Angola, also known as the Louisiana State Penitentiary, is the largest maximum-security prison in the US. It holds 6,300 inmates, most of them for life–and for those who have no families or friends to bury them, death.
Before it became a prison, Angola was a slave plantation, named for the country most of its residents came from. With 18,000 acres and a working farm (complete with cotton fields) run by inmates, many people call it the nation’s last plantation.
I wanted to move away from traditional anthropology–focused primarily on “primitive,” non-industrialized peoples–and focus instead on the economic, political, and social lives of people on the margins of our own societies, such as pirates; criminals; prisoners; and the completely innocent, ordinary poor.
Alas, not many anthropologists have infiltrated criminal organizations and written books about them, (I can’t imagine why,) and my selection among the books that do exist is limited by what I can actually get my hands on. With that in mind, I selected Bergner’s God of the Rodeo: The Quest for Redemption in Louisiana’s Angola Prison (1999.)
Spoiler alert: This is not an upbeat book. I mean, the author tries. He really does. But we are still talking about criminals who’ve been sent to prison for life. If you’re looking for something cheerful, go look at funny cat pictures.
Amazon’s blurb for the book reads:
Never before had Daniel Bergner seen a spectacle as bizarre as the one he had come to watch that Sunday in October. Murderers, rapists, and armed robbers were competing in the annual rodeo at Angola, the grim maximum-security penitentiary in Louisiana. The convicts, sentenced to life without parole, were thrown, trampled, and gored by bucking bulls and broncos before thousands of cheering spectators. But amid the brutality of this gladiatorial spectacle Bergner caught surprising glimpses of exaltation, hints of triumphant skill.
The incongruity of seeing hope where one would expect only hopelessness, self-control in men who were there because they’d had none, sparked an urgent quest in him. Having gained unlimited and unmonitored access, Bergner spent an unflinching year inside the harsh world of Angola. He forged relationships with seven prisoners who left an indelible impression on him. There’s Johnny Brooks, seemingly a latter-day Stepin Fetchit, who, while washing the warden’s car, longs to be a cowboy and to marry a woman he meets on the rodeo grounds. Then there’s Danny Fabre, locked up for viciously beating a woman to death, now struggling to bring his reading skills up to a sixth-grade level. And Terry Hawkins, haunted nightly by the ghost of his victim, a ghost he tries in vain to exorcise in a prison church that echoes with the cries of convicts talking in tongues. …
According to Bergner, in Angola’s early days in the late 1800s (post-Civil War,) conditions were extremely bad. Convicts were basically worked to death in Louisiana’s swamps; average life expectancy for a long-term prisoner was only 6 years.
The state took over the prison in 1901, which hopefully ended the working-to-death-era, but as Wikipedia notes:
Charles Wolfe and Kip Lornell, authors of The Life and Legend of Leadbelly, said that Angola was “probably as close to slavery as any person could come in 1930.” Hardened criminals broke down upon being notified that they were being sent to Angola. White-black racial tensions in the society were expressed at the prison, adding to the violence: each year one in every ten inmates received stab wounds.
In 1952, 31 inmates cut their own Achilles’ tendons in protest against prison conditions, (which are reported as pretty horrible,) but things didn’t really improve until the 70s, when Judge Polozola decided the prison was so bad that if the legislature find funds to clean things up, he’d start releasing prisoners. According to Bergner, this led to an initial improvement in conditions, but subsequently a liberal warden with a kumbaya-approach to running the place was appointed and matters degenerated again. The lax approach to managing the prisoners led to men sleeping in cafeteria-tray armor in hopes of not being murdered by their neighbors in the middle of the night.
A more conservative warden replaced the liberal one, marched in military style, re-established order, and got the shivving rate back down. Angola appears to have found a workable middle-ground between getting worked to death in the swamps and getting stabbed to death during candle-lit kumbaya sessions.
But since Louisiana is poor and people tend not to want to spend money on criminals, Wikipedia notes:
In 2009, the prison reduced its budget by $12 million by “double bunking” (installing bunk beds to increase the capacity of dormitories), reducing overtime, and replacing officers with security cameras.
That sounds like a bad idea.
Unfortunately for me, Bergner doesn’t explore the prisoners’ economy beyond the occasional reference to trade in cheese, cigarettes, or marijuana. (Cigarettes as prison currency appears confirmed.) He also doesn’t go into much detail about how the 6,300 prisoners (many of whom sleep in a large, open dormitory) regulate social relations among themselves. Rather, he focuses on describing the lives of a handful of inmates. Bergner’s mission is to humanize them–to portray them as people who, potentially, could be redeemed–without forgetting their crimes.
