Ex - Inmate Tells Of Brutalities

Inside old Camp-E barracks, circa 1940. Angolite file photo
Inside old Camp-E barracks, circa 1940. Angolite file photo

The Item (July 6, 1943) Part 1

By "Wooden Ear"

(Editor's Note—The bite of the lash into agonized flesh, screams of brutalized culprits, the death of a New Orleans business man whose soft body could not withstand the sudden change to hard labor in the fields—these and scores of other shocking incidents of the penal system of Angola are reported in the following series of articles by a former inmate, now working in a respectable job. Names and dates in the original story have been changed. The Item, believing the incidents to be accurately reported, prints the series as a public service with the thought that the people, being informed, will not permit such conditions to reoccur).

 

Murder, mayhem and savagery. Brutality, filth and starvation. Legal "killings" and criminal negligence. This story runs the gamut of all these.

It is not a tale for the chicken-hearted. It rivals many things told of the current war's horrors.

But it is told now, while Louisiana is still on the threshold of another political campaign, with the intent that what has happened shall never, by the grace of God and the power of the ballot, happen again.

This is the story of Angola—the penal farm of your state—which is tucked away in the backyard of West Feliciana parish, bordering the Mississippi line.

Angola, the erstwhile "hell" of 3000 convicts—slaves of a system of boodle, graft, corruption and worse, the like of which has probably had no parallel since medieval days. (Incidentally, I was deafened by brutality while I was an inmate there.)

For the sake of record, let it be written here that this is not an attempt to whitewash any of those who were unfortunate enough to have been sentenced for crime by exposing the conditions under which they were forced to serve. The law says a penitentiary is necessary; let that suffice.

But not murder! Not maiming! Not the loss of a hand, a foot, both eyes … merely that the prison may continue as an appropriation-free entity.

Not slavery … worse than that of the darkest days "before the war." Not back-breaking, unremitting, thankless toil with death at the end of it for many!

This is a plea that these conditions may not be permitted again from the inarticulate thousands who have undergone them … a plea that the wrath of public opinion will demand of those in authority conformance to the biblical "unto the least of us those … ."

Hundreds of those who read these paragraphs will attest to the truth; that this is not fiction. Scores of those who have been maimed, in mind and body, by the "Angola system" will verify what is written here.

The beginning of this story could be started with almost any event at Angola from 1928 to 1935, or earlier.

For the purpose of chronology it is started with a statement alleged to have been made by a Louisiana statesman, now dead, during one of his numerous political campaigns.

"I could take the prisoners of Angola and board and lodge them cheaper in a Baton Rouge hotel than in the penitentiary," he is quoted as having said.

Whereupon the politician, who was then the virtual fuehrer of Louisiana, proceeded with typical forthrightness to eliminate this eyesore to the body politic—proceeded to make Angola a place of profit, not loss.

Named to the job as general manager at the penitentiary, and given carte blanche, was a man who, for the purpose of this story, shall be known as "Smith."

A "Corporation"

Few know even now that the penitentiary was a separate entity—a ‘corporation' unique in any state's annals, prior to 1940.

It is said that "Smith," upon taking over the managership, found that salaries were unpaid; that methods of farming and accounting were slip-shod; that extravagance was rampant. With the directness of a zealot, "Smith" set about to plug the leaks.

The statesman, however, had been misled about Angola as he was about many other things. He had been told that the per diem cost of maintaining a prisoner was, say, 40 cents per day. The actual cost, from a search of the records by this writer, was but a fraction of this figure. Vegetables and meat, grown and raised at Angola, were "billed" to the state at an arbitrary figure which was several times the actual cost.

Where did the difference between "markup" and cost go? Into the pockets of the political oligarchy then in power, some say!

Twenty-thousand acres of land, most of which was in a high state of cultivation, was what the new general manager found. He also found 3,000 slaves—convicts—to carry on the work.

With no taxes to pay, no salaries for labor, why couldn't Angola pay for itself?

The era had started. The era of murder, graft, corruption, maimings and brutality, all to the end that Angola might become self-supporting—a financial pride to the state, but a dark and sinister blot which literally dripped with the blood of its victims!

What little machinery there was at Angola at the time "Smith" took over, was run-down and in disrepair. The few implements were broken, patched and makeshift. But there was no need for the many "labor-saving" devices of the modern farm … not with 3000 slaves.

A policy of penny-pinching was inaugurated. Records seen by this writer reflect that a requisition for a 75-cent alarm clock was turned down by "Smith" with this notation: "What happened to the clock bought three years ago? Use it!"

Likewise, when a prison truck, patched with bailing wire, needed a new gear, "Smith" wrote: "I have seen lots of gears in the prison junk pile. Get one of those and make it fit."

