Louisiana State Penitentiary: Insiders Call It Angola or The Farm

One of my favorite subgenres in the dessert case of crime fiction is prison stories, which would be the hidden file in the seven layer cake. To most of us, prison is a hidden world, a mythological place akin to purgatory or hell, a place difficult enough to visit as a tourist, much less live there. Prison is often seen as a microcosm of society, which makes it fertile ground for stories, such as Stephen King's famous “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption,” Ed Bunker's No Beast So Fierce, Brendan Behan's Borstal Boy, Les Edgerton's Just Like That, and more.

Prisons get iconic names. Leavenworth. Sing Sing. And perhaps the most infamous in America, Louisiana State Penitentiary, otherwise known as Angola, or simply The Farm. Bordered on three sides by the Mississippi river and comprised of 18,000 acres, Angola has a particularly harsh reputation for corruption, from early 20th century accounts of using prison labor for personal gain, to a description of “medieval” by the American Bar Association in the early '70s. Today, due to Louisiana's strict sentencing, Angola houses more lifers than any prison in America and the oldest population on average.

To keep that many men behind bars for decades, some who know they may never see freedom again, is quite a challenge. Angola keeps the lid on possible riots and violence by offering many programs to keep inmates busy performing acts of service and worth, from doing leather crafts, to earning mechanic's certifications, to the famous and controversial Angola rodeo.

The rodeo gets flack because of the inherent violence involved, such as prisoners winning rewards by snatching a poker chip off an angry bull's forehead. Another game called convict poker is won by sitting at a card table, calmly playing cards while angry bulls charge from the gates. The last man to flee wins.

Now, rodeo sports are also enjoyed by free men all across the south. I haven't gone to the Angola rodeo personally, so I won't comment on how it looks. But I have not read that the inmates are coerced, and when you're staring a 50-year sentence in the face and the only kicks might be riding a bronco or fleeing a mad bull, it may look more appealing to them than it does to us.

Writer Les Edgerton clued me in to Angola through The Angolite magazine. For $20 a year, you get a professional glossy magazine written entirely by the inmates of Angola Prison. They comment on notable events; they have a monthly feature article, in-depth history of the prison, Louisiana and environs, or crime in general. Recent features include: famous female inmates and criminals, how for-profit prisons and vendors prey on the families of inmates, and how cell phones are used in prison by gangs. It is a wealth of information for crime writers and anyone interested in the reality of incarceration. If you write so much as a brief thank you or praise, they will print your letter to let the readers inside the walls know that even strangers like us care about their welfare.

A repeating theme is Louisiana's strict sentences for nonviolent crime, and the parole board who rarely grant reduced sentences. Another is the increasing age of the prison population, which requires trusties to perform hospice care for the elderly and dying. For violent offenders, sympathy may never flow, but for the nonviolent, the third-strikers, it is particularly cruel to die in prison with your loved ones watching on the other side of the wall, when you have robbed no family of the same dignity.  

If you don't want to read a magazine, the documentary Angola: The Farm is quite enlightening, and follows lifers as they seek redemption and possible release. Some of those stories have happy endings. A follow-up film, Ten Down, was also released, both are viewable on Youtube in their entirety, and I highly recommend them.

Subscribe to The Angolite by sending a check for $20 with subscription info to:

THE ANGOLITE
c/o Cashier's Office
Louisiana State Penitentiary
Angola, LA 70712

 

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Thomas Pluck writes unflinching fiction with heart. He is the author of Blade of Dishonor, an action thriller spanning Shogun-era Japan to WWII, and the editor of Protectors: Stories to Benefit PROTECT, an anthology of crime fiction for charity.  You can find him on Twitter as @thomaspluck.

Comments

  1. Isaac Kirkman

    A very intriguing subject and subculture, that I look forward to investigating further.

  2. Warren Moore

    I knew about the older documentary, but didn’t realize it was available for free online viewing. Thanks for the heads-up.

  3. Gordon Bingham

    I worked over 20 years as a probation/parole officer in Florida and supervised former alumni of Angola State Penitentiary through interstate compact. They had the best inmate stories…

  4. Dyer Wilk

    Thought-provoking stuff, Tom. I’ll definitely check out those documentaries.

  5. bnagel1976

    Interesting stuff Tom. The Angolite sounds like something I would be interested in reading.

  6. Brandon Nagel

    Was not logged in…Sorry – The Angolite sounds like something I would be interested in reading.

  7. Christine McCann

    I’m tempted to subscribe to The Angolite, but will definitely track down those documentaries.

  8. Kelley Tackett

    I watched Angola: The Farm and it was amazing. Thank you for sharing the information about the magazine. Fascinating!

  9. L L

    Sounds intriguing

  10. Jody Darden

    I, too, like prison stories and this sounds like a great read.

  11. Lynn Ristau

    This does sound very interesting. I’ll have to watch the documentaries some time.

  12. Linda Knowles

    Very intriguing, this has peaked my interest!

  13. Sharon Kaminski

    this would be a very interesting read for us, thanks.

  14. Jim Belcher

    The South get misrepresented so often in sterotypical fashion. I hope this isn’t like that.

  15. Karl Stenger

    Sounds interesting

  16. Cheryl English

    You have peaked my interest. I would love to read this.

  17. mosaix

    Mosaix would love to have this book! Yes!

  18. missmeigs

    This sounds great

  19. Phoenix Vie

    I’ve read a great deal about Angola in the past, but wasn’t familiar with this documentary.

  20. Christine LaRue

    My interest definitely is piqued as well. Even before taking a guided tour of Alcatraz a number of years ago (which I will remember for the remainder of my time on Earth), prison stories were a particular favorite subgenre of mine. Thanks for the tips re the periodical and the docs.