The biggest thing that stood out to me while reading was the gulf between these men’s lives and the world of middle and upper-class people who like to say high-minded things about criminals. The common vogue for blaming bad life outcomes on environmental effects–as though a few changes in early childhood could have radically changed the course of these men’s lives (and their victims’,) sending them to university instead of prison.
But this is not the story the mens’ biographies tell.
Obviously some people end up in prison by accident–unfortunate folks who actually were wrongly convicted. Then there are folks who did make a bad decision–or whose parents made bad decisions–that led to a much-regretted action. But this does not describe most of the Bergner’s criminals.
Rather, they share a combination of impulsiveness (high time preference,) aggression, and low-IQ.
In isolation, each of these traits is not so bad. People with Down’s Syndrome aren’t very bright, but they’re friendly and don’t murder others. An aggressive but smart person can understand the consequences of their actions and direct their aggression to socially-acceptable activities. But taken together, even people who later greatly regret their actions can, in a fit of rage, put a meat-cleaver into someone’s skull.
And even once they are in prison–a place where the average person might reflect that violence was a bad life choice–many criminals commit yet more violence–beating, raping, stabbing, and occasionally killing each other. Despite Angola being more peaceful than it was in the past (a peace imposed by marching guards in full riot gear,) it still requires constant, armed surveillance and daily searches to prevent the prisoners from shivving each other.
Bergner also visits a former Angola inmate in his home, where he now lives with his mother. As they survey the landscape surveying his childhood home–burned down buildings, crack houses on every corner, childhood friends consumed by drug use–it is clear that the traits that lead many men to Angola are not abnormalities, but more extreme forms of the traits responsible for the degradation around them.
This is an extremely difficult problem to solve, or even think up potential solutions for. It’s easy to say, “get the crack out of the cities,” but there were people dealing drugs even inside Angola. If people can smuggle and sell drugs in a maximum security prison, I don’t think anything short of heads on pikes will stop them from smuggling drugs into cities.
And even well-intentioned, drug-free people struggle with basics like picking up trash from their yards and preventing their homes from falling apart. As Bergner writes:
We stepped away from the house, a shabby box of pale green wood, the house Littell had been born in, that his mother still lived in, that he had returned to. A corroded swing set stood in front, then a low, wilting cyclone fence, then a stack of four torn tires like a welcoming statue beside the fence gate. … He never invited me inside, and I have always wondered what level of decrepitude or disarray he preferred not to show me…
Across from his house a vacant lot occupied half the block, a reminder of the property facing O’Brien, except that there the grass was cut low, while here saplings crowded one another amid shoulder-high reeds. An abandoned nightclub buckled behind the saplings. Within the tall grass were the charred boards of two houses leveled by arson while Littell had been at Angola. A pair of tremendous oak trees, draped with Spanish moss, had once shaded those houses. The trees still thrived, though now the effect was different, the dangling webs of moss no longer gentle but looking like an onslaught of chaotic growth spilling from the sky.
“This neighborhood was no Fifth Avenue,” Littell said as we passed between the lot on one side and homes like his mother’s on the other. “But it looked good. Fifteen years ago, a lot of these houses were still pretty new. Now it’s like nature’s taking over. When people move into a community they build up on nature, and now it’s like nature’s coming back and the will of man is losing out.” …
But he felt more threatened than I did, walking me around the neighborhood. Up ahead, three or four teenagers sat on the unrailed porch of a shack with boarded up windows. “They think you’re here to buy drugs,” he said, their eyes tracking us past the house. “They think I’m bringing the white dude around.” …
It was no joke to him. …. He had nothing to show the police if they stopped him for questioning. …
“Every evening, I try to be back inside by eight o’clock,” he said, “‘Cause all I need is to be in the wrong place at the time. They ask me for some ID, they see I got none, they run a check, see I’ve been to Angola, that’s it. Any unsolved robbery, they can pin it on me. You see, Dan, the new thing is that crack. And that’s everybody. It’s seldom you see anyone around here who’s straight. Sometimes it makes me thankful for Angola–all the guys I grew up with are wasted on it.”…
Then I listened to the neighborhood. At six-thirty in the evening it was silent, almost motionless. The dealers on their porch weren’t speaking. Nor were the women in their dingy yellow or powder blue knee-length shorts, sitting on a stoop propped up on cinder blocks. They only stared. No cars drove by…. A few rickety bicycles difted past,w ith grown men riding them. The supermarket where we went to buy sodas had seel mesh ove every window and, inside, scarecely any light… The grocery seemed to be the only operating business around. …
The place was like a ghost town, still inhabited.
