Louisiana State Penitentiary, otherwise known as ‘Angola Prison’, to this day compels prisoners to plant and pick cotton by hand, for as little as 4 cents an hour. Eighty percent of its prisoners are African-American.
Long rows of men, mostly African-American, till the fields under the hot Louisiana sun while armed guards, mostly white, ride up and down the rows on horseback, keeping watch.
It is the largest maximum security prison in America, bigger than Manhattan, sprawling over 18,000 acres of farmland dotted with barbed-wire enclosures, gun towers and concrete dormitories.
A History of Slavery
The land on which the prison sits is a composite of several slave plantations -it is called Angola, after the homeland of the slaves who first worked its soil – bought up in the decades following the Civil War. From when it was converted from plantations, prisoners have worked the land in much the same way as slaves did, under conditions so brutal, prisoners resorting to cutting their own Achilles’s tendons in protest in the 50′s.
After the plantation was converted to a prison, former plantation overseers and their descendants kept their general roles, becoming prison officials and guards. This white overseer community, is located on the farm’s grounds, both close to the prisoners and completely separate from them. In addition to their prison labour, Angola’s inmates do free work for these residents, from cutting their grass to trimming their hair to cleaning up Prison View Golf Course, the only course in the country where players can watch prisoners labouring as they golf.
Angola prisoners technically work eight-hour days. However, since extra work can be mandated as a punishment for “bad behaviour", it’s common for Angola prisoners to work 65 hours a week after disciplinary reports have been filed, with guards often writing out reports well in advance, fabricating incident citations, then filling in prisoners’ names, sometimes at random.
“Guards talked to prisoners like slaves,” says former prisoner Robert King who spent 29 years at Angola, until he was released in 2001 after proving his innocence. “Prisoners worked out in the field, sometimes 17 hours straight, rain or shine.”
4 Cents per Hour for Backbreaking Work
Wages for agricultural and industrial prison labour are still almost non-existent compared with the federal minimum wage. Angola prisoners are paid anywhere from four to twenty cents per hour, with agricultural labourers falling on the lowest end of the pay scale.
On top of that, prisoner’s keep only half the money they make. The other half is placed in an account for prisoners to use to “set themselves up” after they’re released. However, due to some of the harshest sentencing practices in the country, 97% of Angola prisoners will never be released and so most will never get the other half.
A Common Occurrence
Angola is not alone. Sixteen percent of Louisiana prisoners are compelled to perform farm labour. Because of harsh mandatory minimum sentences, in Louisiana, writing bad checks can earn you up to 10 years in jail, a two-time car burglar can get 24 years without parole, a trio of drug convictions will get someone a life sentence, all of which time prisoners can be forced to work in conditions that mirror those supposedly outlawed 150 years ago.
Despite this system of modern slavery, Angola’s labour system does not break the law. In fact, it is explicitly authorized by the Constitution. The 13th Amendment, which prohibits forced labour, contains a caveat. It reads, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime where of the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.”
Prisoners can be forced to work for the government against their will, and this is true in every state