(COVINGTON, La.) — The much anticipated annual St. Paul’s junior class Angola trip arrived steadily as juniors boarded the bus for the two-hour ride to the maximum security prison on March 23-24, 2017. For each of those two days, half of the class participated in a retreat, while the other half traveled to the prison. At the prison, students got to experience what life in Angola is like, and got to witness the background stories of some of the inmates and hear their advice on life.
“There are two purposes for us to go to Angola,” junior Luc Hebert said. “The first is for us to see the inner workings of a prison so we can steer clear of wrongdoings. The second is for us to have an opportunity to put ourselves in an inmate’s shoes which will, hopefully, help us to feel some empathy for them.”
Almost immediately after arriving, the students were guided to an Alamo-themed church where they were talked to by two inmates. They learned their stories and the mistakes they made that led them to Angola.
The students then made their way to the “Red Hat.” To many, this was one of the most disturbing places in Angola. This tiny building served as the old death row and execution chamber. Only the meanest and dirtiest of criminals made it here. It consisted of a small building holding two musty, cement rooms. The first one held the cells of the death row inmates. Each cell was the size of a very small room with a cement bench in the corner and a metal toilet on the wall. Each one looked like it was meant to hold one person, but they actually held ten or fifteen at a time.
The next room was a dank, depressing room that served one purpose: execution. A large wooden chair was seated in the middle of the room; this was a replica, of course, of the famed electric chair they called “Gruesome Gertie.”
“As we walked through the Red Hat, all I could think is how did people actually live in here,” junior Patrick Guidry said. “The cells were the size of a small closet; they looked barely big enough to fit two people, but guard told us they use to fit fifteen people.”
“So, going into the Red Hat, it was a very Spartan place and it’s sort of eerie when you walk through. It evokes feelings that this is a prison where people have been mistreated, and it makes you feel sympathetic for prisoners when you see that they have been treated so inhumanely,” junior Forge Mathes said.
Next, the tour bus drove to the stables, where the guards keep and raise their horses. What stood out was a gigantic brown horse that drew the students towards it as it towered over them. The guards explained that type of horse was bred for jousting in the Medieval times.
“My favorite part was the horses we got to see,” said junior Adam Moennich. “That was pretty cool.”
The next stop was the trustee camp, which housed the most trusted prisoners, but also the execution chamber. This one was not as dreary and depressing as the last one though. The room for prisoner’s last meal held a large, grand table and promised the prisoner any meal he wanted before he was executed.
The next room was not so nice. The actual execution room was quaint and held the execution bench in the middle. This was surrounded by windows on one side for an audience, the family, to watch. The atmosphere of the room was quite intimidating. It was almost as if the presence of death could be felt in the air. Some students, more than others, felt this as one junior fainted unexpectedly during the execution presentation. This caused a stir as the students around him struggled to get him back up.
“The execution room was a place where people have actually died, and the government is murdering people,” junior Forge Mathes said. “You can see how powerful this place is that (the student) actually passed out under the immense pressure of the people that have died there. It’s an emotional trip, and it really makes you sympathetic for those killed.”
As the bus was heading out, it drove past what looked like a dog sanctuary. The guide explained how dogs are bred and trained there, but not just any dogs. They breed German shepherds and wolves together in order to produce the perfect guard dog.
As the bus left for the two-hour journey home, many students felt they hadn’t seen enough and wanted to get the complete Angola experience. They wanted to see more of the compound and witness the tougher criminals behind the walls of Angola.
“I liked Angola quite a bit, but I was kind of disappointed that we didn’t get to see more prisoners and more of the inside of the prison,” junior Adam Moennich said. “I didn’t like how we were on the bus most of the time.”
The Angola retreat was altogether a unique experience for the junior class. Some felt it more than others, but they all got to experience what life on the inside was like.