An 8,000-acre plot of land between New Orleans, Louisiana and Natchez, Mississippi was purchased in 1880 by Confederate Major Samuel James. It was named Angola for the country of origin of the slaves that worked the land shaped by the Mississippi River. Once the existing prisons in New Orleans and Baton Rouge became old and overcrowded, Louisiana State Penitentiary was established.
The prisoners sent here were housed in the former slave quarters and worked through the convict leasing program. It was essentially the same as slave labor, continuing the building of levees, picking crops, and manufacturing bale rope and bags. People would get arrested on small charges just to get used as workers. This practice of penal labor earned the prisons a profit until a flood destroyed the fields. Convict leasing started in Louisiana in 1844 but was common throughout the South. It ended in the 1900s.
Inside the walls, conditions were brutal. Riots and assaults were commonplace and the prison earned the nickname Alcatraz of the South. There was some reform over the years, but the Great Depression and World War II left the prison system with little money for the people considered the lowest in society. In 1956, a group of inmates cut their Achilles’ tendons in protest of the work and conditions called the Heel String Gang. Charlie Frazier committed a well-known escape in 1917 and another group had a failed attempt in 1999. There was even an incident where the warden and his mother were kidnapped by inmates.
Additional land was purchased for the prison in the mid-1920s, reaching its current size of 18,000 acres. It’s not America’s largest maximum security prison and is spread across multiple camps. The inmates come from all over the state and the majority will remain here until their deaths. A few of the past prisoners were famous, including Tejano musician Freddy Fender and Red Sox player Pinky Higgins. Angola has also been used as a filming location for movies like JFK, Monster’s Ball, and Dead Man Walking, which was based on a book about real events at this prison.
But LSP has a number of outreach programs, including church services, counseling for veterans, an inmate newspaper, and the famous Angola Prison Rodeo. It’s an annual event where the inmates are the performers but also sell their crafts made behind bars like license plate ashtrays and picture frames made from cigarette cartons. The event takes place every April and October and tickets go fast.
In the 1990s, major reforms were brought to the prison, specifically in the area of medical care. In 1998, the Louisiana State Penitentiary Museum was established to preserve prison history and to be a resource for info on the state correctional system. It’s one of the only prison museums in the nation to be located within an active prison.
Inside the museum are some unique artifacts from LSP’s history, including the retired electric chair and shivs taken from prisoners. Convicted murderer Richard Ligett even made coffins for Ruth and Billy Graham and another area showcases a carriage used for inmate funerals. Another exhibit focuses on the rodeo, including the mounted head of Guts and Glory, the bull used for over 15 years, and information on three-time rodeo champ Johnny Brooks. It contains the Louisiana Justice Hall of Fame and historic register protected buildings like the Red Hat cell block, built in 1935. It’s even staffed by former prisoners.
Like any good museum, there’s also a gift shop which sells hats with the letters LSP on it, while t-shirts jokingly refer to Angola as a “gated community.” They even sell inmate-made crafts like ashtrays constructed from Louisiana license plates.
For its remote location and dark content, the Angola Prison Museum receives a surprising 120,000 visitors a year from around the world. For comparison, Mardi Gras World in New Orleans, one of the city’s top attractions, gets 200,000 annual visitors. Alcatraz, another historic prison built 40 years before Angola, gets 1.4 million per year.
It’s not uncommon to see bus tours stopped in front of the small museum including from local schools and the American Queen Steamboat that docks nearby. Otherwise, you’ll have to rent a car from New Orleans and make the over two-hour drive. The museum certainly focuses on a not-so-pretty part of our society but is important to learn about, especially since Louisiana has the highest rate of incarceration of any state. Inmates are still Americans and their stories are worth telling.