VICE is exploring America's prison system in the week leading up to our special report with President Obama for HBO. Tune in Sunday, September 27, at 9 PM EST, to see his historic first-ever presidential visit to a federal prison.
Charity is a virtue, and there are a great many people that need help inside Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, the largest maximum-security prison in the country. But the charity that brought me to Angola on a hot, windless Friday was a golf fundraiser for the Angola Prison Museum. The museum is a small building just outside the prison gates within which thousands of tourists every month learn a little bit about the prison and how much better it is under Angola's current warden, Burl Cain, who created the museum in 1998.
Angola Penitentiary would be horrible with or without Burl Cain. It was horrible when it was founded as a cotton plantation named after the piece of Africa from which its enslaved workers were taken. It was horrible in the late 1800s, when a Confederate major bought the plantation and began using its slave quarters to house prisoners, whom he leased to private companies for profit. It's horrible now, more than a hundred years after its seamless transition from slave plantation to penitentiary. Angola is still a place where black inmates in chains pick cotton under the supervision of armed white men on horseback. More than three quarters of Angola's inmates are black; less than a third of the state's population is.
There were no prisoners and no cotton visible from my comfortable perch in the shade of a pop-up tent on Prison View Golf Course, the only golf course in America on prison grounds. It was just me and a bunch of prison guards hanging out, watching some dudes play golf for charity.
Prison View, opened by Warden Cain in 2004, sits inside the B-Line, an area of the prison where some 600 non-prisoners—employees of the prison and their families—live. The B-Line includes a small residential neighborhood of modest ranch homes with LSU flags and front gardens, a post office and lots of churches. Things like guns, cigarettes, beer and cell phones are allowed inside the B-Line; anywhere else on Angola's 18,000 acres they're contraband. It's the largest number of employees living on-site of any prison. Angola is number one in a lot of categories.
As we drove a winding road to visit the graveyard where those who die while serving time are buried, a big, healthy-looking doe wandered across the road. The grounds of Angola are lovely. The prison is wedged between the Mississippi River and the western edge of the Tunica Hills. It has hills and valleys, stately trees and lots of water, attracting long-necked herons and cranes. "If it wasn't a prison," Assistant Warden Perry Stagg told me, "it'd be about the prettiest place on earth."
The golf course itself is also attractive. It's open to the public, though not to inmates, former inmates, or anyone on an inmate's visitor list. The fairways and greens roll gently out from the first hole's elevated tee-box, which is reached after climbing a long staircase up a steep, wooded hillside. Prison View is far better maintained (and has lower greens fees) than most publicly playable Louisiana courses. Staff I asked about Prison View spoke of it with affection but offered tempered, sometimes euphemistic compliments, as if asked to describe an ugly kid.
"Lots of character," said Colonel Orville Lamartiniere, one of many Lamartinieres who work at Angola. "It's a good course. I'd call it golfer-friendly, meaning it's a type of course where whether you're a 21-handicapper or a scratch golfer, it's still gonna be a lot of fun."
Prison View offers a driving range and a clubhouse where convicts cook and serve meals. The course's front and back nine don't share any tee boxes; both have two par 5s, two par 3s and four par 4s. The sixth hole offers a titillatingly close view of Camp J, Angola's notorious punishment unit. It's where the political prisoners known as the Angola 3 were for most of their four decades plus of solitary confinement, 23 hours a day inside a bare, closed 6-by-8-foot concrete box.
Over a long day, two dozen charitable foursomes paid $100 a player to work their way through the holes, competing for prizes no one seemed too hung up on. I asked a ruddy-cheeked team from Highland Bank to characterize Prison View. "Nice little course," one told me. "Fun. Not a lot of shade."
How was it to play golf inside a prison? "Well," the youngest of the four said, "having to do the background check to get in, and then when they search your car for weapons at the gate—that's a hoot."
