Prison Plantation

Black and white photo of building far from camera, with a large field in front and a fence

J. Douglas Murphy

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 6 No. 4, "Still Life: Inside Southern Prisons." Find more from that issue here.

Angola State Penitentiary, Louisiana, 1978. The Major, walking briskly and straight-backed in typical Marine Corps fashion, his eyes hidden by reflecting sunglasses, proudly leads his entourage through the prison camp. 

“Been in command since last May,” he speaks confidently to the small group. “Ever since Camp J opened up. It’s the cleanest camp you’ll see at Angola. You won’t find another as clean as this one.’’ As they approach the camp unit named Shark 2, the Major commands his underlings to unlock the cellblock. Slowly now, apprehensively, the visitors approach the line of cells with steel doors. “Isolation,” the Major says. “Keep em in here if they cause us trouble.” 

One of the visitors jerks open the covered slit in the door — darkness within. “Are people in here?” he asks. 

“Catch the lights,” the Major orders. Seconds later, the viewer is momentarily stunned by the brightness through the small slit. Beneath the glare, beyond the steel door and yet more bars, are two black men in prison jumpsuits, curled head-to-toe on a three-by-six foot metal slab. The prisoners do not move, not even to acknowledge the sudden burst of light. They remain in a fetal-like sleep. Their six-by-ten foot cage is bare except for the bunk, a toilet and a sink. 

The observers move down the cellblock corridor. 

Next cell. Two men. Both black. No lights. No mattress on the one metal bunk. 

Next cell. Two men. One, standing when the slit is opened and the lights turned on, falls backwards onto the concrete and begins to silently gesticulate, shaking uncontrollably. “Does this man normally do this?” asks one of the observers. “Or is something the matter with him?” 

The Major snaps to immediate attention and peers into the cell. “Shit yeah,” he laughs, looking around at the guards. “He’s psychotic. You should see him do his grasshopper imitation.” More laughter. 

The Major puts his arm around the turnkey’s shoulder, and together they lead the visitors off the tier. 

The Story of Angola 


Those familiar with the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola often refer to it as the “Alcatraz of the South.” Sixty miles north of Baton Rouge and bordered on three sides by the Missis  sippi, the prison is naturally secure; it is almost impossible for anyone to escape. The Angola penitentiary is shaped like a giant animal trap, with the river forming a 10-mile crescent around the 18,000 acres of floodplain, and the snake- and vermin-infested Tunica Hills complete the barricade to the northeast. A few miles beyond the Hills is the Mississippi state line. 

There is one road to the prison: Highway 66, a winding, 22-mile blacktop which begins just north of St. Francisville and ends at the prison gate. Before the highway, riverboats provided the only access to Angola. 

Just inside the prison’s front gate is a Y-shaped, two-story building called the “A.U.” (Admitting Unit). Here, security personnel photograph, fingerprint, outfit and lecture newly arrived personnel. The A.U. also houses many of Angola’s political prisoners, in small, isolated cages officially known as “Close- Cell-Restriction,” and the prison’s death row. 

From a second story window at A.U., a prisoner can see much of the penitentiary. About one mile west of the front gate, almost in the center of the prison complex, sit eight H-shaped concrete and steel buildings, collectively known as the Main Prison; these are the dormitories for nearly 2,000 prisoners. Behind the dormitories is the Tag Plant, where for many years convicts have produced license plates for Louisiana car owners. 

To the south and southwest, Camps C and H house from 200 to 500 maximum and medium security prisoners in cellblocks and dormitories. Opposite Main Prison is Camp A, built by convict labor in the early 1900s. Camps D, J and I are north of Main Prison, just beyond a cluster of small houses and mobile homes known as “Bee Line,” where many of Angola’s administrative and security personnel live. Most have never lived anywhere else; their fathers and grandfathers were also prison employees. Besides housing for Angola’s free people, Bee Line has a post office, grocery store, snack bar, gas station and laundromat, all constructed years ago by prisoners. 

From the Tunica Hills, the warden’s house overlooks the penitentiary. Immediately below is a cemetery where hundreds of unclaimed, unwanted Angola prisoners are buried. 

