Posts Tagged ‘angola’
The New Orleans Times-Picayune has an excellent series on how Louisiana became the world’s leading jailer. The eight-part series begins with these sobering stats:
Louisiana is the world’s prison capital. The state imprisons more of its people, per head, than any of its U.S. counterparts. First among Americans means first in the world. Louisiana’s incarceration rate is nearly triple Iran’s, seven times China’s and 10 times Germany’s. …
One in 86 adult Louisianians is doing time, nearly double the national average. Among black men from New Orleans, one in 14 is behind bars; one in seven is either in prison, on parole or on probation. Crime rates in Louisiana are relatively high, but that does not begin to explain the state’s No. 1 ranking, year after year, in the percentage of residents it locks up.
In Louisiana, a two-time car burglar can get 24 years without parole. A trio of drug convictions can be enough to land you at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola for the rest of your life.
Louisiana’s Angola state prison has long been among the country’s most notorious and iconic correctional institutions. Historian David Oshinsky — who knows notorious Southern prisons from his research on Mississippi’s Parchman Farm — summed up the symbolic value of Angola in a recent book review for the New York Times. (The book under review is Wilbert Rideau’s new memoir, In the Place of Justice.) The review opens:
An hour’s drive northwest from Baton Rouge sits the Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as Angola, the largest maximum security prison in the United States. On the site of a former slave plantation, it currently houses close to 5,000 inmates and covers more ground, at 18,000 acres, than the island of Manhattan. Surrounded on three sides by the Mississippi River, its stunning physical isolation and distinctive antebellum feel have provided the backdrop for numerous feature films and documentaries, including “Dead Man Walking,” “Monster’s Ball” and “The Farm.” For Southerners, especially African-Americans, Angola is both a prison and a state of mind, a relic from before the civil rights era, when white supremacy was the custom and racial segregation was the law.
Since the mid-1970s, when the federal courts stepped in, many of Angola’s worst abuses have been discontinued, and violence among inmates has fallen. Today inmates have the option of enrolling in a full, four-year seminary program — even though most are serving life sentences and will never be preachers on the outside, they run “inmate churches” whose congregations add up to over half the prison population. Just this past weekend, USA Today held up Angola as a national model for its programs aimed at helping inmates become better fathers. (See Solitary Watch for a skeptical take on all this.) Yet traces of the the old Angola persist: in the three inmates who’ve spent the last 37 years in solitary confinement; in the annual spectacle of the Angola prison rodeo; and in all the other prisons and jails around the state that are crowded and mean places. Louisiana’s juvenile jails do not meet national standards (although new legislation would seek to change that); the overcrowded Caddo Parish jail has recently agreed to a federal audit; and New Orleans is tussling with the ACLU over how big the new jail it’s building ought to be.
According to the Sentencing Project, Louisiana has the highest per capita incarceration rate in the nation — and, therefore, in the world — at 853 per 100,000 citizens. For black Louisianans, that figure is a staggering 2,452 per 100,000 (although shocking as it is, this is actually in the middle of the range for states by black incarceration rate; Wisconsin, for instance, incarcerates 4,416 per 100,000 of its black citizens). By way of comparison, the United States in total incarcerates 751 per 100,000 citizens; Russia incarcerates 627 per 100,000; China incarcerates 119 per 100,000; and most countries in Western Europe, as well as Canada and Australia, incarcerate somewhere in the range of 75 – 150 per 100,000. John McQuaid recently observed that “since Europeans first settled there 300 years ago, Louisiana has borne the brunt of catastrophic misjudgments over exploitation of the land and natural resources.” As a descendant of Europeans who settled in Louisiana, I have shared in Louisianans’ rage at the federal government’s dilatory response to Katrina and BP’s cavalier disregard for Gulf Coast wildlife and livelihoods. Catastrophic misjudgments imposed from without have not been the only source of Louisianans’ suffering.
Check out yesterday’s NPR Fresh Air interview with Wilbert Rideau, who reinvented himself as a journalist while serving 44 years in Louisiana’s Angola state prison, and has now published a memoir. Rideau was initially convicted of murder, but on his fourth re-trial, he was convicted of manslaughter and released on time served. Yesterday’s segment included both a new interview and a replay of an interview from 1992. The interviews touch on a range of topics, including Southern “judicial lynching” practices of the 1960s, solitary confinement, prison rape, violence, and drug trafficking, the need for job training and rehabilitation programs, and the role of books in Rideau’s life. Note that the link also includes audio from Rideau’s dispatches for NPR when he served as Fresh Air‘s “prison correspondent” in the early 1990s.
Here’s an excerpt from the transcript of yesterday’s interview about reforms to Louisiana prison conditions in the 1990s:
The actor William Hurt spent the night at Louisiana’s (in)famous Angola state prison as research for his role in the new film “The Yellow Handkerchief.” Hurt plays an oil rigger who goes on a road trip in post-Katrina Louisiana after he’s released from prison, where he was serving time on a manslaughter charge. Terry Gross interviewed Hurt about the film on today’s episode of Fresh Air; you can listen to the interview or read the transcript at the NPR website. Here’s Hurt’s description of his night at Angola:
GROSS: So would you describe what it felt like to be in this small maximum-security cell?
Mr. HURT: Claustrophobic isn’t the word. It’s much worse. I didn’t think that I was uncomfortable most of the night. I was preoccupied with my companion, and the bed has about an inch-and-a-half-thick mattress on sheer steel. The toilet has no soft seat. The floor is marbleized concrete. It’s horrible. It’s unthinkable. … Read the rest of this entry »
Strange as it may sound — after all, when it comes to prison litigation, inmates are usually the ones suing the state — that’s the headline of this Solitary Watch report. Triggered by a death row prisoner’s earlier lawsuit challenging Louisiana’s execution procedures under state law, the state’s countersuit is a preemptive move to try to keep any more death row inmates from doing the same:
The Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections last Friday sued every inmate on death row, in an effort to block any one of them from challenging the state’s lethal injection procedures. Each of the 84 prisoners in the “death house” at Angola State Penitentiary was personally served papers in the suit, said Nick Trenticosta, who has represented numerous clients on Angola’s death row.
Trenticosta, who is also director of the non-profit Center for Equal Justice in New Orleans, knows of no other instance in which a state sued its death row inmates en masse over legal questions relating to their execution. “I’ve been hanging around death penalty cases for 25 years,” Trenticosta said in a phone interview this morning, “and I have never seen anything like this.”
This case will probably make headlines because of ongoing litigation around the country regarding lethal injection procedures, but I wonder if it might have ramifications beyond the death penalty context: Will states start using preemptive countersuits to keep inmates from challenging their conditions of confinement, too? Is there any precedent for this, or has Louisiana stumbled upon a totally novel litigation technique? As always, readers who know more are invited to leave comments.