Are you ready to go to prison, asked out tour guide? “You look like one shady bunch,” she joked. The last two times I found myself in a prison was visiting Nelson Mandela’s old jail cell with my brother-in-law, Joseph MCallister at Robbin’s Island in South Africa; and prior to this during my three month podiatry medical externship at Stateville Correctional Center in Jolliet, Illinois in the late 70s
We first toured the grounds with the Byes and our group. If you didn’t know you were on prison grounds you could have easily mistaken it for a country club or a rich farmer’s estate with wild lush grass and narrow creek beds and lakes running through it. During our visit, we were introduced to a fit 50 year old "lifer" named Daryl who has served 25 yeas behind bars. He was wearing a red t-shirt that read: Finding Higher Power 2018 Angola. He wasn’t permitted to talk about his crime, but rumor had it, he had committed murder while under the influence of alcohol. He has been a model prisoner, serving as a pastor and mentor to younger inmates. After the Q&A I told him I sat meditation with former inmates from San Quentin and Folsom at a meditation center in Redwood City, CA. Meditation has proven to reduce the recidivism rate of inmates. And, in the case of lifers, it helps them make peace with themselves and accept responsibility for the poor choices they made.
Afterwards, we visited with another prison inmate named Darren who was caring for a 27 years old Percheron horse, named Big Boy who weighed 2400 pounds. Big Boy was a beauty. He was gentle and seemed to love people. Darren told us that the horse was mainly used for crowd control during special events and for pulling the hearse during funerals of inmates.
There are 6300 all male prisoners at the Louisiana State Penitentiary nicknamed the “Alcatraz of the South” and “The Farm” which was established in the 1800s. It is named after the 18,000 acre Angola Plantations and beyond that after the African Country that was the origin of many enslaved African brought to Louisiana. Angola is the largest maximum-security prison in the United States. 75% of the prison population is black and 25% white. The average age is 18-80. 5000 prisoners are in for life unless pardoned or released through the the great advocacy work of the Innocence Project. The top three crimes that have led up to their incarceration are homicides, aggravated rape and armed robberies.
Angola has become a tourist attraction. More than 75,000 people visit the prison each year. The prison houses the Angola Rodeo, has a 10,000 person arena, concession stands that serves family recipes of the inmates, wild horse racing and other events that bring in about a half a million dollars a year. The funds go towards maintenance of the multiple, chapels on the prison grounds, educational programs, sand seminary classes. An Arts and Crafts show runs during rodeo season featuring paintings by the inmates. There is even a golf course that was built by prisoners. Anyone can play a round of golf (except inmates)for only $10. Angola has its own newspaper, radio and TV station that is run by the inmates. There are 1600 staff members and 2200 head of cattle. It costs $1.43 a meal to provide inmates with 3 square meals a day.
Angola once designated the worst prison in America has come a long way. Except for the 75 men on Death Row, inmates live in dormitories, not cells. They wear T-shirts blue jeans, tennis sneakers. There are no conjugal visits in the state of Louisiana.
The inmates get good medical care and there are no problems recruiting physicians who are paid a good wage.