Angola is a vast expanse of rich green earth — delta farmland. Scattered over this land are groups of 50 to 60 prisoners, mostly black men, picking, chopping, digging, planting under the surveillance of shotgun-toting white guards on horseback. 

Says one Angola prisoner: 

“The free man sits up on his horse, aimin’ his rifle just over your head, when he don’t think you’re choppin’ cotton fast enough. The free man mostly says, ‘All right, ol’ thing, get movin’ in that line,’ or ‘You better catch up nigger, before I put a foot in your black ass,’ or somethin’ like that. They mostly shoot up over your head or shoot down by your feet.” 

At any time during daylight hours, seven days a week, black prisoners march in rows, two by two, from cotton field to soybean field; or ride silently aboard uncovered wooden wagons, as they work the farm — modern-day slaves on a prison plantation. 


Well before the Civil War, Louisiana passed legislation to lease its entire prison population (which at that time was 78 to 80 percent Caucasian) to a number of private businesses. The main objective, of course, was income — if a net profit was not possible, at least the state could pay the costs of maintaining its prisoners. In fact, the system proved so lucrative that in 1848 the legislature added provisions to the original contract awarding the state 25 percent of private interests’ profits from convict labor. 

After the Civil War, cotton growers eagerly sought convicts to ease the labor shortage brought about by Emancipation. Louisiana’s prison system abandoned the “bastille” system and instituted “penal farms” in order to best capitalize on the skills of the convicts, most of whom were former slaves. Now caged men suffered exploitation as well as brutality and dehumanization. 

“Before the Civil War we owned the Negroes,” commented one early Louisiana prison official. “If a man had a good Negro, he could afford to take care of him; if he was sick, get him a doctor. He might even get gold plugs in his teeth. But these convicts, we don’t own them. So, one dies, we get another.” 

As could be expected, the convict lease system was especially brutal to the prisoners. It gave rise to chain gangs, archaic and sadistic instruments for maintaining discipline and meeting intolerable work quotas — prisoners were kept in leg chains and even chained together as they worked in the fields. Floggings, isolation, electric shocks, beatings with chains, blackjacks and belts were routine. From 1870 until 1901, more than 3,000 convicts died under the lease system. 

In 1900 the Louisiana Prison Control Board purchased an 8,000 acre farm called “Angola,” a name obscurely derived from a Latin word for “place of anguish.” Originally, Angola was a family plantation with an antebellum mansion overlooking the river and the delta land. Shortly after the farm was purchased, the state established a prison on the site. Later, this purchase was augmented by 10,000 additional acres of land. 

Until 1917 the farm at Angola served as a branch of the main prison in Baton Rouge, and white prisoners, some as young as seven, made up its population. Black prisoners were farmed out to other camps to build levees along the river, and to plant and harvest crops. But once Angola became the main state prison, its black population began to grow. And with the influx of black prisoners, emphasis on agricultural work increased. As a result, blacks continued to be under absolute control just as slaves had been 60 years before. Nineteenth century economic practices continued into the twentieth century. 


Through the early 1900s, Angola made headlines only when it was flooded by the river or when someone discovered that the prison was financially unsound. In 1928, Governor Huey Long announced to the taxpayers that the penitentiary cost them $1 million a year; “the Kingfish” felt that Angola should be self-supporting, a state-operated business enterprise. “I could house and feed those inmates at Angola cheaper here in the Heidelberg Hotel in Baton Rouge than what it is costing to keep them there,” Long stated. Rehabilitation of prisoners was not one of his concerns. 

During this time, official brutality thrived at the prison. Inmates were regularly underfed, beaten and tortured. Angola guard captains have admitted to more than 10,000 floggings from 1928 to 1940, with some prisoners receiving as many as 50 lashes. Records for the year 1933 reveal 1,547 floggings with 23,389 “recorded blows of the double lash.” During the administration of Warden R. L. Hines, a Long appointee, an average of 41 prisoners died each year. 

