In mid-February, John F. Cline set off on foot from New Orleans bound for Chicago for a project he's dubbed "Arterial America." He will be following the historic routes of the Mississippi Valley that facilitated last century's "Great Migration"—the African-American diaspora that funneled musical forms and cultures that were once specific to the South to the industrial cities of the North and beyond. Traveling by foot, towboat, and train, Cline will provide photos, recordings, and observations from his journey, including a series of exclusive dispatches for the Oxford American. Visit ArterialAmerica.com for more information and real-time updates. —the OA
Prison compound at Angola. Lead Belly in foreground. Photo by Alan Lomax (1934).
Almost from the moment this trip became an actual plan—and not merely a daydream—I knew that I wanted to go to Angola. Although I harbor some ambivalence about the ethics of John and Alan Lomax's field recording practices, their legacy is important enough both to me personally, and to the history of American music generally, that a trip to the very place where Lead Belly was first recorded seemed an unavoidable stop on a journey that was largely based on the routes of migration that brought blues and jazz out of the South. And not only Lead Belly, but Robert Pete Williams—an inimitable blues guitarist and former Angola inmate first recorded in the late '50s by Dr. Harry Oster, a professor at the University of Iowa whose classes I'd just missed due to his retirement.
There is also the famous rodeo, a considerable part of Angola's fame within the culture at large; my girlfriend, Jeannette, is a rodeo scholar, and she and I have often talked about making the trek to the isolated corner of Louisiana where the prison sits. But neither music nor rodeo, which, as it turns out, wouldn't be happening until after my visit, ended up being the most affecting parts of my trip to Angola.
I financed this project through a Kickstarter campaign, which launched on December 15, 2012, and ended on January 15, 2013. With Kickstarter, you set a funding goal, and if enough people contribute online, you get the funds, minus the fees that the organization takes out for processing. So there was no way I'd know if I was even going to get financed until the month before my intended departure. Prior to launching the Kickstarter, I had made some initial inquiries into whether I could gain permission to record inside the prison, but they had not gotten very far. Not least of the problems that confronted me in my inquiry was that I couldn't give a precise date for just when I'd be able to reach Angola, walking on foot as I was.
Nevertheless, as I set out from New Orleans on Ash Wednesday I had in hand the address for the Louisiana Department of Corrections in Baton Rouge, where I'd go to make a formal request to the Secretary. Eight days and one hundred miles later, I was there, waiting near the guard shack. I was told in no uncertain terms that meeting with the Secretary was impossible without an appointment by a uniformed Department of Corrections officer—just as a trio of men in suits strolled past saying with a wave that they had an appointment with "Jimmy" LeBlanc. But I persisted with the guard, and he got on the phone. A few switchboard redirects later, I was talking to Pam Laborde, the Department's communications director, who said that I would have to submit something in writing. The guard allowed me to sit at the picnic table in the courtyard of the Department of Corrections compound, and I wrote out a formal letter, in my best handwriting on a piece of paper I had to tear out of my little red Moleskine notebook. I handed the guard my homely missive and my glossy business card—containing my website address and cellphone number—and was somehow granted a tour of the grounds on Monday morning under the guidance of an official named Gary Young.
Getting there, though, presented a logistical problem. Baton Rouge is about sixty miles from Angola, and it was Friday afternoon. With my fifty-pound pack, I move at about two-and-a-half miles per hour, slowing a bit as the day progresses. I discovered that I could take a bus from Baton Rouge the next day to St. Francisville, which would put me about seventeen miles from the prison. Looking at my map of Louisiana, I saw that there was a state wildlife area that bordered Angola. I'd promised to call Young on Sunday evening to give him my location, and if I camped that night in the wildlife area I'd be a short five miles from the gates—the closest I could get without setting off alarms at the prison. I made my campsite in the Tunica Hills, and arranged for Young to pick me up on Monday morning.
From about 1880 to 1901, Angola was a privately run facility owned by Major Samuel L. James, who had been running a similarly privatized prison near Baton Rouge since 1869, shortly after the end of his service in the Confederate Army. What is now the Louisiana State Penitentiary was originally four different plantations located north of Baton Rouge at the bend in the Mississippi just before it heads north to Natchez. One of the plantations was known as Angola, after its slave population's region of origin. James bought these properties in 1880 and ran them as a de facto slave plantation until 1894, when he died as the richest man in Louisiana. In the following seven years, they amassed even more wealth thanks to state money in the form of per-prisoner stipends, free labor from prisoners growing and harvesting sugar and cotton, and the leasing of convicts to construct roads and levees. Little changed when the state finally took over Angola in 1901. Which is to say that in this little pocket of Louisiana, slavery didn't entirely die out until the Civil Rights era.
