NIU-ACA In Angola - April, 2006

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The NIU student chapter of the ACA finally made it to the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola to see first-hand how the prison has been transformed from one of the most violent to one of the most progressive in the country. The hospitality of the prison staff and their willingness to tolerate our endless questions was impressive, and we came away with an appreciation for how creative innovation can balance the needs of control while also promoting human dignity and what some might call "redemption."

The tour was organized by the ACA Student Affairs Committee. Because of end-of-term timing and costs, other chapters couldn't attend. We are indebted to the organizers for providing us this opportunity.

This brief overview can't do justice to what we learned on the trip, or express our gratitude to Warden Cain and his staff. We owe a super-big thanks especially to his secretaries who facilitated things on our arrival. (Chocolate is on the way!!) A few students wrote a report and it became the basis for the winning undergraduate poster paper session at the ACA conference in Charlotee in August, 2006.

We arrived at at O'Hare early on Thursday. We look happy in front of the prison, but our heads were spinning from the experience. Our tour guide was there early, and escorted us onto prison grounds. Our experience is summarized in our longer report, but a few memories stand out.

Our tour coincided with the Angola Rodeo, called the "wildest show in the South. It lived up to its motto, as we discovered when we attended on Saturday and were ushered in by an administrative staff member. It included riding raging bulls (which got a bit dangerous when four bulls converged together. In one event, inmates attempted to snatch a poker chip froma bull's head to win a $50 cash prize. It took five minutes, but one inmate went "home" happy.

Actually, to call it a rodeo is misleading. The rodeo is best described as a "prisoner arts and crafts show." In a fair-like atmosphere with food and 12,000 outsiders streaming onto prison grounds, inmates display crafts they have made. Over nearly two acres, inmates display their wares for outsiders. The crafts range from reasonably good to exquisite, and the best of them would cost many times more on the outside. The sales provide income for the prison and also add to the inmate's funds as well. The offerings include jewelry, clocks large small decorative art work, lawn ornaments, and an abundance of lawn furniture, which is popular and carted off in truckloads. We couldn't resist buying as much as we could carry back on the plane.

On our last night, we were treated to a catfish dinner cooked up for us by a new friend, an Angola trustee, who gave us his insider's view of Angola. The tour ended too fast. We were sad to go, especially after meeting so many good people and learning so much. but we finally hopped back in the van to head out for the Baton Rouge airport. We wouldn't want to wear out our welcome, but we hope we can visit again. There's so much more to learn from what appears to be one of the best prisons in the country.

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