
system. Now, we no longer have trustees. We don't have inmate guards. We do have a more professional staff. But you still have that problem of, you have primarily illiterate black prisoners from an urban environment and guards at the prison generally are white from maybe from rural backgrounds. Do you see that as always being sort of a problem of them working together? This is a problem in Louisiana and it's a problem anywhere that you have a major prison. Major prisons with some rare exceptions, Texas at Huntsville being one of them, or in fairly remote areas. Our prison population is very urban. Our employees tend to be more rural than urban. Our minority hiring is, uh, in the last year has progressed very satisfactorily and we have a reasonable number of minority people on our staff now.
But as a, as a facility for maximum security prison the site at Angola is an ideal site for a maximum security prison. It offers an opportunity that, that urban areas do not offer. It offers an opportunity for a man to get outside and do some work. Uh, to, to not be confined in a cell. But as we saw in that, uh, film, that agricultural works, the prison farm is being emphasized and, and that violence has decreased. There are positive benefits from it. But it isn't really a rehabilitative tool, is it? It's not rehabilitative, uh in the Since you bring up the term rehabilitation, it is probably one of the most nebulous terms that's used in this business, as to exactly what is rehabilitation. If you're dealing with a population that has never had a job, never knew anybody who had a job and had no hope of having a job in the future. Work is a foreign concept. Work as middle class people know it is
virtually unknown to the prison population that we're dealing with. And as one of our people explained it, the kind of work that we're doing at Angola is very simple. It's very easy to teach and it's very easy to measure. And if we can teach somebody how to go to work, how to do a task for eight hours or six hours or whatever it is, that that, in my opinion, would be the first step toward rehabilitation. So you're getting them adjusted to the idea of working rather than saying that they can pick cotton when they go back to the streets of New Orleans? Well, I grew up in the strawberry industry and there was a great deal of motivation on my part to do something besides work in the strawberry industry. I think the same concept could possibly apply if you're digging ditches or cutting grass, that maybe somebody would decide that there's a better way of making a living. If they elect to make that decision, there are opportunities in our system for you to equip yourself to do something else.
Representative Freeman talking about rehabilitation, Governor Edwards, in a press conference a couple of weeks ago, when asked about money for corrections said that, uh, that he was just concerned now with bodies in buildings. That that's about all that they could deal with at this point and rehabilitation would have to come somewhere down the line. Do you think that that's about all you can push through now money for capital construction? That's the prime problem right now, but I, I don't see it as as a something we should deal with in the future, dealing with the brick and mortar today and with the rehabilitation later. I think it all has to come together with the emphasis on, on the facilities. I think the court order dealt primarily with facilities. Uh, I think that when they told us we have to get rid of certain buildings and we have to reduce the population that it mandated us to build better facilities. But in building, I think you have to look down the road and not do things year by year. If, if we're not going to get into the same problem 10
years from now when the population is anticipated to be two and a half times what it is today. Do you think things were done under the umbrella of the court order that weren't necessarily mandated? [Freeman] Certainly, certainly. But I think that they will alleviate problems that we will face five years from now when we have double the population we have today. Uh, ten years when it's two and a half times what it is today. You keep talking about prison population increasing and prisoners being sentenced to longer and longer terms. And coupled with winding down state government, it seems like you've come to a real crunch somewhere along the line, where if you're paying off money on the Superdome and you're paying teachers' pay raises or whatever that, that do you think the prisons still are going to be on the bottom of the totem pole? I don't believe. I think with the federal courts watching over us carefully that they're going to have to take care of them. This year, I think the operating budget at even the state penitentiary is $19 million and I think it's anticipated at $30 million for next year,
will be the request. Now, what the Legislature does with it, I don't know. But, if you look at the projections of how many inmates we're having these days, you'll see that the, the admissions are greater and the releases are less than they were in 1965. You'll see that the one to five year inmates, the inmates serving one to five years are in excess of 10 years increasing, but from five to ten years there's a reduction in those number of sentences. I think in order to, to give better medical care I'm, I believe in what Mr. Phelps said. You have to put 'em close to large metropolitan areas. And decentralization, although it may not be specified in the court order, I think is written into it. And you have to do those things and I think that's where you're gonna put your one to five year people. The short termers. [George] Of course, in the court order it does make reference to decentralizing also. But, uh, when you're talking about medical services Angola is still remote and it is difficult to get back and forth although