When reforms were finally put in place regarding convict labor in the 1950s and '60s, the result was less an injection of humanity than a regression into the worst kind of violence. Without the plantation-based income, the state reinstituted convict guards (a.k.a. "trusties") for a time, who were perhaps more brutal than untrained locals would have been. Then, with tougher sentencing guidelines popular among politicians seeking reelection, the population of Angola exploded, leading to several decades of gang warfare within the prison, with grievous and often deadly knife wounds the result.
Today, more than four thousand of Angola's prisoners have no hope of ever returning to the outside world. But, in contrast to the '70s and '80s, the Louisiana State Penitentiary is now one of the least violent maximum-security prisons in the country, thanks to attempts to answer several difficult questions: In this place, how can meaning and purpose be found? How can dignity be salvaged when no matter your effort, you will never return to your family, to your friends, or to your home?
This has been Warden Burl Cain's task since taking over Angola in 1995. Cain is a deeply religious man, and many of his reforms have been criticized by organizations like the ACLU. However, in my limited time at the prison it appeared that, though the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary maintains a substantial presence on the grounds, Cain's religiosity is perhaps closer to the one undergirding Alcoholics Anonymous than that of the typical missionary. This is most apparent in the hospice program, established not long after Cain began his tenure. With so many "lifers," death inside is an inevitability, especially after the advent of the AIDS crisis. As part of the hospice program, inmate volunteers wash, feed, and generally care for the dying. In a short essay included in Lori Waselchuk's book of photos of the hospice program, Tulane history professor Lawrence N. Powell writes that "You can't respect the living by dishonoring the dead." No one dies alone at Angola, and—with permission—friends of inmates are sometimes allowed to hold bedside vigils for weeks at a time. When the hospice patients die, they are no longer buried in a corner of the facility in Styrofoam containers: wooden coffins are built in the prison's carpentry shop, covered with hand-quilted palls, and the dead are taken to their graves in a horse-drawn hearse trailed by an inmate procession.
The horses used for this solemn purpose are Louisiana warm bloods, a breed developed at the prison that crosses a Percheron (a French draft horse) with a thoroughbred. The result is an agile but docile animal that is highly sought after by police departments around the country. Each horse is raised and carefully trained by prisoners as well, something I observed on my tour with Young. And although the backbreaking work that comes with sugar and cotton farming is gone, much of the prison's food is raised on-site, with some flash-frozen for later consumption. Some of the land is used to grow corn and soybeans, but when I used the word "profit" to describe these enterprises, Young, acutely aware of the prison's ugly history of exploitative labor, interjected that the money from grain sales went back into the maintenance of the prison. There are also pastures and chicken coops, all tended by convicts. Kennels full of inmate-trained bloodhounds, too, though I was informed by Young that they were mostly used for search-and-rescue and were not trained to attack even an escapee. Though few of the prisoners will have the chance to use these skills on the outside, several hundred inmates each year acquire degrees in horticulture and the culinary arts. Some, too, are ordained through programs offered by the Baptist Theological Seminary.
My tour with Young took me past most of the working areas of the prison, including the notorious—and now unused—"Red Hat" cellblock, and the modern blocks used for prisoners who could not or would not incorporate themselves into the more inspiring and rehabilitative work that is offered to those who seek some dignity and purpose from inside the gates. Although my interactions with prisoners were extremely limited, I was overwhelmed to encounter the hospice program, and I was grateful to Young for taking the time to come pick up a person like me, an eager but practically un-credentialed drifter, and very happy to be able to leave again for my campsite in the woods.
When I reached my tent, the weather had turned chilly and a ferocious rain began to fall. I thought about what had brought me here, Lead Belly songs like "In the Pines," and the gulf that separated what I'd expected from what I'd found. Angola is not an up-river utopia by any means, and much remains to be said about the injustice of Louisiana's sentencing guidelines and their disproportionate application on African-American convicts. But, with my headlamp on, as I thumbed through a copy of the Angolite—an uncensored, prisoner-run magazine in print since 1976-I came to the back pages, where prisoners submit poems, prayers, and statements both personal and political, and in those words I sensed much hope. Whether that hope comes from a belief in the divine, a newfound love for plants and animals, or the experience of caring for the dying, it cannot be said that this is not a hard-won victory.