Kicks, Curses Part Of ‘Convict Guards' Cruelty

Prisoners watched over by convict guard near old General Hospital, circa 1932. Angolite file photo courtesy of The Times-Picayune
Prisoners watched over by convict guard near old General Hospital, circa 1932. Angolite file photo courtesy of The Times-Picayune

The Item (July 8, 1943) Part 3

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).

 

Have you ever seen a man … a human being … beaten? Have you ever felt it? It goes something like this:

The first blow with the Angola ‘bat' is a searing, hot pain like a hot poker. It strikes maybe in the vicinity of the kidneys, maybe lower. It blinds with its agony … it makes the victim bite his tongue and writhe with its burning sharpness. Then the second, the third and subsequent blows follow, each increasing its hell until it would seem that more cannot be endured and the victim live. The screaming, biting pain is accentuated by the feeling of helplessness; that it must be undergone … either that or death!

And the flesh; at the first blow it becomes livid red. With successive blows it turns a dark, liver-like purple, and then the skin breaks and the man's back becomes a bloody pulp, depending on the number of "licks" he has received. Forty, it may be mentioned, is considered mild. The victim's clothes will only stick to the wounds for a couple of days. Some have had to wear the same trousers for a week or ten days. The record beating—170 lashes—was once administered by "Bad Eye"and two of his satellites to a white man!

Three Times a Day

The others have their turns on the kitchen floor and return to the tables. One, not fast enough in getting his clothes, is spurred by the fists of "John" and his brother, "Jim," and by the feet of "Bad Eye."

This scene was repeated thrice daily: in the morning after breakfast, at noon and at night. In the field, at work, it was a common occurrence for men to be flogged. And the beatings took place amidst such verbal abuse and cursing as would shame the most depraved!

(The records at the prison in these and similar incidents will reflect the following: "John Jones, May 1935, laziness: 15 lashes." "Laziness" might be anything from stopping to roll a cigarette to being physically unable to keep up with a row alongside. And where 15 lashes was the stated whipping, it is safe to assume that three times that number were administered. (Perhaps a latent spark of shame caused the officials to report the lesser number.)

"The Long Line"

A bell clangs … there is a sudden rush for the doors of the dining room. To be laggard or late is to invite a session with the "bat."

"Newcomer" is assigned to work with the "long line," a group of white men numbering about 100.

Outside the yard of the camp, resting against a rack, are hoes for each man. Not your little fancy garden hoe with a turned "neck." These weigh each about two pounds. Their handles are willow poles. They were sharpened when they left the factory, but not since. Files are an unnecessary and expensive evil, the prison management believes. Your hoe may have a fluted edge from long and hard use, but it still must serve its purpose. You have no choice … the tool is not given to you … you must scramble for it yourself in the split second of time allotted for getting tools.

For $2 A Month

A line, four abreast, forms. It strings out along the sandy road. At the rear, front and sides are from 10 to 20 guards … Inmates too … men like "newcomer" who have traded their manhood, have traded in their fellows to become the lick-spittle lackeys of the Angola system at the rate of $2 per month payable at discharge!

What is the qualification, the standard for a convict guard? How is he selected? The question was once put to an officer who had charge of them. He answered: "Well, if a convict has been convicted of murder or rape, he generally makes a good guard. The worst risk is a thief or a robber." And the majority of those who were "guards" … and the system still exists today … are those who have committed murder or some sex crime. They can be "trusted" … the others, assumedly, cannot. Then too, a one-time murderer would not hesitate about killing again, would he?

Only 3 States Use It

There are but three states in the union now using this convict guard system. They are: Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas. It has been argued in defense of the system that the practice originated with the U.S. Army: that soldiers guard soldiers. This blasphemous contention has no parallel with a convict system—there is no high motive for a prisoner to get $2 a month and a shotgun to guard his fellows. He is, instead, guided solely by the desire to escape work in the fields, plus, with some, the authority which accompanies the carrying of a loaded weapon!

(There are cases on record where guards, having been "guaranteed" the monthly stipend, would find themselves, after they had served three or four years as guards, suddenly demoted to the common status, and deprived of their earned pay. It was another manifestation of the "economy" system—to bilk them of the money for which they had sacrificed the last vestige of their honor!)

"Doc's" Mistake

The "long line" shuffles forward. The afternoon's work is on "Monkey Island," a patch of land across the state-owned and convict-built Angola levee. It is overflow land, hundreds of acres of rich soil owned by the United States, yet it annually pours thousands of dollars into the pockets of the prison from crops harvested.

Have you ever seen a sweet-potato vine? And the weed known as a "cockle-burr?" Could you, without experience, tell which was which if both were on a row, and each about four inches high?

Add this to an optical defect, might not it be possible that you would cut down a sweet-potato vine and leave the weed?

"Doc" did. "Doc" was a Yankee. The fact laid him open to persecution from Foreman "Brown" from the start. "Brown" did not like Yankees and especially did not like "Doc." Just a word of description.

Beating in the Field

"Doc" was over 50 years old. About five feet in height and stoop shouldered. His body was a mass of scar tissue resultant from burns suffered when a child. He had been committed for forgery. "Doc" was myopic.

A missed weed here, a cut tomato vine there, was the signal. Out in the open, under the sun, little "Doc" was forced to bare his body … to lie, face down in the dirt, while "John Brown" vented his sadistic fury upon him. He arose bloody, to stagger back to his work.

The file in "Doc's" case is interesting. It shows that during 1934-35 he was beaten not less than ten times for such things as "laziness" and "faking."

"Way to Teach Him"

In desperation, perhaps, General Manager "Smith" wrote to Capt. "Bad Eye" somewhat as follows. "Is there not some way this prisoner can be taught—be shown—that he cannot flout the prison rules with impunity? We must teach him that he cannot fake and be lazy: that he must work."

There was a way. Capt. "Bad Eye" caused two rings to be placed in the ceiling of the lobby of the Camp E building. Strung up by his wrists to these two rings, naked, "Doc" was flogged until almost dead by "Bad Eye" and his cohorts! It will always be a mystery to this writer how any human can endure such punishment and live. The sole explanation is offered: that "Doc" had undergone so much physical torture with his burned body—had been made the guinea-pig of so many skin-graftings and surgery, that he had developed what might be termed as "immunity" to physical pain.

Anthony Franco was a New Orleans boy. He had never seen a farm before he was sentenced to Angola. But that evening he was initiated.

Anthony was a problem that a psychiatrist or even a good doctor could recognize at a glance. Anthony had suffered a bullet wound in the head. He was a little "touched."

But to the kindergarten mentality of "Brown," Anthony was "shamming." He, too, underwent the torture of the "bat," laid on again with an especial vigor because Anthony could not find English words sufficient to beg. He was accused by "Brown" of "toughing it out," and the cries for mercy tumbled from Anthony's dust-choked throat before he was kicked back to work.

 

Next issue: Bugs, Heat, Dirt Give Little Chance To Sleep