Thursday, June 02, 2011
Angola (the Prison, not the Country)
It appears that I'm gearing up to do some more posts on the criminal justice system here in Louisiana and some of the cases that highlight it's...shall we say...peculiarity? I realize that it's not just Louisiana. I recently watched "Conviction", for example, the movie released just last fall about Kenny Waters, who did eighteen years on a life sentence for a robbery/murder he didn't commit. The payoff of $3.4 million came, of course, but eight years after Waters died of head injuries sustained in a 15-foot fall that occurred when he was taking a short cut on the way to his brother's house for dinner six months after his release. He had earlier said he was suffering from anxiety attacks, but the fall was considered an accident. Still, we'll never know.
This weekend, I'll be viewing "American Violet", the fictionalized account of the real life case of Regina Kelly, a single mother who took on and beat the District Attorneys in Hearne, Texas, after 28 innocent African-Americans were arrested for dealing drugs there. This was only a year after the infamous Tulia, Texas, case, by the way, wherein 15% of the local Black population was arrested for drug dealing, subsequently sharing a six million dollar settlement because, yet again, it was all a big, orchestrated lie.
Still, my focus currently, aside from the on-going saga of the Angola 3, is on a couple of cases about which I've become more recently aware. The first I can't write about until I have a conversation with the man's family, which I'm trying to do. The second is described in a book I'm almost finished reading, after which I intend to make a trip to New Orleans to sit down with the exonerated man himself. All this, and I'm planning another trip up to visit Albert Woodfox (one of the Angola 3) this month, as well.
If you've been a Faithful Reader for a while, you already know I've been neck-deep in one aspect of the prison abolition movement or another since 1971. Sometimes I marvel at how our lives unfold. We don't realize what's happening at the time and then decades later, we can't imagine doing anything else.
While I'm finishing the book and waiting for my calls to be returned, I thought I'd better signal you what I'm up to and maybe give you a little backstory about the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola for future reference.
Angola (named for the African country where so many slaves apparently came from) was first established as a plantation with a woodyard and a sawmill by Isaac Franklin, a slave trader and planter in 1840. Three additional plantations located immediately adjacent to Angola were added to it when the whole package was sold to Confederate Major Samuel James in 1880, ten years after James first leased the land from Franklin's widow and moved convicts there by steamboat up the Mississippi.
"Leased" convicts, of course, were the first "temp" workers. The one leasing them didn't have to pay them or give them any benefits beyond the barest subsistence, if that, and they could be required to do the most egregious, back-breaking, mind-numbing and even dangerous labor imaginable from dark to dark in any kind of weather for a flat fee payment to whomever was leasing them out (in this case, the state of Louisiana).
Ordinary slaves might cost something at the outset, but prisoners did not. So for no capital investment at all (past fatback and grits), the lessor would be clearing major money from day one and for every subsequent day thereafter. And since, in this case, the lessor was the same entity that was "bringing criminals to justice," there was a veritable pipeline of free labor guaranteed because more men convicted of a crime (whether innocent or guilty) meant more money to be made. And the lessee, needless to say, was paying far less than the going rate for labor. So it was a win-win situation for those White folks with the land and the power, while vast pools of predominantly Black men -- often given long sentences for petty crimes or no crime at all -- endlessly processed into the system. What a deal.
This convict leasing system, by the way, was first implemented in Louisiana in 1844, twenty years before the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery, became law. It was, it would seem, the Plan B put in place in case the Civil War was lost by the South. Black men would go from being slaves to being "criminals" (Jim Crow made sure of that) and could just stay right on the plantation without a hitch.
In his book, Politics and Punishment: The History of the Lousiana State Penal System, Mark Carleton calls the convict leasing system in the period from 1880 to 1901 "the most cynical, profit-oriented and brutal prison regime in Louisiana history." While prisoners and share-croppers worked side by side at Angola raising and processing cotton and other produce, cutting timber, and working in homes or on the levees, Samuel James became arguably the richest man in Louisiana. He spent much time in Europe and was the President of the Pickwick Club, New Orleans' leading men's club, for years until his death in 1894.
Conditions only became worse after James' death, with more than one hundred convicts a year dying at Angola until the State stepped in and took over officially in 1901. We can only assume that it was the loss of revenue from the deaths of those 732 prisoners during that time that caused the State to decide they'd better run things themselves.
Eventually, the State of Louisiana purchased the property from the James family, removed the remaining free Blacks and sharecroppers, and expanded the prison to its present area of 18,000 acres, trading out sugar cane for cotton as the primary crop. Today, more than three-fourths of the prison population at Angola is still Black and that same proportion is serving life sentences without parole. And there you have it. Slavery By Another Name.