(This post will be a little abbreviated as much of the material on my trip to Angola is headed over to the Oxford American…will post the link when it’s up.)
After my call to Gary Young the afternoon before, I wanted to be sure to be up in time to meet him. Keeping a man waiting when he’s gone out of his way to pick you up in the woods (and after you’ve made a special request to see the prison only three days prior on a piece of notebook paper) is considerably less than impolite, after all. So I set an alarm on my phone—something I don’t generally do when I’m camping out, as it wastes precious battery—and went to bed.
I’ve been a night-owl all my life, but on days when I’m walking, I set up the tent, and I’m out by eight o’clock. So getting up in time for Mr. Young shouldn’t have been a problem, but you never know…
I woke up with the alarm, took a “baby wipe bath,” and put on a clean set of clothes that I’d been saving up for the occasion. Since the tent was pretty well hidden, and because I planned on camping out in the same place tonight, all I had to do once I dressed was pack my little shoulder bag: iPad, digital recorder, notebook, and raincoat. Not that I expected to actually use the recorder, but there’s no point in taking chances leaving something valuable like that in the tent all day. I also emptied and rolled up my two water bladders, planning to fill them from a sink just before I came back to my campsite.
A few minutes after 8, Mr. Young called. It seemed he’d gone to the wrong check-in station, but was headed my way. I suspect my directions had been less than stellar, but he obviously knew his way around. A few minutes later, he pulled up in a white Chevy Suburban, and shook my hand as I climbed into the passenger seat. I said I really appreciated him allowing me access to the prison like this, on such short notice, and he said that it was no problem. I took out one of my cards and handed it to him, saying “I didn’t figure they got the one I dropped off in Baton Rouge up to you, but this is my website.” I then asked him if he’d had a chance to take a look at it, and he hadn’t, which impressed me all the more: aside from a single phone call from the Department of Corrections headquarters, he’d agreed to chaperone a total stranger, wandering on foot, into a maximum security prison with no real credentials.
Gary Young is in his 50s, with white gray hair and a gentle manner. Unlike many of the other prison officials I’d meet later in the day, he wasn’t wearing an official uniform, just a polo shirt and khaki slacks. The drive through the rest of the Tunica Hills Wildlife Area was pleasant, and after a few miles on a hard road, we were at the gate of The Louisiana State Penitentiary.
Mr. Young had apologized shortly after I got in the car that he wouldn’t be able to show me anything for a while after we got to the prison; riverboat cruises from New Orleans to Baton Rouge sent buses up to the prison, and he was obligated to one of those first thing this morning. He said I should take some time perusing the museum while I waited, and that he’d come for me when the group tour was over.
The museum itself sits outside the prison gates, and tells the story of Angola from its founding as a private-run institution in the late 19th century to today, with special attention paid to the rodeo, musicians, escapees, and the various industries that now or in the past operated on the 18,000 acre prison grounds. There was a small hallway gallery of prisoner’s artwork, and images from past covers of the Angolite, the prison’s magazine—which is run with no editorial oversight by the Warden’s office, as I understand it. (I picked up a copy as I was leaving and read it in my tent later that night…it’s certainly not a ‘zine: professionally printed, with a mix of social justice news from around the country and specifics about life in Angola. Better written than most major news magazines, too.) There’s even a little mock up of a prison cell, across from a wall depicting the Louisiana Department of Corrections Hall of Fame.
I’d just about made it around the whole museum when Mr. Young came around a corner and asked if I was ready to see the grounds…
We got back into his Suburban, and for the next two hours we drove around to various parts of the prison complex, from vegetable fields (grown for food in the prison) to various cellblocks. At a few points, we passed lines of men in prison uniform, their hoes shouldered as if they were soldiers, marching to or from some field under direction of a man on horseback with a rifle.
After this initial tour around the grounds, Mr. Young brought me back to his office, where I signed some paperwork regarding any publications that might stem from my visit to the prison. (I hadn’t asked for permission to photograph within the prison itself, which I understood to be a much more complicated process, and so there are no images from my tour inside the gates.) While he was off tying up the permissions forms, I asked his secretary if there was somewhere nearby that served food, a cafe or something, since I knew that many of the prison’s employees lived on-site or just beyond the gates. She said that the Prison View Golf Course had a little restaurant, and that the food was pretty good. She even had a menu. Thinking my tour was over, I looked it over and considered how to make it to the golf course for lunch.
This, however, was not in Mr. Young’s plans. After he returned from filing my paperwork, he told me we were going to the “Ranch House,” which was a building—literally, a ranch-style house—where prison officials took their meals. It was a short drive away.
