Angola: The End of the Road
Spring 1990

The safest bank in the United States sits a few feet from the entrance to Angola State Prison in Louisiana. In the unlikely event one of the inmates got out, the very last thing he would do is fuck with that bank.

The road to Angola only runs to and from Angola. There are no detours, spurs or other distractions. The prison sprawls over 18,000 acres and is surrounded on 3 sides by the Mississippi River. The remaining side features hills so infested with snakes that wannabe escapees willingly brave the river: folly unquestionably driven by primal yearning for freedom.

My law school class was taking a tour of the most infamous prison in America. More brutal than Sing Sing; less famous, but more notorious than Alcatraz. Angola is a world unto itself. Its sheer size insulates one from the outside.

We felt like kids on our schoolbus as we toured the fields and gawked at the chain-gangs. The farm that is Angola is agriculturally self-sustaining. The inmates here toil for their meals. And they are everything you expect. Big strong African-Americans (the vast majority of the population is non-white) and the occasional lilly white boy looking distinctly defeated. Scared straight indeed.

After interminable fields, we came to the medium security complex. Here we got to walk an interior perimeter. The dormitory in the distance was the standard large room of closely-spaced beds. There was no privacy to speak of. A recreation area saw full utilization. The inmates gave us sullen sideways glances. Our curiosity overcame the disturbing zoo analogy.

In the lobby of the complex, inmate works of art and crafts were offered for sale. Proceeds went to their individual reparation accounts. There were a couple of vending machines, a restroom and the death chamber.

You could have walked in by accident.

Those interested were given a tour. Twelve at a time got to sit in the witness chairs and see the electric chair. Louisiana had one remaining execution scheduled before the switch to lethal injection. Our liaison officer briefed us on operation of the chair.

Approximately a week before the execution, the prisoner is transferred from death row (a separate facility, oddly enough located right next to the prison entrance) to a cell adjacent to the lobby. At the appointed hour, he is led to this room and placed/secured in the chair. He has the opportunity to have his last words recorded. The executioner steps behind a concrete wall and pulls the switch for a specified duration. The inmate is examined. If he is not yet dead, the process is repeated until he is.

The officer asked if anyone wanted to sit in the chair. Amidst a universal negative shiver, mine was the only hand raised.

I walked around the corner into the spacious room. The chair is oversized, but then some of these fellows are big boys. I stepped up and turned to sit down, sliding back fully. It was then that I noticed the witness glass is not one way. The last thing the inmate sees are the faces of the witnesses to his execution.

I could feel the power of the chair. It was an incredibly dense wood that seemed to hold residual energy from its repeated invocations. Perverse, yes, but it felt alive. No one else wanted a turn.

We visited with Wilbert Rideau, often termed "the most rehabilitated prisoner in America". He briefed us on his work with The Angolite, the award-winning inmate magazine he edits.

I must point out here that I love the law. It may be an ass, but I believe it's better than the alternative. It is we who piss in the pool. By this I mean and will offer as evidence the folks I met in law school. The death of hope, the lot of them. There were one or two (literally) who weren't hopeless, but the rest suffered from chronic halitosis of the intellect.

It didn't matter that they viewed a labor law class as a workshop on union-busting. I'm not all that pro-union. It wasn't their almost unbelievable lack of diversity in thinking, dress, habits, etc. It was the cheerful tune you could hear from inside their heads as they marched us all to ruin. Their's wasn't a calling. They were ignorant shit-kickers from all over Louisiana and the world a drunk prom date.

I had exactly one conversation with one of the brightest guys in my class. He made law review and Order of the Coif. He invariably dressed in jeans, cowboy shirt and pointed boots. On a staircase together after an anti-trust class (mid-3rd year, just before I quit) he spoke to me in his affect-less way.

"I'm looking forward to getting out of here."
"Yeah," I agree, "I'm looking forward to having a real car. I'm thinking maybe a Camry or a Nissan."
At the brief landing he turned to me stone-faced.
"I'd never buy a foreign car."

These people tried to engage Wilbert Rideau in a debate about the American penal system. With predictable results. I think one of them actually used a school yard taunt, albeit sotto voce. Such was their acumen.

For the record, Rideau has served more time than anyone else in Angola convicted of a similar offense. Folks convicted since of arguably much more heinous crimes have come and gone frequently. The problem for Rideau is that the parole board puts high value on the input of the victim's family, and his victim's family won't recognize what others have: that he has served his time.

Rideau's case is politically sensitive. He's also one of those "troublemakers" who studies law in prison and attempts to keep the corrections department a bit honest. His high-profile is unquestionably held against him.

But should he be paroled?

The question is about justice. If we aspire to anything of the sort (we don't) it would be an open and shut case. I have sympathy for his plight as a human being, but I'm not convinced a general policy of "equal time for equal crime" can be fashioned that will protect the public.

If we want to pursue justice, we'd have to radically change our systems. As it stands, we value order instead. And that we get. Mostly.

I've had enough close calls with southern cops to know liberty is a precarious thing, easily confiscated by the state. And I'm white. For those of color, paranoia is completely justified.

Back on the bus for more fields and long distance busing. It's astonishing how huge the grounds are. Just when we were numbed beyond caring, we entered a town. A movie theater, grocery store, gas station, row after row of houses. Mothers pushing small children on swings in their front yards.

We all exchanged glances with the same embedded question. Did you see when we left the grounds? We hadn't. This "town" houses many prison employees. Guards mainly. Partially subsidized, it sits inside the prison. It is no exaggeration to say this was the scariest part of the trip.

Our last stop was a visit to Old Red. Now decomissioned, its cells were formed out of concrete. They measured 4 feet wide by 7 feet long. A part of one wall extruded and was seemingly intended for slumber. We were told that, in its heydey, each cell held 6 men.

In the weather ravaged cafeteria sat a lone, solidly-built wooden chair. This was Old Sparky, the "travlin' chair". Way back when, death sentences were carried out in the locality where the crime was committed. Up they'd ride in a pickup truck, Old Sparky in the bed. A wire was hooked up to the local power grid, the locals would gather and the sentence carried out. Sparky was used for over 130 electrocutions.

This electric chair was "safe," and people lined up to sit in it. One particularly sensitive fellow mimed his demise. His fraters were amused and, while he was mugging for the crowd, engaged the arm straps.

He went ape. Zero to psychotic in no seconds. I thought he'd dislocate his shoulders pulling against the restraints. He was released after some struggle and led away weeping.


I sent a letter asking to be one of the 2 civilian witnesses at the last electrocution. My request was denied.