Huey Long’s appointees also introduced the “convict guard” system, which Long envisioned as a way to save money and at the same time allow better behaved prisoners to be “rehabilitated through the exercise of responsibility.” Prison officials called the convict guards the “most loyal people” they could find to chase escaped fellow prisoners; they were rewarded handsomely for shooting escapees. By 1940, while fewer than 20 free men guarded Angola, 600 convicts were armed with rifles. 

The infamous Red Hat camp — forced to close in 1972 because of public outrage at the cramped conditions and abuse inmates suffered there — was another legacy of the Long administration. The one-story punishment cellblock was an oven in the summer and an icebox in the winter. Each cell contained an iron bunk without a mattress and a wooden bucket for body wastes. For days at a time, as many as six or seven men were crammed into one cell. Off to one side, a small room contained Angola’s electric chair and generator. All condemned prisoners spent their last days in Red Hat before they were taken into that small room. A 10-foot barbed wire fence, with manned guard towers at each of its four corners, enclosed the entire building. 

The brutal practices and policies of Huey Long’s prison appointees, condoned by Long himself, continued into the ’50s, with administrators and guards resisting outside attempts to reform Angola. In 1951, an executive committee appointed by Governor Earl Long (Huey’s brother) investigated Angola and reported that sanitary conditions were deplorable, that gambling was the prisoner’s only recreation, and that flogging bordered on torture. Another committee of penologists condemned the use of convict guards. Still, nothing was done. 

Then, in 1951, 37 Angola prisoners severed their left heel tendons with razor blades to protest inhuman work loads, deplorable housing, lack of recreation and inadequate diets. “We eat weevils and beans,” said one convict. The publicity surrounding the protest gradually exposed the facts of life at Angola, inducing Earl Long to appoint still another committee — this time of judges, journalists and others — to investigate. 

At the committee hearings in March, 1951, inmates and guards testified about floggings, lengthy confinements in Red Hat cells, the absence of rehabilitation programs, filthy living conditions, spoiled food, long hours of backbreaking slave labor in the cane fields and on the levees, political corruption and sexual assaults. 

A former prison captain testified that he had whipped a prisoner until his arms could no longer lift the lash, had given the whip to a younger relative, who also flogged the prisoner until he was tired, and then returned the whip to the captain, who finished the beating. The prisoner was black. His offense — he “brushed” against the captain’s white daughter. 

Governor Long was embarrassed by the committee’s findings, which blamed his administration in part for conditions at Angola. “I thought the committee would have to vindicate me,” Uncle Earl said later, “but they hanged me instead.” 

Suddenly, “prison reform” became an issue in Louisiana. Gubernatorial candidate Robert Kennon seized on Long’s inability to oversee and operate Angola, and promised to run the prison with a more humanitarian philosophy. Kennon was elected governor in 1952, and almost immediately brought in outside progressive penologists to run Angola. From the legislature, Kennon obtained $4 million for new buildings at the prison. Orders against corporal punishment were posted. Disciplinary boards were established. Dietary needs of prisoners were met. Prisoners were paid two, three or five cents an hour for their field work. 

These reform measures were short-lived, however. The legislature, admitting that physical conditions and treatment at Angola were bad, still felt that Angola should make money, and that prisoners should be required to work the fields six and seven days a week. 

By the early 1960s, progress at Angola had tailspinned. The lash and Red Hat cells were replaced with more modern forms of brutality. Overcrowding became a major problem — over 3,000 prisoners were housed in 50-yearold facilities built to accommodate 2,000. The custodial staff was unprofessional and recruited from Louisiana’s poor, white, rural dwellers. The majority of Angola’s prisoners were black, and they were verbally and physically abused by the racist clique of white guards. Medical care did not exist. Every year, guards or inmates killed as many as 40 prisoners, and over 150 prisoners were stabbed and so severely wounded that hospitalization was required. Rehabilitation programs were nil. Angola’s legacy of horror and inhumanity continued. 