The thousands of incarcerated men nearby who would never leave alive was not what seemed most strange to those I spoke with; it was the personal inconvenience, or novelty, of the prison's gate. When I asked Francis Abbott, one of my assigned handlers, how it was living inside of a penitentiary, he said, "It's a little weird. You know—your kid's birthday party, explaining to people, 'Yeah, come in through the gate.'"
While my photographer ventured off into the hazy heat, I lingered beneath a mid-course pop-up tent with the staff, ostensibly interviewing them but mostly just laughing at their jokes. The prison employees were down-to-earth; a pair of gents introduced themselves as Dudu and Caca. Nobody seemed stoked to have me lurking around, but they bore it with good spirits; I liked most of the staff. A couple of the younger guys had the brittle prickishness I associate with newly minted State Troopers, but most seemed like people I'd invite fishing. I particularly liked Assistant Warden Perry Stagg, who managed to appear both authentically at ease and completely, unblinkingly alert. When I inquired innocently whether inmates might caddy on the course, he saw through it immediately. "Oh no, no," he said. "I don't think that would look good. We try to be very conscious here about how something like that might look to people."
As a professional reporter, I am duty-bound to report that hanging out with a bunch of good ol' boys and gals under a tent with a big barrel full of ice and drinks is a convivial way to pass an afternoon. People came and went, talking shit and cracking wise. A group of guards were playing the course too, and those beneath the tent would venture out for an occasional disconnected putt or drive.
Talking with the guards was a lot like talking to oil workers; they know people look down on the industry they depend on for survival. That's part of how Angola makes itself indispensable: it offers jobs in what's otherwise a very hard place to make a living. "West Feliciana Parish is a small place," Assistant Warden Stagg said. "It'd be hard to find anyone here who isn't personally associated with the prison—if they don't work here, someone in their family does. Prison's a very big economic part of the Parish." It is, in fact, the biggest employer in West Feliciana by a wide margin.
About half of the guards at Angola are male. I doubt all of them are white, but every one I saw or met were. All the inmates I saw were black.
Many of the pieces of prison philosophy the media liaisons and the Assistant Warden shared with me that afternoon turned out to be direct, memorized quotes from Warden Burl Cain himself. The frequency and fervor with which the staff mentioned and praised Warden Cain—his beneficence, his genius, his toughness, his fairness and piety—would sound startlingly extreme outside Louisiana, but this part of the world specializes in Putin-like strongmen who rule small fiefdoms with totalitarian control out of proportion to any elected office. Whether centering on a Judge, a Sheriff, a Warden or a Parish President, rabid regional personality cults are a perennially popular Louisiana leadership model.
Burl Cain's name and imprimatur are everywhere in Angola. Cain, who has announced he'll run for governor soon, is the longest-serving warden in Angola's history. He's often in trouble for mistreating the incarcerated. Prisoners sue him all the time, of course, but so do human rights organizations and various arms of the federal government. Do-gooder lawyers exonerate his death-row inmates, freeing them from housing where summer temperatures can reach a heat index of 195 degrees Fahrenheit (not a typo). Cain is particularly reviled for his punitive use of solitary confinement, a practice that's drawn congressional scrutiny. He's been accused of consigning prisoners to solitary for failure to adhere to his brand of (born-again) Christianity. He's also on record as stating lifetime solitary confinement is appropriate for those he deems infected by "Black Pantherism," notably the Angola 3, a trio of political prisoners credited with ending the practice of sexual slavery that, sanctioned by guards, was standard in Angola through most of the 20th century.
The media liaisons were very concerned I'd portray the golf course as taxpayer-funded. It's not; the money for the golf course comes from the staff who live inside the prison. The staff raise the money by selling food and drinks to tourists at the Angola Rodeo, the prison's yearly bloodsport spectacle, much the same way that favored inmates are allowed to sell their handicrafts to rodeo visitors.
While the money comes from staff, the labor for the golf course comes from prisoners. The media reps repeatedly used the phrase "horticultural training program" to describe the inmates building and servicing the golf course. "The maintenance and the landscaping are part of a horticultural training program," public relations officer Gary Young told me. "It's part of rehabilitation."
