Louisiana State Penitentiary, nicknamed Angola, is the largest maximum-security prison in the United States. The sprawling 28-acre facility houses 6,300 inmates in a series of prisons, called “camps.”
The prison is featured on Dateline NBC in its new series, “Justice for All,” airing at 10/9C Friday September 6, 2019. NBC’s Lester Holt spend two days in the prison, speaking with inmates, sleeping and working alongside them.
The prison was built on a former slave plantation. Inmates assigned to the fields pick fruits and vegetables for the prison. It’s the worst job in the prison, inmate Javonte Sanders said on the show. Read more about Sanders here.
The disturbing revelation of inmates, who are mostly black, working in fields on a former slave plantation isn’t the only surprise behind bars at the Louisiana State Penitentiary. The prison also hosts an annual rodeo where inmates have the opportunity to play cowboys every year during the Angola Prison Rodeo.
Angola was once called “The Bloodiest Prison in the World.” After decades of reform, it has improved but still has far to go. There are ongoing lawsuits regarding “cruel and unusual punishment” at the prison due to excessive heat and insufficient medical care, the lawsuits allege.
“Louisiana’s made a lot of changes,” Holt said in an interview with Jimmy Fallon. “They confronted the idea that what were doing – locking up more people than any other state – wasn’t working by itself. So they passed different laws to reduce incarceration levels.”
He says the prison got its nickname from Angola, the African nation many enslaved people called home.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Some Inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary Work In Fields on a Former Slave Plantation
An unsettling scene unfolds on Dateline NBC as the camera pans to show inmates, who are mostly black, doing hard labor in a field as armed guards on horseback patrol the rows of crops. It’s made more disturbing after learning the field was part of a former slave plantation.
“I certainly can’t escape the optics,” Holt said on a voiceover. “Look around – mostly black men working on a former slave plantation under the watch of armed guards on horseback.”
A prison official acknowledged the optics in an interview with Holt, but said there was a benefit to the job. The food the prisoners pick isn’t outsourced, but goes back into the prison. Holt also noted on an interview with Jimmy Fallon that almost any farmland in Louisiana was a former plantation.
“I can see where someone would have an issue with it,” the prison official said. “At least when they’re working the field growing vegetables it’s something that’s giving back to the prison itself.”
Working the fields is considered the worst job in the prison, Sanders told Holt.
“This is like the bottom of the barrel,” he said. “The field? Nobody wants to be in the field.”
Holt also said working in the field was the prison’s toughest job during his interview with Jimmy Fallon.
“That’s the lowest job at the prison, working in the fields. The weather can be tough, and obviously it’s manual labor.”
2. A Lawsuit Alleging ‘Abysmal’ Conditions at Angola & ‘Grossly Deficient’ Medical Care Is Ongoing
A class-action lawsuit filed in 2015 regarding “abysmal” conditions at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, and highlighting “grossly deficient” medical care is in negotiations.
The Advocate reported July 30, 2019, that attorneys for the inmates met with a Baton Rouge federal magistrate, but the two parties could not reach an agreement to settle. The large prison population consists of many elderly inmates, some of whom have chronic diseases. The Earl K. Long Medical Center in Baton Rouge previously treated inmates with medical emergencies, but that hospital closed in 2013.
A lawsuit is also ongoing over extremely hot conditions in the prison, especially on death row. The Advocate reported on a study which found cases of self-harm spike in the prison during the hottest summer months.
3. Angola Has its Own Radio Show, With an Inmate Radio Host & an Inmate-Produced News Magazine
The Louisiana State Penitentiary has its own inmate-produced media. KLSP, Hot 91.7 is the only prison radio station in the country.
“You’re tuned into KLSP, Hot 91.7, your incarceration station, the only one in the nation, the station that kicks behind the bricks,” radio host “Big Shaq” said on the radio show.
“Big Shaq” interviewed NBC’s Dan Slepian about the show before Holt began his time between bars.
The prison also has its own news publication, The Angolite. It is produced and edited by inmates in the prison.
4. Louisiana State Penitentiary Hosts a Controversial Angola Prison Rodeo
The Louisiana State Penitentiary has an unorthodox event called the Angola Prison Rodeo, where inmates have a chance to play cowboys for a day. Tickets are sold to the public for $20. The rodeo was started more than five decades ago. It is held one weekend in April and every Sunday in October.
The event website calls it “The Wildest Show in the South” at the prison “once known as ‘The Bloodiest Prison in the World.'”
The website says:
Today, rain or shine, the event draws more than 70,000 people annually during events held on the third weekend of April and the traditional every Sunday in October. Spectators from all walks of life from nearly all corners of the globe come to hear great inmate bands, sample authentic Cajun and regional foods such as boudin, crawfish and cracklins, shop affordable, high quality arts and crafts from over 800 inmate artists, and tour the massive 18,000 acre prison farm known for its cotton, wheat and corn fields.
Finally, they enjoy a professionally run, nail biting, gut wrenching rodeo featuring events like Convict Poker (four inmates sit motionless holding a deck of cards at a table while a 2,000 pound bull attempts to intimidate them to throw their hands as he “clears” the table). Guts and Glory features inmate participants on foot attempt to pull a poker chip from between a huge bull’s horns before a three minute timer signals the event is over – and the inmates do get airborne!
There is a waiting list of inmates who want to perform in the rodeo for a chance to win money, according to The Guardian.
In 2017, a 13-year-old girl reported to police she was raped by an inmate. The man was identified as a prisoner serving a life sentence for murder, according to the Daily News.
5. Angola Prison Museum Preserves History of ‘The Bloodiest Prison in the World
The Angola Museum, funded by the Louisiana State Penitentiary Foundation, is a museum preserving the history of the largest state penitentiary in the country. The prison has a blighted past, once known as “the bloodiest prison in the world.” It was nicknamed Angola, taking on the name of the plantation on which it was built. The plantation and the prison got their names from the African nation many enslaved people called home.
“The Angola Museum strives to preserve the past by facilitating the exhibition of factual historical events, honoring all progress made through corrections, rehabilitation, and criminal justice, and educating the future through contributions to our understanding and dialogue on corrections, criminal justice, and its past through innovative and engaging programming,” the website says.