"Make it go" became the motto, the slogan and by-word; make it go whether by blood, by flesh or by tears. "Make it go" and put a few more dollars into the bank. Profits must continue. Convicts come free from the district courts in ever-increasing numbers, but mules and machinery and repairs cost money, and Angola must pay its own way.

Make Them Work More!

Laziness … slacking up on the job … was not to be condoned. There was a cure for the "slacker" … the prison "bat"—the lash, and it was to be used unstintingly. The order came from the main office to "tighten up" in the fields, the men must be made to work more!

Cultivation, too, must be pushed. Where plant-cane was growing, the top of the row above the cane was to be used for radishes and spinach, the middle of the rows for potatoes and other crops. Let no hour or foot of ground be wasted.

Food, both of man and beast, was curtailed drastically. Where the surplus of the farm eventually reached the kitchens, now even this was halted. Only cull vegetables, which could neither be canned nor shipped for sale, were to be fed to the convicts.

The era of brutality had begun!

Striped cloth, black and white like an awning, was made into cloth for prisoners at the time "Smith" took charge. The cloth was reasonably soft … warm in winter. But "Smith" quickly substituted a cheaper 8-ounce white cotton duck, unbleached.

Where a convict, at discharge, had been given a three-piece suit and leather shoes, "Smith" substituted a two-piece suit of 1917 vintage bought, some said, at a bankrupt stock sales, and a pair of canvas shoes. Negroes were given overalls.

Crowded, 400 Get Out

And when a heavy surplus of population threatened to make necessary the building of new prison camps, "Smith" is said to have gone to the governor with a plea that 400 be released—furloughed to their homes—as an economy measure.

More than 400 were freed in this manner. Where it had cost the penitentiary $10 and a suit of clothes when the man was discharged, now it cost nothing. Most of those released were "short-termers," with but a few weeks or months left to serve. By releasing him on a "furlough" the prison saved the cost of both suit and release money—the man received nothing!

A mail-glut of letters to parents, wives, kinfolk followed the "furlough" edict. Many of them, already hard hit by the Depression received heart-rending pleas from the prisoner to bend every effort, send him clothes and railroad fare to leave the hell that was Angola!

This was part of the "saving" which brought Angola out of the red—which kept the taxpayer's dollar intact—under the regime of the statesman!

Nor was it ever necessary to purchase seed for crops. "Smith" contracted with a Chicago firm which specialized in the merchandizing of pre-season vegetables.

The Chicago company furnished the seed and fertilizer, Angola the land and slaves. Northern tables received radishes in February, spinach in March, carrots and other roots in April, tomatoes, onions and potatoes in May. And to evade the U.S. statutes regarding shipment out of the state of convict-made goods, each crate or box of produce bore the label of the Chicago firm, grown and packed at "Golan, Louisiana."

Thousands of dollars rolled in from the sale of crops in this manner. In one instance, a convict guard, who had been a salesman prior to his incarceration, was sent by "Smith" to St. Louis and Cincinnati to see if he could better the prices of the Chicago firm if the penitentiary shipped the produce direct!

Northerners who ate the vegetables, could not in their wildest fancy, have pictured a scene like this: It is February, the chill, cold February of middle Louisiana.

Old Man River—the Mississippi—is on the rampage again and is rising. It is already two-feet deep over a patch of spinach.

A Carload of Beatings

A telephone order from "Smith" in Baton Rouge calls for a carload of the greens for the Chicago firm.

Into the biting wind before dawn trudge a group of convicts. They wade through a bayou of icy water to where the spinach is hidden by the coffee-colored swirl. They pull unseeingly, with numb hands, spurred on by blows from a stick in the hands of the cursing foreman. They work until the sky is dark at night.

The carload is shipped. The money is banked.

It matters not that 15 men went to work the next day with fevers and incipient pneumonia. It mattered not that there was no medicine, no hospitalization for the sufferers!

Let us turn the page to June, a few years later, with a description of what comprises Angola:

Camp A is a Negro unit; it has a population of 500 men. The building is a shabby, wooden affair, overrun by vermin. Camp B has 200 Nergo men and has just been constructed of wood. Camp E : Negro, 350 men. Camp D: Negro and white female, 150. Camp E: white, 500 men. Camp F: Negro, 350 men. Camp G: white, 350 men. Camp H: Negro and white men, 150. Camp I: Negro, 350 men. Camp M, located 16 miles below Baton Rouge at St. Gabriel, contains 350 Negro men. All of the camps listed but Camp M are situated in West Feliciana Parish.

And with the exception of Camps E and G, all of the buildings are of wood, some many years old, almost all highly unsanitary and in varying stages of rot and disrepair.

Next issue: Slow workers scream as 'The Bat' goes to work