"It's not just the landscaping," Assistant Warden Stagg said. "We've got inmates maintaining and repairing the golf carts, lawn mowers and ATVs. It's on-the-job training."
Since 90 percent of Angola's inmates will die there, they are indeed learning on the job: the exact job they'll have for the rest of their lives, at pay of between two and twenty cents an hour. "At a lot of technical colleges these days," Stagg said, "you'll just get mockups and diagrams. This is hands-on."
All of Angola's prisoners deemed capable are required to work at least forty hours a week. Most farm cotton, corn, soybeans or wheat, which the prison sells. Some tend the 1,500-head herd of beef cattle. The cattle are also sold for profit, as are the products of the prison's metal shop and its mattress and broom factories.
Due to Louisiana's foundering finances, the staff are increasingly reliant on the inmates. "We've got over three hundred buildings," Stagg told me. "All of them and the grounds are maintained by inmate labor. Over the last four, five years we've lost 350-plus employees and gained 1100 additional inmates. This all has to do with budget cuts. We need welders, pipe-fitters, mechanics, and we don't have them on staff. And we don't have the money for trainers, but the older lifers teach the newer guys coming up. It all runs smoothly, most days."
I understood, forcibly, that there beneath the popup tent, I was experiencing a broke-ass modern-day version of the plantation life that is still so venerated by affluent Southern whites. These were the lawns of the Big House, but with Michelob instead of juleps, golf carts instead of four-horse carriages, and little brick one-stories instead of pillared manses. The men and women around me were whites living inside a closed society that couldn't function without the effectively unpaid labor of black people who weren't free to leave.
I hope you don't hate the guards, reading this; the guards aren't the ones reaping the profits of this plantation. Because they're state employees, their salaries are public record. As of 2013, Angola's corrections Cadets make as little as $13,520 yearly, though most make $24,000. Sergeants start at $27,040, Lieutenants at $31,741. A captain makes $36,525 and then the big jump, $44,803 for a Colonel. The division between the impressive-sounding military titles and the pay—which Time identified as among the lowest for corrections officers in the United States—makes clear the guards are from the same economic class as the prisoners. They're poor people who happened to be born on the (barely) paid side of the color line in a place with few career options except to live and work, with their families, inside a powderkeg of racialized brutality.
"This golf course, the walking trail, the hunting and horseback-riding here, all of it is for two purposes," Stagg told me. "First is to try and make life more normal for the staff who live here. The second is to try and keep them around on their days off. All the on-site staff are first responders—chase, tactical, night-vision squads. If they leave Angola to go play golf somewhere else, and something happens here, they have to drive back. We want to try and keep the staff here for when they're needed."
Even in Louisiana, the world's per capita incarceration capital, prisons are often hidden away like a shameful, profitable secret. Angola and its flamboyant, publicity-seeking warden have taken a different approach. By opening Angola to visitors, Warden Cain is attempting to normalize it, to portray all this as healthy and acceptable. Black men in chains: that's fine, that's normal, that's natural. It's simply how the world works. It's normal like raising your family inside a prison is normal. Working inside a prison and then going home to a house inside the prison and spending your time off inside the prison also is normal.
Allow me to posit something: just as these prison guards, who are paid nearly nothing, work to have a so-called normal life inside the prison, so do most Americans work to live a normal life in a nation founded on and powered by that same, specific exploitation of black bodies. The two experiences are not the same, of course, but are layered strata within the same formation. Our time in the sun, on other golf courses further from the imprisoned, follows the contours of the guards' days off, just as the roads in New Orleans echo the curves of the river.
Layers and layers atop the same substrate of suffering. I am paid to come write about the guards who are paid to maintain this order, and my editors and publishers are paid by the advertisers who profit from your curiosity about it; it's a morbid curiosity perhaps not so different from the one that brought these small-town bankers to this golf course. Are you satisfied with your reading experience? Are the guards and I satisfied with our pay? Warden Cain is satisfied, the advertisers are satisfied, and tomorrow the sun will rise again over Angola, the very same way it has for centuries.