Also known as “The Farm” or “Angola,” the Louisiana State Penitentiary is the largest maximum-security prison in America. It houses 6,300 inmates and includes 18,000 acres of land. If you’re involved in prison reform, you have undoubtedly heard of Angola as a result of the Angola Three, men who spent decades in solitary. Aside from the notoriety of its use of extreme isolation, Angola has also famously been the subject of some less-than-favorable documentaries. Below is a portion of one of those documentaries, a National Geographic feature called The Farm: Life Inside Angola. (Unfortunately, only portions are available on YouTube and NatGeo doesn’t seem to have the video posted anymore.)
One of the striking things about this video is how strongly some of the images drive home the idea that prisons — especially institutions such as Angola — have become slavery by another name. At one point in the film, we see a crowd of black men sent out into the field with hoes — and the image powerfully evokes images of slavery. In fact, the nickname Angola is derived from the name of the plantation that preceded the prison and, as the warden mentions in the film, the prison’s population is primarily black. Although the prison administrators are white, the prison population is 80 percent black and 20 percent white.
In fact, the warden’s general descriptions of Angola are honest but disturbing. At one point, he says, “It’s like a big plantation in days gone by. We hate to call it that but in a way it kinda is.” He then goes on to say that the reason the prison is called Angola is because that’s where the slaves that worked these fields came from. Just the name of the prison alone seems like a deliberate attempt to evoke thoughts of slavery. One inmate makes a compelling point that if slavery were continued into modern times, Angola is what a corporate plantation might look like. If I saw certain isolated segments of this film, I might even assume that slavery still exists in this country.
I recently watched this video for a class and the professor asked us to think about what conclusions we would draw about the country in which Angola is located if we watched this video without knowing anything about where it was shot. I think that is an interesting question and could generally be a productive way to think about the American justice system and what it might say about the country in general. In this case, one inescapable conclusion would be that the country in which Angola is located is deeply, systemically racist.