This piece was written after guest contributor Nicky Gillies participated in the NOLA to Angola bike ride, a fundraiser for the Cornerstone Builders’ Bus Project, which helps people in Louisiana travel to visit their incarcerated loved ones.
This October I spent three days pushing through the 160 winding bike miles from my home in New Orleans to Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as Angola. It is still a functioning plantation, much as it has been since the time of slavery. Angola spreads across 18,000 acres of lauded farmland tucked into a bend in the Mississippi River. Roughly 5,000 people live and work and eat and sleep and write and shit and dream and shower there, not counting the employees. Most of those 5,000 people are Black men, young and old, and the vast majority of them—almost 90%—will die inside barbed wire.
Intellectual discussions of the 13th amendment and years of participating in prison-related organizing did not prepare me for the heartbreak and outrage of seeing farmland that is still tilled by a captive and almost 80% Black population. This is not an antiquated system. Slavery is contemporary, although it has been refashioned several times, and prison labor is integral to the US economy. Activist lawyer and former prisoner Paul Wright wrote that simultaneously removing over 2 million incarcerated people from the work force and employing another million as guards “is the most thoroughly implemented government work program in American history since the New Deal.” Knowing this, seeing Angola—endless barbed wire and guard towers and prison uniforms and eerily beautiful fields stretching in all directions—is devastating. It is an atrocity. It is also mundane.
Here are things I saw and learned: The warden uses dogs bred with wolves to guard prisoners and chase them down, and has even recruited dogs in the area that were supposed to be euthanized for aggression to work in the prison. There is a golf course in Angola. You can tee-off there for twenty dollars. The prisoners manufacture the coffins used when someone passes away inside, which happens on average 32 times each year. An inmate is paroled and walks out the gates to the free world an average of only 4 times a year. There are 18,000 acres where cotton is grown. The operating budget is one hundred million dollars. The prison museum keeps an old electric chair on display, as if the state no longer murders people, as if this was a fleeting oddity. And then there’s the rodeo, which was happening the day of our visit.
We blow past several miles of backed up cars waiting to enter through the first set of gates. A mass of smelly kids on bikes, we press into the surge of 10,000 people there to see the rodeo. The rodeo has been running since the 1960s, and at $5 per person to enter the inner gates and $15 per person to get rodeo tickets, it brings in an enormous profit for Warden Burl Cain each October. (Angola proudly calls itself a self-sustaining prison, meaning that its profits—mostly extracted from an exploited labor force—cover its operating costs.) The rodeo is quite dangerous. Some events require significant skill and others are designed to humiliate the participants. Prisoners compete to win extra visitation hours and cash prizes. The rodeo also features a “crafts fair” where prisoners can sell things they’ve produced and keep about 80% of the profit. This money can only be spent in the prison—phone calls, soap, cigarettes, underground purchases from guards, etc.
We approach the gates to the rodeo, but cannot bring ourselves to hand over $5 for a closer look. Instead we wander the perimeter and stare: children jumping on the bounce house next to the guard tower, families excited and laughing and shouting across the crowd, the fake trolley bus that laps the parking lot to transport visitors, the prisoners in their uniforms staffing the event, the hotdog stand, the barbed wire, the guards, the guns. I wonder how many generations have died inside these gates. I also wonder why anyone would bring their children to a prison for fun on a gorgeous Louisiana October Sunday. What does this teach them? Some in the crowd are probably rushing to see their incarcerated loved ones. But many, many more of them are shoving through the gates to get good seats. I pass a white woman walking away from her parked car, yapping into her phone and scanning the crowd for whoever she plans to meet. “This is a nightmare,” she says, exasperated. She means the fucking parking.
This is a nightmare. Named for the country where the original group of enslaved Africans were abducted from when this land first became a plantation, Angola used to be known as the bloodiest prison in America. The particulars of its atrocious conditions are widely known, documented, and criticized, and must absolutely be reformed. But narratives of imprisonment often fixate on the sensationalized details—the wrongly accused, the exonerated, the most extreme of inhumane conditions, the gruesome executions gone wrong. These things matter, but that story is one of exceptions. How many hours does it take to exonerate one innocent person? How many lawyers? And how much media attention? And the right hand of how many governors?
What about those who are guilty of their charges? It is morally convenient to assume that they are monsters who deserve to be locked away from society. But mass incarceration in the US is a recent and economically-driven trend; it does not have to be this way. If we refuse to accept that over 2 million people are beyond help, and if true safety is rooted in access to living-wage jobs, better schools, counseling, drug treatment, childcare, mediation, intergenerational mentorship, and safe places to live and play, what a great responsibility we then bear. This is what most fundamentally disturbs me: We incarcerate the largest percentage of our population of any nation in the world. The vast majority of people inside prisons are non-violent offenders. Penal work camps are widely accepted as a logical solution to crime.
We sit outside the rodeo and watch the crowd and I try to burn everything into my cells—what it is to be literally and physically free, what it is to see people living in cages, what it is to have no family inside this or any prison, to have never before schlepped out to visit someone I loved and couldn’t even touch, what it is to witness all this and strive to live a just life. I pedal slowly back out of Angola past manicured marigolds (prison labor) and stashes of extra barbed wire. We congregate in the shade of the tiny post-office nearby. Someone has brought half-eaten funnel cake back from the rodeo. My friend casually laughs that she almost waltzed into the prison with two joints in her bag. I wonder how many of these inmates were once kids who forgot to take the joints out of their pockets.
What purpose does it serve for these 5,000 people to be in Angola? We have long abandoned the notion of rehabilitation for those imprisoned in this country. Locking up poor people and people of color in the south has never been a means to help offenders re-enter society, but was instead a solution to the economic crisis when the chattel slavery system was declared (mostly) illegal. But slavery remains explicitly legal as punishment for a crime. This is not theoretical. It’s 160 winding bike miles from my house. It’s the children and parents and cousins and lovers of my neighbors and co-workers and of my political community. Notably, it’s not my close friends. The statistical impossibility of having lived in this hyper-policed city with the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world for six years without anyone close to me getting locked up is only explained by whiteness and class privilege.
We arrive back in New Orleans, hug, and gather damp tents. With aching legs I push through the five miles back to my house—five miles now seems like a short flight of stairs or a deep breath. Flashing blue lights up the Treme and St. Claude Avenue, where I have never once been pulled over despite joints in cars and loud, tipsy bike rides and lots of sober speeding to work and yes that one time we all peed in the gutter when we were lost and drunk and nineteen. Behind Armstrong Park, I see a young man pressed into a NOPD car. I hear the cinch of metal cuffs as my wheels clatter past him across raggedy pavement. I wonder if his white undershirt is hanes like mine and if he has a toddler who pulls on his ears and I wonder if his mom will call his cellphone over and over until she thinks to check the Orleans Parish Prison docket online. I wonder if he will pick cotton until he fucking dies. I do not want this world–I did not make it, but it sure as hell made me. Now the question is can we unmake each other.
I hope that if by the grace of the universe I grow old, the small children I treasure now will become adults who are ashamed that I lived less than 200 miles from this sprawling prison farm camp and did very little. That I averted my eyes and paid my bills and breathed shallowly and claimed not to smell it upwind of my home, upriver of my life. I do not want them to know a world where young people are plucked out of difficult and violent circumstances to work until their untimely death behind bars. I want to make them something better.
Nicky Gillies moved to New Orleans in 2007, works as an ASL interpreter, and strives to learn how to accountably organize against the Prison Industrial Complex and live in a just way.