This was an urgent posting. I'll clean up any editing or aesthetics later.
Slavery Haunts America's Plantation Prisons
by: Maya Schenwar
t r u t h o u t Report
28 August 2008
On an expanse of 18,000 acres of farmland, 59 miles
northwest of Baton Rouge, long rows of men, mostly
African-American, till the fields under the hot
Louisiana sun. The men pick cotton, wheat, soybeans and
corn. They work for pennies, literally. Armed guards,
mostly white, ride up and down the rows on horseback,
keeping watch. At the end of a long workweek, a bad
disciplinary report from a guard - whether true or false
- could mean a weekend toiling in the fields. The farm
is called Angola, after the homeland of the slaves who
first worked its soil.
This scene is not a glimpse of plantation days long
gone by. It's the present-day reality of thousands of
prisoners at the maximum security Louisiana State
Penitentiary, otherwise known as Angola. The block of
land on which the prison sits is a composite of several
slave plantations, bought up in the decades following
the Civil War. Acre-wise, it is the largest prison in
the United States. Eighty percent of its prisoners are
"Angola is disturbing every time I go there," Tory
Pegram, who coordinates the International Coalition to
Free the Angola 3, told Truthout. "It's not even really
a metaphor for slavery. Slavery is what's going on."
Mwalimu Johnson, who spent 15 years as a prisoner at
the penitentiary and now works as executive secretary of
the Capital Post-Conviction Project of Louisiana,
"I would truthfully say that Angola prison is a
sophisticated plantation," Johnson told Truthout.
"'Cotton is King' still applies when it come to Angola."
Angola is not alone. Sixteen percent of Louisiana
prisoners are compelled to perform farm labor, as are 17
percent of Texas prisoners and a full 40 percent of
Arkansas prisoners, according to the 2002 Corrections
Yearbook, compiled by the Criminal Justice Institute.
They are paid little to nothing for planting and picking
the same crops harvested by slaves 150 years ago.
On land previously occupied by a slave plantation,
Louisiana prisoners pick cotton, earning 4 cents an
hour. (Photo: Louisiana State Penitentiary)
Many prison farms, Angola included, have gruesome
post-bellum histories. In the 1950s, '60s and '70s,
Angola made news with a host of assaults - and killings
- of inmates by guards. In 1952, a group of Angola
prisoners found their work conditions so oppressive that
they resorted to cutting their Achilles' tendons in
protest. At Mississippi's Parchman Farm, another
plantation-to-prison convert, prisoners were routinely
subjected to near-death whippings and even shootings for
the first half of the 20th century. Cummins Farm, in
Arkansas, sported a "prison hospital" that doubled as a
torture chamber until a federal investigation exposed it
in 1970. And Texas's Jester State Prison Farm, formerly
Harlem Prison Farm, garnered its claim to fame from
eight prisoners who suffocated to death after being
sealed into a tiny cell and abandoned by guards.
Since a wave of activism forced prison farm
brutalities into the spotlight in the 1970s, some
reforms have taken place: At Angola, for example, prison
violence has been significantly reduced. But to a large
extent, the official stories have been repackaged. State
correctional departments now portray prison farm labor
as educational or vocational opportunities, as opposed
to involuntary servitude. The Alabama Department of
Corrections web site, for example, states that its
"Agriculture Program" "allows inmates to be trained in
work habits and allows them to develop marketable skills
in the areas of: Farming, Animal Husbandry, Vegetable,
meat, and milk processing."
According to Angola's web site, "massive reform" has
transformed the prison into a "stable, safe and
constitutional" environment. A host of new faith-based
programs at Angola have gotten a lot of media play,
including features in The Washington Post and The
Christian Science Monitor.
Cathy Fontenot, Angola's assistant warden, told
Truthout that the penitentiary is now widely known as an
"innovative and progressive prison."
"The warden says it takes good food, good medicine,
good prayin' and good playin' to have a good prison,"
Fontenot said, referring to the head warden, Burl Cain.
"Angola has all these."
However, the makeover has been markedly incomplete,
according to prisoners and their advocates.
"Most of the changes are cosmetic," said Johnson,
who was released from Angola in 1992 and, in his new
capacity as a prison rights advocate, stays in contact
with Angola prisoners. "In the conventional plantations,
slaves were given just enough food, clothing and shelter
to be a financial asset to the owner. The same is true
for the Louisiana prison system."
Wages for agricultural and industrial prison labor
are still almost nonexistent compared with the federal
minimum wage. Angola prisoners are paid anywhere from
four to twenty cents per hour, according to Fontenot.
Agricultural laborers fall on the lowest end of the pay
What's more, prisoners may keep only half the money
they make, according to Johnson, who notes that the
other half is placed in an account for prisoners to use
to "set themselves up" after they're released.
Besides the fact that two cents an hour may not
accumulate much of a start-up fund, there is one glaring
peculiarity about this arrangement: due to some of the
harshest sentencing practices in the country, most
Angola prisoners are never released. Ninety-seven
percent will die in prison, according to Fontenot.
