(ANGOLA, La.) — Louisiana State Penitentiary, famously known as Angola, has been a maximum security prison operated by the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections since 1975. However, the prison has a deeper history that not many know about.
The name Angola originated from the plantation the territory occupied before a prison was built there. The plantation was named this because many slaves from the country of Angola worked in bondage there. Slave trader Isaac Franklin first purchased the land the plantation was located on in the 1830s. It opened as a state prison in 1901.
The state government was not willing to offer ample funds to support the prison, resulting in poor living and working conditions. The prison was reportedly not well run or operated. About ten inmates at the prison were stabbed by fellow inmates every year due to racial tensions throughout the 1930s.
In 1952, prisoners of Angola protested the subpar conditions by cutting their Achilles tendons. This sparked national publicity and interest in the prison, causing the state state to investigate Angola. It was referred to as “the worst prison in America” by Collier’s Magazine in Nov. 1952.
Female inmates were transported from Angola to the new Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women in 1961. A decade later in 1971, the U.S. courts ordered Angola to be cleaned up and better kept. The efforts to reform Angola continue today.
Angola currently takes up 18,000 acres – nearly three acres per prisoner – and is America’s most vast prison. Most of this is farm land and forest, and the majority of prisoners work in these fields everyday.
So why did St. Paul’s juniors go on a field trip to this place?
According to religion teacher Luke Barwick, the reason behind going to this maximum-security prison was to show what life is like behind bars and demonstrate the prisoners’ humanity.
“I want to change the perception. These (Angola prisoners) are people too. Most of them have led a good life but made a terrible choice,” Barwick said. He also said that it is important to show the students that they could end up like the prisoners because of one move off track. Barwick has assisted in the planning of this endeavor for 20 years, but the event has been going on for about 30.
The students that went on this trip endured an approximate two and a half hour bus ride from St. Paul’s to the prison. They were given speeches by one or two inmates in the prison’s chapel and were able to see the execution chamber (which has not been used since Jan. 7, 2010). After then receiving lunch and exploring the museum and gift shop, it was back on the bus for the ride back to school.
Whether juniors got something out of this trip or not, Barwick says that next year’s trip to Angola is already planned, and next year’s junior class will have the same experience.