ACA Student Chapters/Angola - April, 2007

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The NIU student chapter of the ACA returned 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. It was even better than our earlier trip in 2006. We were joined by students from other chapters, including Appalachian State University and Grambling University. Once again, the hospitality of the prison staff and their willingness to explain prison operations provided an exceptional experience. We were allowed to see virtually every area of the prison, and nothing was concealed. The graciousness of our hosts reaffirmed how creative innovation can balance the needs of control while also promoting human dignity and 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.

The NIU students are excited as their plane takes off, and we made it to our hotel in St. Francisville in one piece. We joined the Appalachian State Students for the tour,, and a half-dozen students from Grambling State joined us Saturday for the rodeo. We met in the Angola museum, outside the gate. The museum traces this history of the prison, and Aimie and Erica paused in front of the Women in Prison display. Especially impressive were the ornate coffins and hearse that inmates crafted for prisoners who died in Angola.

We began the tour early meeting in the parking lot, and headed toward the van, but almost had to leave Eric behind. But, with help from the warden, he joined us.

The entire tour was exciting, but a few highlights stand out. One of most interesting stops on the tour was the Angola dog training area, where trustees train dogs for tracking escaped prisoners and drug sniffing. The dogs seemed as curious about us as we were about them, and Jim made a few new friends. One of the old cell blocks remains, and reminds us how much Angola has changed. We visited the stables where the horses are trained for the rodeo and for farm work; Mary took a short ride, followed by Aimie and Jenn. After the tour, we were able to discuss what we have seen with each other and socialize with people we met.

Our tour coincided with the Angola Rodeo, called the "wildest show in the South. We had no pictures this year, but the pictures from last year summarize it. It again lived up to its motto. 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. Like last year, we couldn't resist buying as much as we could carry back on the plane.

We again re-united with people we met last year, and were again treated to the incredible cooking of Big Lou, who shared his experiences with us. Warden Cain again was gracious and answered our questions and shared his experiences. Like last year, we were sad when we had to leave the hotel and pack the van to leave after meeting so many good people and learning so much at one of the best maximum security prison in the U.S.

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