I’ve often wondered: what is the difference between poverty and merely being poor or living at a lower socio-economic level? We don’t normally think of nomadic hunter-gatherers or pastoralists as “homeless.” A homeless guy sleeping under a bridge is poor, an aberration in a society where most people can afford homes; a hunter-gatherer sleeping in the bush is just living like his ancestors have always lived.
We might say that poverty is a departure from a community’s average–that is, a man is poor in comparison with his neighbors, not some global, a-historical ranking. But it seems a little dishonest to lump together people who live simply on purpose with people who struggle hard but still can’t get ahead.
So I propose a second definition: the inability to maintain the level of civilization you’re in. The Amish, for example, have a relatively low standard of living, low incomes, etc. But they are more than up to the task of maintaining their infrastructure, building their homes and barns, taking care of their horses, raising crops, etc. Amish society isn’t falling apart.
By contrast, Littell’s neighborhood has fallen apart over the fifteen years he spent at Angola. Nature is reclaiming the houses and burned-out businesses. We can blame crack, but that’s just kicking it back a level: why was this neighborhood blighted by crack while others went unscathed?
Many of the prisoners Bergner follows are functionally illiterate–one struggles (and fails) to pass a quiz intended for younger elementary school children. His struggle cannot be blamed on “lack of opportunity to learn,” as he is enrolled in a prison-based literacy programed whose entire purpose is to help inmates learn to read, and if there’s one thing people have lots of in Angola, it’s time.
Again, just as with impulsivity and aggression, the prisoners’ low-IQ mirrors that of their neighbors and peers back in the free population.
To be fair, this does not describe all of the prisoners. Some (like editors of the Angolite, Angola’s award-winning prison magazine) seem bright; some come across not as impulsively aggressive, but truly sociopathic.
Bergner wants us to consider redemption–the possibility, at least, that some of the men who have served 20, 30, or 40 years in prison may not be dangerous anymore, might have repented, might deserve a second chance at life. (One of the men he follows does seem truly sorry:
“Please take him off,” Terry prayed late at night, in Walnut [one of the dorms.] “He’s hunting me down again.”
His bedtime ritual had been performed hours earlier. On his cot, he had read the verses he’d highlighted months ago during his Bible group back at D. He turned the thin pages to find the neat orange markings
Lord, I cry unto Thee:
make haste unto me;
Give ear unto my voice…
Incline not my heart to any evil thing.
Then, twenty feet from whee the man had lost his sneakers and gained a long, scythe-shaped scar on the left side of his face, Terry knelt beside his own cot and closed his eyes and lowered his head to his folded head.
“Lord Jesus,” Terry went on, with a persistent hope that he was heard though he had failed to be saved,”thank you for looking over me… please keep an eye on my, Lord; can You take some of this away, Lord? Can you forgive me, Lord? …”
But after midnight something had woken him, and now Mr. Denver Tarter wouldn’t let him return to sleep. So Terry knelt again. …
“Please take him off. Please just this one thing.”
Religion plays a prominent role in the narrative, from the warden’s blustering claims of saving souls to the prison’s Pentecostal, “holy roller” church service; from quiet Bible study to the chaplain’s rounds:
Chaplain Holloway was assigned to Camp J. … Holloway pushed a grocery cart full of inspirational literature. … “What’s up, bro?” the chaplain asked at each set of bars. “What can I get for you, bro?” Built thick, a football player in college, he was a white hipster in a golfing shirt in the middle of the Inferno. I don’t know what he was, but he was tireless. And kind.
“How’d you end up back on One, bro?” he asked an emaciated man, referring to the worst of J’s levels, where you were let out of your cell–int a solitary dogrun–only two hours each week.
“I just told hello to a nurse on hospital call and told her she looked beautiful this morning.”
“Well, you know, babe,’ the chaplain said, understanding what had probably happened, that the man had told her hello and started jerking off, “next time just say hi and skip the rest of the verbology.”
He asked the man if he wanted to pray. They held hands and, leaning together, their foreheads almost touched. “In nine months you could be out of here, back in population,’ he encouraged afterward. … “You want some reading?”
