In a recent trip to the Deep South, I passed this sign:
I had recently spent time working in Angola – the country – and wondered how the prison got its name. Over 50 percent of slaves in the Americas had come from the region which is now Angola, and the penitentiary had once been a slave plantation:
Angola prison, the maximum security state penitentiary of Louisiana is the biggest prison in America. Built on the site of a former slave plantation, the 1,800-acre penal complex is home to more than 5,000 prisoners, 85 percent of whom will die there. Also known as the Farm, Angola took its name from the homeland of the slaves who used to work its fields, and in many ways still resembles a slave plantation today. Eighty per cent of the prisoners are African-Americans and under the surveillance of armed guards on horseback, they still work fields of sugar cane, cotton and corn, for up to 16 hours a day.
I have always been fascinated by prisons because they are inversions of society. The same rules of human nature apply among inmates – survival and extension of authority – but since Angola is a maximum security facility where many inmates are serving life sentences for murder, there are fewer consequences to the violent expressions of it, and in such a lawless environment, even more reason to lose whatever socialized patterns of regularized life on the outside. I cannot even begin to imagine the brutality of a society without consequences. The inversion is even more twisted, since the guards, faced with the pure, unalloyed menace of violent inmates who long ago shed the last vestiges of usual morality, also lose theirs:
In a remarkable hearing that explored torture practices at Angola, twenty-five inmates testified…to facing overwhelming violence in the aftermath of an escape attempt at the prison nearly a decade ago. These twenty-five inmates -- who were not involved in the escape attempt -- testified to being kicked, punched, beaten with batons and with fists, stepped on, left naked in a freezing cell, and threatened that they would be killed. They were also threatened by guards that they would be sexually assaulted with batons. They were forced to urinate and defecate on themselves. They were bloodied, had teeth knocked out, were beaten until they lost control of bodily functions, and beaten until they signed statements or confessions presented to them by prison officials. One inmate had a broken jaw, and another was placed in solitary confinement for eight years. (MR Magazine)
Rape and sexual assault have always been features of prison life, and rape has been a tool of war recently documented in the ethnic conflicts of Africa; so it is not surprising that it takes on more than a sexual dimension in prison:
“Everything and everybody in here worked to keep you a whore –
even the prison,” explained James Dunn, a prisoner and onetime
sex slave in Angola prison. “If a whore went
to the authorities, all they’d do is tell you that since you [are]
already a whore, they couldn’t do nothing for you, and [that you
should] go back to the dorm and settle down and be a good old
lady. Hell, they’d even call the whore’s old man up and tell him to
take you back down and keep you quiet … the most you’d get out
of complaining is some marriage counseling, with them talking to
you and your old man to iron out your difficulties.”
A veteran corrections officer, also from Louisiana, described a
similar situation in a recent letter to a newspaper: “There are
prison administrators who use inmate gangs to help manage the
prison. Sex and human bodies become the coin of the realm. Is
inmate ‘X’ writing letters to the editor of the local newspaper and
filing lawsuits? Or perhaps he threw urine or feces on an
employee? ‘Well, Joe, you and Willie and Hank work him over, but
be sure you don’t break any bones and send him to the hospital.
If you do a good job, I’ll see that you get the blondest boy in the
next shipment.’” (Christian Parenti)
The Stanford Prison Experiment is famous for showing how otherwise moral and well-adjusted citizens can easily lose their traditional morality and resort to more primitive behavior. In the experiment volunteers were chosen to be ‘guards’ or ‘inmates’ and in an elaborate role play, acted out their parts to surprising and frightening results:
Twenty-four male students out of 75 were selected to take on randomly assigned roles of prisoners and guards in a mock prison situated in the basement of the Stanford psychology building. The participants adapted to their roles well beyond Zimbardo's expectations, as the guards enforced authoritarian measures and ultimately subjected some of the prisoners to psychological torture. Many of the prisoners passively accepted psychological abuse and, at the request of the guards, readily harassed other prisoners who attempted to prevent it. The experiment even affected Zimbardo himself, who, in his role as the superintendent, permitted the abuse to continue.
It is not surprising, therefore, that maximum security prisons like Angola became sadistic inversions:
In a remarkable hearing that explored torture practices at Angola, 25 inmates testified last summer to facing overwhelming violence in the aftermath of an escape attempt at the prison nearly a decade ago. These 25 inmates — who were not involved in the escape attempt, but were in the same building — testified to being kicked, punched, beaten with batons and with fists, stepped on, left naked in a freezing cell and threatened that they would be killed. They were threatened by guards that they would be sexually assaulted with batons. They were forced to urinate and defecate on themselves. They were bloodied, had teeth knocked out, were beaten until they lost control of bodily functions, and abused until they signed statements or confessions presented to them by prison officials. One inmate had a broken jaw, and another was placed in solitary confinement for eight years.(Indypendent)
Solitary confinement is still used as a means of inmate control, either to protect the general inmate population from the prisoner in solitary or the prisoner from his fellow inmates. It has been used many times as retribution, vengeance, or simply animal punishment:
The infamous Red Hat Cellblock, now on the National Register, used to confine the most dangerous and violent prisoners. These men were required to wear hats swiped with red paint when they worked in the fields. They lived in small, unheated cells with concrete slabs for beds. The windows contained only bars: no glass for protection from the winter chill; no screen to protect against the summer’s insects. The abandoned facility, silhouetted against fields of winter wheat, still has a decrepit electric chair in a neighboring building with wires attached to a rusted generator.