  21. Lynn Jarrett

    I have always found prisons to be rather claustrophobic and isolating. They do provide an interesting culture and environment. I look forward to winning and reading “Steel Heart.”

  22. Melissa Dials

    Love short stories!

  23. Kent Hill

    What an interesting collection of stories . . . prisons. I look forward to my name being drawn, so I can start the good read of “Steel Hearts. Thank You.

  24. Pam Howell

    Looks interesting. Loved Stephen Kings’ stories in this genre.

  25. Holly Kennedy

    Sounds good!

  26. Steven Wilber

    Sounds interesting. Count me in.

  27. Ethan Boatner

    Look forward to reading.

  28. Diane Stedner

    sounds like a good read. Would love the chance to read it.

  29. Anna Mills

    I cannot help but be terrified that this is where I will end up for no reason whatsoever. Better be prepared!

  30. carol kieda

    I did read the book, [u]Dead Man Walking [/u]about a man on Death Row.Very interesting. Written by a nun. I would love to win a Free book. And I live in the Steel City, Pittsburgh, PA carrie10

  31. Kimberly Mayberry

    This is a very interesting topic for me. As a writer that is interested in criminal behavior and the justice system, I have found stories on “The Farm” quite thought provoking, and at times, shocking. I would love to read Steel Heart, as it sounds like a most entertaining and informative book. Thank you.

  32. Betsy Whitmarsh

    Prison stories seem to be very popular right now.

  33. Clydia DeFreese

    Although I live in LA I know very little about Angola. This is a book I need to read.

  34. Jean Sagarese

    sounds most interesting, thank you for the opportunity and I use a Kindle

  35. Angela Dyrcz

    Sounds very interesting!

  36. Diane Chenier

    Crime and suspense I’m in reading heaven.

  37. rwauda

    I recall being a chaperone for a student group when they had the opportunity to visit a prison and listen to what a select number of inmates (in a special program) told them. Some of these men were murderers. I look forward to reading Steel Heart.

  38. maryro

    Sounds like a great read. I would love to win a copy!

  39. Saundra K. Warren

    Read and seen several shows about Angola

  40. Heather Martin

    As our prison population swells with more non-violent offenders and the mentally ill, the issues you brought up in the article and were raised in the doc are going to affect more and more people.

  41. Vernon Luckert

    This would be an interesting read. I cannot say that I have much in the way of sympathy for those who have done things that justify their being behind bars.

  42. Marilyn Clement

    I would love to win a copy.

  43. TopDragon

    One of the best books I’ve ever read on what it might be like in a prison is “Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian”. It’s a memoir by Avi Steinberg and tells what it can be like as a non-criminal who gets a job as a prison librarian and sees what life is like for long term inmates. I also recommend it for people who love books in general.

  44. David

    One of the best books I’ve ever read on what it might be like in a prison is “Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian”. It’s a memoir by Avi Steinberg and tells what it can be like as a non-criminal who gets a job as a prison librarian and sees what life can be like for long term inmates. I also recommend it for people who love books in general.

  45. Rory Costello

    Nice piece, Thomas. Among other things, when I think of Angola, I think of bluesman Robert Pete Williams.

  46. Charles Fraker

    Let me out of this prison of ignorance about Thomas Pluck and send me a copy of the book. Thanks!

  47. John Maline

    Heard a lot about the prison; would enjoy reading this book.

  48. sue brandes

    Sounds like a very interesting book. I would love a chance to read it.

  49. Barbara Lima

    I enjoy reading about real life.

  50. hww

    Always an interesting story. This prison is a tough one and more stories the better

  51. L MW

    This sounds very interesting!

  52. Karen T Gonyea

    Sounds very interesting 🙂

  53. Linda Rodriguez

    I was not aware of The Angolite. Thanks for the tip. It sounds like a must-read.

  54. susan beamon

    While I am considering the prison magazine, I have heard of the graying of the prison population in several states. It is a reflection of the graying of the general population. More of the prisons in this country are filled with non-violent convicts due to the three strike and drug user conviction by states that want to be “tough on crime”. That seems to go double for the Southern states.

  55. Laura McLendon

    [b]My entry for a chance to win an e-copy (in the format of my choice) of Steel Heart: 10 Tales of Crime and Suspense by Thomas Pluck, which includes, among other characters, ex-cons facing the challenges of life outside. [/b]

    [b]I think this would be an interesting and eye opening read!![/b]

  56. Taylor Duncan

    Yay!

  57. Mihaela Day

    Sounds intriguing

  58. JerseyStyle Photography

    I’m always interested in these stories. My father spent 36 years in prison…not as a resident, though not as the “toughest screw that ever walked Shawshank” either. He was, however, a Corrections Officer at a medium security state prison in Northeast PA. He did walk the cell blocks for a number of years, pulled guard duty in the tower for OT pay. A good number of years were spent logging each and every prisoner in, fingerprinting them, mug shooting them, etc. He said everyone in the place passed by him first. As stressful as it may have been – and he was in one altercation that I know of – he never brought it home. By the time he retired, he had been in the State Correctional Institusion at Dallas longer than anyone else. Quite a career. ~ Mark

  59. Charlie Stella

    Great stuff. I’ll be ordering the magazine pronto. Dynamite.

  60. Susan Smoaks

    i would love to read this, i have lots of family in prison

  61. Heather Cowley

    I am always curious about the life inside prison walls. Would seems more interesting with a rodeo happening!

  62. Deborah Lefler

    I would LOVE to read this book. I would LOVE even more to win it!

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