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Monday, June 8, 2009

Side Trips on the Blues Highway - Beauty & Redemption in the Belly of the Beast

Angola Prison has always fascinated me. Trips to Baton Rouge or New Orleans always took me past the sign on Highway 61 just north of St. Francisville, Louisiana that pointed to the prison with the African-sounding name famous for its violent history. I'd always heard that most of the prisoners at Angola were serving life sentences. This was where they sent people who had committed the ultimate crime, and for many of them, this was where they would live out the rest of their lives. Such people, already violent, had little to lose if they committed further violence, and for years it was known as the most dangerous prison in America.

In the 1970s, I heard about the annual Angola Prison Rodeo, and as a cub reporter for the local newspaper, I planned to attend the rodeo for a story, but mostly because I was curious. I heard stories about prisoners who braved incredible risks for a moment of glory, and I wanted to see it all, myself. But life interfered, and I never made it down there.

Then sometime in the 1990s I saw a story on television about Angola Prison's magazine, The Angolite, and its editor, convicted murderer Wilbert Rideau, who escaped execution when the death penalty was overturned in 1972. With the help of a young editor at a New York publishing house, Rideau learned the art of writing and eventually became the editor of The Angolite, winning numerous awards and international recognition. My curiosity, piqued, I subscribed to The Angolite for about a year, just to see what hardened criminals had to say to the world, their families, and other prisoners.

So when Tommy suggested we go visit the Angola Prison museum on the way back from Hammond, Louisiana last week, I responded with a quick yes.

The road from the turnoff at Highway 61 -- Highway 66 -- meanders 20 miles through some of the most beautiful country in America, rivaling The Natchez Trace for pastoral beauty. The museum sits outside the entrance to the prison, negating the need for a search of your car. Well, okay. I don't even know if they do search cars going into the prison, but it would seem prudent to do so.

Much of what I expected to see was no surprise, although it was, indeed, as interesting as I'd hoped it would be. There were exhibits that depicted everything about prison life, including a case full of homemade shanks and weapons that had been seized from prisoners throughout the years. It was a sobering reminder that Angola's history is filled with misery and bloodlust. In fact, during the 1960s, it was the bloodiest prison in the South, perhaps even the country. The mock-up of a typical prison cell in Angola's museum is stark and depressing.

Since the 1970s, however, prison reform has transformed Angola prison with rehabilitation efforts on behalf of the prisoners as well as adequate medical care. In addition to the annual rodeo, prisoners are encouraged to create artwork and furniture, which can be sold at the rodeo.

One of the first things to see at the museum is a taxidermy collection of fish, animals and reptiles that have been caught at Angola, including the biggest alligator gar fish I've ever seen. There is also a pretty darned big alligator gracing the exhibit.

Museum visitors can see Old Sparky, the electric chair that was used to execute prisoners prior to the advent of lethal injection. There are stories and newspaper clippings of famous escapes and prison uprisings and much to read about life at the prison, both past and present as well as death. One exhibit includes a beautiful funeral carriage, handcrafted by prisoners and carrying coffins also made by prisoners used to usher inmates from this world to the next, pulled by a magestic white Percheron horse, giving an air of dignity to a life lived where few dignities were allowed.

For sale at the museum are tshirts, photos, keychains and other tchkotchkes as well as several music CD albums with Blues, Spirituals, Worksongs, and other music created and played by Angola inmates. Tommy is trying to book the Angola Blues band to come play at Ferriday's next music festival.

The museum is definitely worth the side trip.

Museum hours are Tuesday - Friday from 8 AM - 4:30 PM

Saturday from 9 AM - 5 PM


Closed Major Holidays

The museum is operated by the Louisiana State Penitentiary Museum Foundation, which is a nonprofit organization. Although no admission is charged to visit the museum, donations are accepted to help defray the cost of operation. For information on scheduling a group tour, contact Marsha Lindsey, museum director at (225) 655-2592 or write to:

LSP Museum
General Delivery
Angola, Louisiana 70702