In an unprecedented move in 1962, the US Supreme Court applied the phrase “cruel and unusual” to a state law in a California prison case. Two years later the Court, led by Chief Justice Earl Warren, directly approved the right of a prisoner to seek relief in federal court. These decisions provided the legal groundwork for prison condition lawsuits and led to a series of challenges by inmates to the constitutionality of prison systems. 

The first such challenge came in the 1969 Holt v. Sarver case, a suit filed on behalf of all inmates at the Tucker Reformatory and the Cummins Farm Unit at the Arkansas Penitentiary. The prisoners charged that life at the prison amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. To give relief to the plaintiffs, the federal judge ordered Arkansas to devise a plan to correct the situation. 

Then, in Gates v. Collier, a 1972 suit against the Mississippi prison farm at Parchman, Judge William Keady found a range of conditions similar to those in Arkansas: inmate guards, abominable living conditions, rampant violence. He asked the state to substantially upgrade conditions and procedures and to abandon some of its worst facilities. 

It was inevitable that Angola would be the next major prison conditions case. By the late 1960s more than 4,000 men were crammed into Angola’s facilities, built to hold no more than 2,600. Inmate-on-inmate violence, stabbings, sexual abuse and killings had reached epidemic proportions. Both guards and prisoners feared for their lives. Adequate medical care was lacking. Sanitation hazards existed everywhere: a 20- year old accumulation of raw sewage under the Main Prison kitchen and dining hall had created an unbelievable stench and rodent problem. 

In late 1968, four Angola prisoners — Lazarus Joseph, Hayes Williams, Lee Stevenson and Arthur Mitchell — filed suit against the state. In 1973, after the US Department of Justice intervened on behalf of the prisoners, Federal Judge E., Gordon West, a former law partner of Senator Russell Long, appointed another federal judge to investigate conditions at Angola and hold hearings. West said that conditions at Angola should “shock the conscience of any right thinking person.” In 1975 he declared conditions at Angola to be unconstitutional and prohibited the prison from accepting any more prisoners until the population declined below 2,640. He ordered the state to improve security, medical care and food service; to decentralize the penitentiary by building full facilities elsewhere as well as at Angola; to eliminate fire, sanitation and health hazards; and to desegregate the prison. 

“If the state of Louisiana chooses to run a prison, it must do so without depriving inmates of rights guaranteed to them by the federal constitution,” West said in the order. “Shortage of funds is no defense to an action involving unconstitutional conditions and practices, nor is it a justification for continuing to deny the constitutional rights of inmates.” 

Prison reformers, abolitionists and socially concerned public officials hailed the court order, calling it a “godsend,” a message from the federal courts that would ultimately bring Louisiana’s prison system out of the dark ages. 

Their hopes were short-lived. To be sure, some changes occurred at the sprawling prison farm. But today, three years after West’s ruling, Angola remains a sewer of degradation — primitive, coercive and dehumanizing. The state’s response to the order has been shortsighted and irrational. For example, to reduce Angola’s prison population to 2,640, the Department of Corrections began refusing to accept state-sentenced prisoners housed in parish jails. As a result, nearly 2,000 prisoners who would have been transferred to Angola remained instead in crowded, antiquated local jails. Asked about the overcrowded situation, Governor Edwin Edwards callously remarked: “It’s not my problem. I don’t have any relatives in jail.” 

In reaction to the court order, the state convinced the legislature to spend more than $150 million to construct new prisons and expand existing facilities at Angola; $50 million alone was earmarked to build new camps at Angola to provide dormitory and maximum security bed space for more than 1,500 prisoners. This expansion has pushed the prison population at Angola up to 4,300. Angola is fast becoming the largest prison in the western world. And life for a prisoner at Angola remains much the same as it was in 1931. 

Today, as in years past, state and prison officials see Louisiana prisons as a business enterprise. In 1968, 3,000 of Angola’s 18,000 acres were planted in sugar cane: 10 million pounds of sugar and 500,000 gallons of molasses were produced. Hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of soybeans and cotton are harvested annually. Nearly half of Angola’s prisoners, most of them black, daily plant, harvest, dig irrigation ditches, erect fences or pick cotton. Armed guards on horseback, most of them white, watch over the convicts who toil in the fields, and occasionally taunt them by firing rifle shots over their heads. The prisoners receive two cents an hour for their labor. 

