Prior to 1835, inmates were housed in a vermin infested jail in New Orleans. In that year the first Louisiana State Penitentiary was built at the corner of 6th and Laurel Streets in Baton Rouge using a plan similar to a prison in Wethersfield, Connecticut. In 1844, the penitentiary, including the inmates, was leased to the private firm of McHatton Pratt and Company. Union Troops occupied the penitentiary during the Civil War, and in 1869 the lease was awarded to a Confederate Major by the name of Samuel James. The James Family would be in charge of the Louisiana Corrections system for the next 31 years.
In 1880, Major James purchased an 8,000-acre plantation in West Feliciana Parish called Angola (named after the area in Africa where the former slaves came from). He began keeping some inmates there at what used to be the Old Slave Quarters, which later became Camp A. (Camp A is no longer used to house inmates.) Primarily, however, inmates worked on levee construction on the Mississippi River outside either Angola or the penitentiary in Baton Rouge. In 1894, Major James died and his son took over the lease. However, the 1890's were years of reform and the public was shocked by newspaper accounts of brutality inflicted upon inmates. On January 1, 1901, the State of Louisiana resumed control of all inmates after 55 years of the lease system.
From 1901 until 1916, Corrections was operated by the Board of Control, a three member panel appointed by the Governor of Louisiana. One of the first things the board did was to purchase the 8,000 acre Angola Plantation at $25.00 per acre, a total cost of $200,000. New camps were built and many new security officers were hired. Brutality toward inmates was stopped and the death rate among inmates was reduced by 72%. However, the floods of 1903 and 1912 ruined the crops and put Angola in economic chaos.
In 1916, the legislature abolished the Board of Control and appointed Henry L. Fuqua as General Manager of the penitentiary. Mr. Fuqua, as an economic measure, fired almost all of the security officers at Angola and in their place put selected inmate trusty guards. In 1918, the old penitentiary in Baton Rouge was sold to the city and was soon torn down. In addition, he did away with convict stripes (the old black and white uniforms). In 1922, another flood at Angola ruined not only the crops at Angola, but also the crops of adjoining plantations. This was the third time in 20 years and the owners were ready to sell. In a series of eight purchases in a year and a half, Henry Fuqua purchased 10,000 acres of land at approximately $13.00 per acre. This brought Angola to its present size of 18,000 acres.
The era of Huey P. Long and the Great Depression were hard times, not only for the state, but for Corrections as well. The budget was drastically reduced, convict stripes were returned and Angola generally fell into disrepair. Angola was all but forgotten while the state concerned itself with the depression and World War II.
In 1952 a Minden, Louisiana, Judge by the name of Robert Kennon based his campaign for governor on the need to clean up Angola. This had been brought to light when 31 inmates cut their Achilles' tendon as protest to the hard work and brutality. After the election, Governor Kennon made good on his campaign promises. The Main Prison Complex was completed in 1955, convict stripes were eliminated for the last time, and renovations were completed on various camps. Women inmates were first moved to a new camp on Angola, and then in 1961, they were moved away from Angola to St. Gabriel, Louisiana. This was a period of massive reform.
In 1961, the Corrections' budget was drastically reduced and a period of decline began. During the late 1960's, Angola became known as "The Bloodiest Prison in the South" due to the number of inmate assaults.
After his election in 1972, Governor Edwin Edwards appointed Elayn Hunt as Director of Corrections. She had long been known as an advocate for prison reform. Under her direction, massive reform began. Judge E. Gordon West issued a court order which demanded that Angola's conditions be improved. Mrs. Hunt eliminated the hated "Trusty Guard System" and the number of security guards nearly quadrupled over the next eight years. Mrs. Hunt died in February 1976, but her work continued through her assistant C. Paul Phelps, who was named Secretary of the Department of Corrections in 1976. Four new camps were constructed and major renovations were completed on others. For the first time, meaningful rehabilitative efforts were made and medical care was improved.
Under the administration of the Secretary of the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections, James LeBlanc, Angola's improvements continue today. In January 1994, Angola achieved initial accreditation from the American Correctional Association (ACA) and has since maintained ACA accreditation. Accreditation is a recognized credential in identifying an entity as stable, safe and constitutional. ACA accreditation forms the foundation of operations at Angola and is a continuing catalyst for positive growth and change. After initial ACA accreditation, Angola then began to build upon this operational foundation through independent ACA accreditation of its training academy and health care program. This required Angola to not only meet the national standards for adult correctional institutions, but also the additional standards developed specifically for correctional training academies and performance-based health care standards for adult institutions. Both bids for independent accreditation were successful. The David C. Knapps Correctional Officer Training Academy received initial accreditation in January 2002, becoming the eighth accredited correctional training facility in the United States. The R. E. Barrow, Jr., Treatment Center received initial accreditation through performance-based health care standards in January 2003.
Secretary Stalder and Angola's current Warden, Burl Cain, continue the pursuit of physical plant improvements, as evidenced by the renovations of Cellblocks A and B at the Main Prison, Jaguar Cellblock at Camp C, and Raven Cellblock at Camp D. New construction includes the multi-purpose arena, Camp D chapel, and the Judge Henry A. Politz Education Building at the Main Prison. Numerous other service and program enhancements are ongoing under the leadership of Warden Cain.
Louisiana citizens also have the unique opportunity to actually "visit" Angola's past by stopping by the Angola Museum. The museum, which was established in 1998 by Warden Cain, is dedicated to preserving Angola's history. The museum has become an official tourist site in the parish and serves as a resource for information on the state's correctional system.