The Red Hat is a Louisiana "Historical Landmark" -- it is a cement cellblock with maybe forty 8 x 8 cells. It is cold as ice regardless of the weather outside and still smells of death and suffering even though it is open to ventilation. The Red Hat was built in the 1930s (discontinued only in 1973) and was used for disciplinary purposes and public execution. The original electric chair with its old generator and battery is there. This is the chair that failed to kill Willie Lee Francis the first time in 1947, so yes, they had to "execute" him twice. Anywhere from 6-13 inmates were thrown naked into a single cell for punishment. Charles Frazier, an inmate who murdered two guards in the cane fields had escaped; and after apprehension and upon his extradition from Texas, he was put in the last cell on the left and the door and window were welded closed. He lived that way for 7 years until he became ill and died. (Anita Roddick)
Execution Chamber today
There have been notable books by prison inmates. The most famous about Angola are by William Sadler who wrote about conditions in the early Forties – horrific, but nothing compared to the more recent stories accounted by Wilbert Rideau. A book by Jack Abbott, In the Belly of the Beast, championed by Norman Mailer who support his parole request, is another:
Jack Henry Abbott was an American criminal and author. He was released from prison in 1981 after gaining praise for his writing and being lauded by a number of high-profile literary critics, including author Norman Mailer. Six weeks after his release, however, he fatally stabbed a man during an altercation, was convicted of manslaughter and returned to prison, where he committed suicide in 2002.
The one I remember best is a play/movie called Short Eyes, the term inmates give to convicted child molesters who are lowest on the social rung in prison and very likely to be murdered while confined. It is still far from the scenes of violence, brutality, vicious racial conflicts, and total breakdown of morality in American prisons in the 70s when incarcerations increased, overcrowding ensued, and racial and social tensions in and out of prison increased; but it was still a frightening look into the inverted world of incarceration.
There have been hundreds if not more popular movies about prison life, usually a romantic view of escape – Bird Man of Alcatraz, The Green Mile, The Shawshank Redemption, Kiss of the Spider Woman to name just a few. Few come anywhere near close to the first-hand accounts by the above-mentioned authors among others.
I have written before about morality or the lack thereof especially in the works of Shakespeare, Machiavelli, and Nietzsche. I, like them, believe that there is no such thing as absolute morality. It is simply a socially-generated construct to help rein in aggressiveness, extension of power and influence, and powerful and often anti-social instincts for survival. I am drawn to Nietzsche’s ‘Superman’ and his concept of ‘Beyond Good and Evil’, for they celebrate individualism and the power of will. Nietzsche more than any other philosopher recognized and accepted human nature and thought that the truest human expression would be to completely follow its dictates.
Shakespeare’s villains are fascinating because they are held to no conventional morality and pursue their selfish ends without hesitation, guilt, or remorse. Most recently I have written about Billy Budd and Captain at Arms Claggart, a man of pure evil, one who does not have a practical motive as Shakespeare’s overachievers do, but simply revels in the exercise in destroying anything good (the reverse of Captain Ahab, Melville’s other hero, who must destroy what he sees as the evil White Whale).
In Angola prison, or any other maximum security facility, there is no conventional morality but a very definite social order which, like that of the outside, rewards strength and fearlessness, punishes the weak, and is violently and absolutely concerned with self-preservation. It is this last characteristic is the most interesting because as I have said earlier, survival has no morality attached. Prisoners who have murdered and are in prison for life will murder again if necessary. Allegiances to social and particularly racial groups are also violently absolute – it is a collective instinct for dominance and survival. Prison is a jungle; but far an aberration from the norm, it is simply an exaggerated version of it.
I recently wrote a post about ‘Why Good People Do Bad Things’, and I suggested based on the research cited, that not only do most people harbor violent and aggressive thoughts, many act on them. The majority of these are not violent criminals, but take out their aggression in ‘violent’ professions like Wall Street investment bankers (see my article on the Goldman Sachs whistle-blower) or bond trading. This modern experience, added to Shakespeare and the volumes of literature before and after him (and even the far simpler but unforgettable Lord of the Flies), have reaffirmed my conviction that we are imperfectible animals; and there is no way to change our nature short of genetic modification. Neither progressives who believe that Man can progress out of his primitive state through social engineering, nor libertarians who trust in the power of the individual operating in free society to attain a better society have convinced me. Life, in the words of the literary critic Jan Kott speaking of Shakespeare’s Histories, is a Grand Mechanism. It repeats itself endlessly because immutable human nature is behind it all.