money has been pumped into the hospital and ambulances. When we were discussing something, Mr. Phelps, about what is adequate medical, what is an adequate medical service? I think you say some prisoners think the whole gamut of what from contact- [Phelps] Well [George] lenses [Phelps] Right, um, we have discussed with our medical staff as to what is adequate medical care? We provide, of course, all the emergency medical care that comes about. Whatever type of accident or whatever kind of serious illness you may have. We work very closely with the Charity Hospital System. And, in the course of doing that, we find ourselves in competition. That is, the inmates find themselves in competition with people who live on the outside and are seeking the same service. We have a great deal of elective type medical problems, that is they're not a requirement of life and death. They may, if they were cured, would alleviate some discomfort on the part of
people. Inmates tend to think that, or at least they write and, you know, they say that they want this problem taken care of immediately. The courts have not addressed themselves to that problem. Our feeling is that an inmate is not entitled to any more medical care as an inmate than he would be entitled to, if he were on the outside. [George] Mmhmm... [Phelps] That just because you can't see very well does not mean that you're entitled by right to the state to give you a pair of glasses just because you're an inmate. [George] Are you glad there was a federal court order? Do you think any, these changes would have been made if there hadn't been one? [Phelps] Uh, I think that they would have been made. The court order certainly speeded things up. Most people forget that the Legislature addressed themselves to the basic lawsuit, that is Hayes Williams versus McKeithen, for the elimination of inmate guards, uh, for the integration of the penitentiary and for, uh, revamping of our internal disciplinary system. That's what the
original suit was and that was moot when it was [George] Although, the prison is not integrated today, is it? That it's less integrated now than it was, what, three years ago? [Phelps] No ,well it's less integrated, if you look in terms of numbers. Our black population is about 80 percent now. But all functions are integrated to the extent that they, I mean, we make no difference between black and white in the visiting and the job assignments. Housing assignments are, are made by your ability to live together, not necessarily whether you're black or you're white. [George] Dr. Carleton, there, there has been sort of uh, a pervasive feeling and, I've seen it in testimony before committees in the Legislature, that somehow prisons ought to be able to pay for themselves. Do you think that's still a problem? Or at least be able to break even. You say there's, you know, you have 20,000 - 18,000 acres of land. Why can't you make money off of this. Do you see that as a continuing problem? [Carleton] Well, I do, but I don't think there's as much pressure on the correctional system to pay for itself to
make money now than there was six or seven years ago when in fact under the private lease system was making a great deal of money. Of course, the private lease system did things that the state officials would not want to do, as they treated the inmates much more harshly. There was much greater turnover of inmates and they were given by the state officials of the time carte blanche over how they ran the system. We simply can't accept those methods today and haven't for the most part since 1901. So that the, the pressure to make money is still there, but it's not as massive. It's not as much of a given factor in prison management as it was 60 or 70 years ago. [George] Are you generally encouraged? Do you think the outlook is good for the prison system? Looking back over the years? [Carleton] I do. I do. I think that what has resulted from the court order and from the original lawsuit that Mr. Phelps mentioned a moment ago. And what has been done by the Legislature this year and what is likely to be kept on a continuing basis for the foreseeable future, all together ranks
as a very positive turning point in penal affairs in this state. To rank with the building of the new Angola 21 years ago and the abolition of the lease system in 1901. I think on the basis of the way things stand now and the way things are indicated for the future, Louisiana's correctional history may decidedly change for the better. [George] We're talking about the court order as a turning point. Mr. Phelps, have you complied? How, what is your point of complying with that court order and with the new one that was just released? [Phelps] Well, it's difficult to say as to where we stand on any given day. Judge West has never given us a real definitive answer on our December 16th compliance report. We've been working diligently toward the resolution of that. The new order that was issued just prior to the, this last special session indicated, uh, he indicated that he never intended us to just leave everybody in the
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- The first episode of the series "Louisiana: The State We're In," produced in November 1976. This episode features a segment on the history of Angola, the Louisiana State Penitentiary located in West Feliciana Parish, and a panel discussion on the prison with C. Paul Phelps, the Secretary of the Department of Corrections, Dr. Mark Thomas Carleton, the Research Director for the Public Affairs Research Council, and State Representative Bobby Freeman of Plaquemine. Angola was put under a federal court order in June 1975 in order to address the overcrowding of the prison population and the poor living conditions of the inmates. The panel discusses the response to the federal court order, the political problem of appropriating funding to prisons, the problems associated with decentralizing the prison system away from Angola, the prison employees, the farm work performed by the inmates, the issue of the
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- Chicago: “Louisiana: The State We're In; Angola,” 1976-11-00, Louisiana Public Broadcasting, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed February 22, 2020, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_17-58pc94tq.
- MLA: “Louisiana: The State We're In; Angola.” 1976-11-00. Louisiana Public Broadcasting, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. February 22, 2020. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_17-58pc94tq>.
- APA: Louisiana: The State We're In; Angola. Boston, MA: Louisiana Public Broadcasting, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_17-58pc94tq