(Ironically, the "progressive" label may well apply
to Angola, relative to some locations: In Texas,
Arkansas and Georgia, most prison farms pay nothing at
Angola prisoners technically work eight-hour days.
However, since extra work can be mandated as a
punishment for "bad behavior," hours may pile up well
over that limit, former prisoner Robert King told
"Prisoners worked out in the field, sometimes 17
hours straight, rain or shine," remembered King, who
spent 29 years in solitary confinement at Angola, until
he was released in 2001 after proving his innocence of
the crime for which he was incarcerated.
It's common for Angola prisoners to work 65 hours a
week after disciplinary reports have been filed,
according to Johnson. Yet, those reports don't
necessarily indicate that a prisoner has violated any
rules. Johnson describes guards writing out reports well
before the weekend, fabricating incident citations, then
filling in prisoners' names on Friday, sometimes at
random. Those prisoners would then spend their weekend
in the cotton fields.
Although mechanical cotton pickers are almost
universally used on modern-day farms, Angola prisoners
must harvest by hand, echoing the exact ritual that
characterized the plantation before emancipation.
According to King, these practices are undergirded
by entrenched notions of race-based authority.
"Guards talked to prisoners like slaves," King told
Truthout. "They'd tell you the officer was always right,
no matter what."
During the 1970s, prisoners were routinely beaten or
"dungeonized" without cause, King said. Now, guards'
power abuses are more expertly concealed, but they
persist, fed by racist assumptions, according to King.
Johnson described some of the white guards burning
crosses on prison lawns.
Much of this overt racism stems from the way the
basic system - and even the basic population - of Angola
and its environs have remained static since the days of
slavery, according to Pegram. After the plantation was
converted to a prison, former plantation overseers and
their descendants kept their general roles, becoming
prison officials and guards. This white overseer
community, called B-Line, is located on the farm's
grounds, both close to the prisoners and completely
separate from them. In addition to their prison labor,
Angola's inmates do free work for B-Line residents, from
cutting their grass to trimming their hair to cleaning
up Prison View Golf Course, the only course in the
country where players can watch prisoners laboring as
Another landmark of the town, the Angola Prison
Museum, is also run by multi-generation Angola
residents. The museum exhibits "Old Sparky," the solid
oak electric chair used for executions at Angola until
1991. Visitors can purchase shirts that read, "Angola: A
Despite its antebellum MO, Angola's labor system
does not break the law. In fact, it is explicitly
authorized by the Constitution. The 13th Amendment,
which prohibits forced labor, contains a caveat. It
reads, "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude,
except as a punishment for crime where of the party
shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the
That clause has a history of being manipulated,
according to Fordham Law Professor Robert Kaczorowski,
who has written extensively on civil rights and the
Constitution. Directly after the 13th Amendment was
enacted, it began to be utilized to justify slavery-like
practices, according to Kaczorowski. Throughout the
South, former slaves were arrested for trivial crimes
(vagrancy, for example), fined, and imprisoned when they
could not pay their fines. Then, landowners could supply
the fine in exchange for the prisoner's labor,
essentially perpetuating slavery.
Although such close reproductions of private
enslavement were phased out, the 13th Amendment still
permits involuntary servitude.
"Prisoners can be forced to work for the government
against their will, and this is true in every state,"
Kaczorowski told Truthout.
In recent years, activists have begun to focus on
the 13th Amendment's exception for prisoners, according
to Pegram. African-Americans are disproportionately
incarcerated; one in three black men has been in prison
at some point in his life. Therefore, African-Americans
are much more likely to be subject to involuntary
"I would have more faith in that amendment if it
weren't so clear that our criminal justice system is
racially biased in a really obvious way," Pegram said.
Prison activists like Johnson believe that
ultimately, permanently changing the status quo at
places like Angola may mean changing the Constitution -
amending the 13th Amendment to abolish involuntary
servitude for all.
"I don't have any illusions that this is a simple
process," Johnson said. "Many people are apathetic about
what happens in prisons. It would be very difficult, but
I would not suggest it would be impossible."
Even without a constitutional overhaul, some states
have done away with prison farms of their own accord. In
Connecticut, where the farms were prevalent before the
1970s, the farms have been phased out, partially due to
the perceived slavery connection. "Many black inmates
viewed farm work under these circumstances as too close
to slavery to want to participate," according to a 1995
report to the Connecticut General Assembly.
For now, though, the prison farm is alive and well
in Louisiana. And at Angola, many prisoners can expect
to be buried on the land they till. Two cemeteries,
Point Lookout 1 and 2, lie on the prison grounds. No one
knows exactly how many prisoners are interred in the
former, since, after a flood washed away the first
Angola cemetery in 1927, the bodies were reburied in a
large common grave.
Point Lookout 1 is now full, and with the vast
majority of Angola's prisoners destined to die in
prison, Point Lookout 2 is well on its way, according to
"Angola is pretty huge," King said. "They've got a
lot of land to bury a lot of prisoners."