Inside was a giant dining table laid out w/ flatware and napkins as in a regular restaurant. I went to the restroom to wash up, as lunch wasn’t quite ready. It being Monday in Louisiana, the main course was red beans and rice. There were also plump sausages, mashed cauliflower, boiled cabbage, and a particularly excellent coleslaw. Cornbread, too, of course. After beef jerky and sunflower seeds, I heaped it all on my plate. After I’d finished making my way through the buffet, a man that I understood to be an inmate asked me what I’d like to drink. I did a little bit of a double-take, because he looked for all the world like Tim Blake Nelson in O Brother Where Art Thou?, save that he was wearing all white. After I’d sat down, he brought me my iced tea, unsweetened.
Eventually, more and more uniformed men filed into the Ranch House, from Assistant Wardens to Lieutenants. The ones closest to me asked about why I was there, and I gave them my card. Everyone was very friendly, and even though this was obviously a place to relax for these men, it still seemed that none of them had that brutal look that I’d observed on the face of the guard at the bus station in Baton Rouge.
Lunch over, Mr. Young said he had a few more things to show me. We climbed back into the suburban and toured the bloodhound breeding area, as well as the barn where the prison had produced the Louisiana Warm Blood horse, a cross between a Percheron (a French draft horse) and a thoroughbred, resulting in an agile but docile animal that was highly sought after by police departments across the country. We drove up on the levee, and Mr. Young said that recently there had been two whooping cranes spotted on the property—a species that had almost withered into extinction since John James Audubon painted them, not far south of where the prison now stands.
We also drove past the “Red Hat” cellblock, a now unused structure that was built in the late 1930s to house the worst of the worst. I’d read about its most notorious resident, Charlie Frazier, in the prison museum. Though not as famous as John Dillinger, Frazier had gone on numerous bank robbing sprees and broken out of prisons in Texas and Louisiana before finally being recaptured and (no joke) welded into his cell.
What the museum’s placard didn’t say anything about was the story that Mr. Young told me, of particular interest to Austinites: when Charlie Frazier was on his deathbed 1959, he gave a letter to the warden, instructing him to get it to Senator Johnson. That would be Lyndon Baines Johnson. After Frazier died, Johnson sent a helicopter to recover Frazier’s remains, bringing them to Johnson City, TX. It turns out that Charlie Frazier’s real name was Ellis Johnson, LBJ’s uncle. He’s buried in the family plot along the Pedernales River, a spot I’ve visited many times without ever having heard this particular story.
It was now about 1:30 in the afternoon. Mr. Young told me I could stay in the prison museum as long as I liked, and to give him a call when I was ready to head back out to my campsite. I went back inside, and they were kind enough to lend me use of a desk, from which I typed out this week’s donor reward essay, which dealt with field recordings in American musical history, particularly those done by John and Alan Lomax at Angola in the 1930s (which resulted in the discovery of Leadbelly) and by Dr. Harry Oster in the late 1950s (which resulted in the discovery of Robert Pete Williams). This was what had brought me to Angola in the first place.
And…I took a lot of time to reflect on what was the most affecting part of the visit, which didn’t have to do with music or rodeo, the two most famous cultural contributions the prison has made. It had was about the prison’s hospice program and the funeral services. But that story will have to wait…
I went into the gift shop of the museum and looked through the wares. I picked out a book of images of the hospice program, and a CD made by a gospel group from inside the prison itself. (There were also a few Robert Pete Williams CDs, and recordings of non-prisoner groups who performed at Angola.) I also slipped a free copy of the Angolite into my bag. I called Mr. Young, and let him know that I was ready to go. It was 3 o’clock. I’d been there for seven hours.
Mr. Young told me that since it’d rained more after he’d picked me up this morning, he was going to have his son, Dustin, a guard at the prison, drive me out to my campsite in his 4x4 Toyota pickup. Dustin pulled up a few minutes later, and we zoomed down the road…
But just two or three miles away, we came across another little pickup in the ditch. It seemed that it was Dustin’s friend, another employee at Angola. He’d hydroplaned, slid across the road, and now couldn’t get out. Dustin didn’t have any chains, so we turned around to get some back at the prison. By the time we got back to his friend’s truck, he was already out the ditch. I’d been maybe a little too eager to help, to pay back some of the kindness that I’d been receiving these past few weeks. But it was not to be.
Dustin drove me up into the Tunica Hills. I said goodbye, and thank you—for him and his father—and by the time I made it to my tent, a violent rain had begun to fall.