He slipped through the bars a paperback of big-print advice and biblical quotations called You were born a Champion, Don’t Die a Loser. They held hand once more, and the chaplain moved on to the next convict. This was his day, this was his life, cell after cell after cell.
Those of us whose lives are so good that we have time for this voyeurism of peering into prisoners’ lives often approach religion with a disdainful, scornful attitude. Who needs a bunch of rules set down by an invisible sky fairy? Do you really need someone telling you not to steal? Don’t you already know how to behave?
But for many people at the bottom of society–not just criminals, but also the poor, the suffering, folks struggling with addictions, loss, disabilities or life-threatening diseases–religion really does seem to be a comfort, a guide, a way of working toward a better life. As I’ve documented before, in some of the world’s poorest and most isolated places, religious folks are often the only people willing to go to these awful places to try to help people.
It’s easy to look at statistics and say, “religious people are, on average, poor/less educated/more likely to be in prison/etc than atheists” but maybe this is like saying that people who buy hammers have a lot more nails that need pounding in than people who don’t.
The last thing that stands out in this narrative is the women who date and marry convicted murderers. Two of the men whose lives Bergner follows begin dating while in prison (for life). One meets a woman while performing in the annual Angola rodeo; she is impressed by his amateur bull-riding performance and they begin writing letters back and forth. Soon they were planning marriage, hoping for a pardon or an overturned conviction:
Pretty soon, he’d have it going in the courts. Pretty soon, he’d be working for Gerry Lane [just a guy he hopes to work for] himself, raising Belva’ kids like a regular father, straightening out her daughter and making sure the rest of them stayed on the right road Pretty soon, he’d have a son of his own. Pretty soon he’d be lying in bed next to Belva with all their letters piled up between them, all their letters from when he was in Angola, to read over how they got started.
They would be a family. They were already. He hadn’t met the two daughters, but the two boys had been to visit once, when there had been room in Sandra’s car. [Belva doesn’t have her own car but gets a ride with another woman visiting someone at the prison.] He played Pac-Man with the boys. …
The little Pac-Man munches snapped their jaws, and Brooks urged, “Gobble ’em, son, gobble ’em, move that stick,” and Marcus squealed, “Coon ass things! Coon ass things!” He seemed to think the Pac-Man prey were Cajun rednecks.
“Con ass things?” Brooks laughed.
And Marcus aw that it was funny. “Coon ass things! Coon ass things!” He cracked himself up, and Brooks put his cheek next to Marcus’s jittery, giggling head.
The boys had sent Brooks a Father’s Day card, and after his phone call with Belva he took the card from his box …:
“No one chooses a Dad
From a magazine ad
Or a paper with classifieds in it….
But if we’d had the chance
For a choice in advance
You’re the Dad we’d have picked in a minute.”
Tight to the top of the inside page, the thirteen-year-old, Kenny, had drawn a smiley face and written, “You are the father we did not have.”
He and Belva do get married, in a ceremony in one of the prison chapels. I rather doubt the relationship will last for the long-haul, however. Dating a guy in prison may seem fun at first, but as year after year of a life sentence pass by (and the author gives us no real reason to expect the men will receive the pardons they hope for,) the problems inherent in any long-distance relationship begin to manifest.
Bergner describes another relationship, begun when the prison’s band performed a show off prison grounds and the guitarist met a fan. She, too, already had a child (in this case, only one,) who quickly bonded with her “new father.” They were also married, but as the years passed, she stopped calling, stopped visiting. I suspect she has just grown bored, found someone else who is physically present in her own neighborhood.
Bergner doesn’t explore these women’s lives, what motivates them to date criminals serving life sentences for murder, nor the effects on their children. Chances are there is something deeply wrong in these women’s lives. Whether it is merely that love sometimes blooms in even unusual places, or something deeper, I can’t say and Bergner makes no comment. His focus is the criminals.
Race is obviously ever-present in the book–Angola’s population is about 90% African American, (according to Bergner,) in a state that’s only 30% black–but he never addresses it in any systematic way, nor does he discuss how (if at all) race impacts relationships between the prisoners.
Disclaimer: my copy of the book was missing a few pages, so there might have been something on those pages that I missed.
Ultimately, this isn’t exactly the book I’d have chosen for Anthropology Friday if I’d had more options, but it was still a good read and probably deserves more attention than it’s garnered.