By: Danielle Unger
When Norris Henderson, the Executive Director of my placement, Voice of the Ex-Offender, told me that he could get me on the clearance list for an upcoming trip to The Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, commonly referred to as Angola or The Farm, I jumped at the opportunity without even asking about the occasion.
That Tuesday before Thanksgiving I waited for a bus on Tulane and Broad Sts., which, when it finally came, was quickly filled with other community members, mostly lawyers and court employees. On the bus, Judge Laurie White reminded us that the purpose of this trip was, “we’ll show you what we are doing to address re-entry issues and you go back and tell the community.”
Among various stops we made around the prison was Angola’s museum, located just inside the prison gate. A wall of weapons confiscated from inmates and movie posters from movies filmed at the infamous prison sat inside wooden cases that bore small paper plaques with names and correctional numbers, indicating that the cases were hand-crafted by prisoners. In retrospect it seems interesting that I spent my first few hours in Angola without seeing a single person who was incarcerated, except of course the people that served us lunch.
We met with re-entry participants and mentors in the auto body repair shop, and they explained both the technical aspects of the re-entry programs and how they felt about it. The courts identify a non-violent repeat offender for the program, and the prison pairs this short-term inmate with a lifer with the skills and interest in teaching someone a trade and providing them with life skills counseling. The student we spoke with talked about all the different certifications he was getting, and how busy the program kept him throughout the day and night. The mentor talked about the progress the student was making and the skills he was learning, and how he felt like he was increasing public safety by taking part in this rehabilitation behind bars. Elsewhere in the shop, other pairs of mentors and students worked on cars. There were correctional officers passing through from time to time, but otherwise, it looked like the inside of any vocational school. From my limited vantage point of the auto body shop, both the mentor and the student seemed grateful for the purpose that the re-entry activities provided them. The sheer presence of something productive to do in prison, the opportunity to get your GED to create something, must be a relief.
But there are unsettling questions lying under the positive reports of the student-mentor team, and they were best articulated by another woman on the bus. “This is depressing,” she said. I wasn’t sure how to answer her initially because I wasn’t sure what aspect of being inside the U.S.’s largest prison she specifically found depressing. “It’s a shame that all of the skills that these guys have are going to waste in here,” she explained, “who knows if they are going to be able to use them when they get out.”
On our way back to the front gates, members of the tour group asked questions about Angola. Where did the money from the Angola Rodeo go? Where does the money from the sales of all the prison produced goods go? The production of goods in the prison is, evidently, a concern of Prison Enterprises, a company that resides on Angola’s grounds, but is separate from the prison. The museum, too, while directly feeding off the infamy Angola, is completely separate. I think there is a problem with separating out these operations, which all occur within the same 18,000 acres, behind the same gates. I even think there is a problem with separating the mentorship situation that is occurring within Angola from the economic situation that awaits the incarcerated people who make it through the program. The fact that these students are gaining skills and purpose behind bars can’t be separated from the depression of their lost potential, from the difficulty of acquiring compensation for those skills on the outside.
Danielle Unger is from Charlottesville, VA and attended Vassar College. As a New Orleans AVODAH Corps member, she is the Program Communications Fellow at Voice Of The Ex-Offenders, a grassroots, membership based organization founded and run by formerly incarcerated persons in partnership to end the disenfranchisement and discrimination against formerly incarcerated people and improve New Orleans public safety and the criminal justice system.