Medical care is still woefully inadequate. Additional staff has been hired, but prisoners frequently complain of medical neglect, denial of treatment for illness or injury, and of harassment if they complain to prison administrators. In early 1978, 150 prisoners who contracted food poisoning were disciplined and then, oddly, charged with “theft by fraud” for complaining to medical technicians at the prison hospital. Security officials claimed that the prisoners, in making their complaints, were shirking their work responsibilities in the fields that day. In another incident, a prisoner whose leg was broken in an “altercation” with a guard was left in his isolation cell for nearly a week before he saw the prison physician. 

Inmates’ claims of brutality continue. Convict guards are no longer used, but inmate-on-inmate violence still rages, and guards are said to curse, threaten and physically abuse convicts. As one Angola prisoner said, “The security people seem to be people who enjoy inflicting pain. Imagine if you can six to eight guards with blackjacks, beating one man with his hands restrained in handcuffs.” After 800 Angola inmates staged a peaceful work stoppage in May, 1977, the state Department of Corrections transferred 200 prisoners to then new Camp J, the isolated maximum security outcamp of this maximum security prison farm. These first residents of Camp J were, according to corrections officials, either instigators of the work stoppage or “habitual troublemakers.” From the outset, Camp J became known to prisoners, their families and prison employees as Angola’s “punishment camp.” Indeed, even today prison officials readily admit that Camp J is a place where “fear” serves as the sole “rehabilitative tool.” 

Prisoners at Camp J are denied certain foodstuffs: dessert, sugar, salt and pepper. They are locked in their cages virtually 24 hours each day; some cells are without lights. The prisoners’ outgoing and incoming correspondence is closely monitored, and they are not allowed to speak unless spoken to first. 

And there is reported violence: beatings, tear gas, abuse. Prisoners who were deported to Camp J in May, 1977, say that guards began systematically brutalizing them from the beginning, and have continued ever since. 

The federal court order of June, 1975, ameliorated some of Angola’s problems, but, as one prisoner said, nothing — not court orders, not governor’s committees, not more educated and “enlightened” prison officials — can really change Angola. Angola will always endure, its camps rooted firmly in the soil surrounded by the Mississippi River and the Tunica Hills. Nothing, short of abolishing it altogether, can improve Angola. 

“All the reforms in the world,” maintained the prisoner, “won’t change this place from what it is — isolated, unmanageable, and racist.” 

As the mother of a man confined at Camp J wrote, “I’ve heard my son’s cries, and I’ve heard his pleas, and I can’t seem to do anything to help him.    

Go down sunshine, go down, oh 

hurry please go down. 

This aggie hoe, this grassy row, 

won’t let me see sundown. 

Won’t let me see sundown, poor 

boy, won’t let me see sundown. 

This aggie hoe, this grassy row, 

won’t let me see sundown. 


Prison work song  


You want us to teach those convicts ping-pong, baseball, elocution and gee-tar playin’? Those fellows aren't up there for ringin ’ church bells. 

Gov. Earl Long 



When the prison gates slam behind an inmate, he does not lose his human quality; his mind does not dose to ideas; his intellect does not cease to feed on a free and open interchange of opinions; his yearning for self-respect does not end; nor is his quest for self-realization concluded, if anything, the needs for identity and self-respect are more compelling in the dehumanizing prison environment. 

US Supreme Court Justice 

Thurgood Marshall  


Alone within my cell, if only the 

walls could speak, 

They would tell me of the suffering 

and misery I’ve seen 

Where a man is just a number, just 

one to make the count straight. 

Where the love is taken and his 

heart is filled with hate. 

Forgotten man. 


Night time finds me sleepless, 

lying on my bed, 

With thoughts of bitterness and 

revenge flowing through my head, 

on a world that says it’s right to 

lock a man away. 

When will the day come, when all 

of us must pay? 

Forgotten man. 

Otis Neal, 

Louisiana prisoner