2016-12-02 Friday – Angola State Prison, a Gated Community

I couldn’t believe my ears – no walk this morning. That’s OK. We had no trouble making it downstairs for opening of the 7 o’clock breakfast.

We landed on a desolate bank on the river side of an Army Corps of Engineers facility. The levy isn’t high enough to scare the river, so they just let it go. Where we landed was a small town called Bayou Sara. The town was totally flooded in the 1927 flood, and everyone moved away and up the hill to St. Francisville, or elsewhere and safety. Bayou Sara was gone.

At 8 o’clock, we boarded the bus and left for our “Redemption and Rehabilitation at Angola State Prison” excursion. Our local guide was pretty good and told us of the history of the area during our long ride out to Angola State Prison. She told us about the Army Corps of Engineers moving in to the site where Bayou Sara was, and manufactured and inventoried acre upon acre of what I think were called “ribbons” big blocks of concrete that would be moved to places of need — how they could manage that is anyone’s guess. The location floods routinely, and the guide said that she does NOT want to be one of the people that goes into that area after the flood – with gunk, alligators, snakes and whatever left over. I’m with her!

St Francisville has a population of some 1,200 people. It is described as 2 miles long and a half-mile wide. Yep. On either side of the cute town, there are STEEP drop offs to nothing. The only real business of note is Granma’s Buttons — as described. There are 3 streets and one traffic light. We were told that they re-shot the moving Bonnie and Clyde here. Hmmm.

The Angola State Prison is quite a distance from St Francisville. There are presently 6,400 inmates. The prison is the largest maximum security prison in the United States, if not the world, and because of its physical attributes (the Mississippi River on 3 sides and very dense woods on the other) it is called the Alcatraz of the South. No fences. Only one road in and out. One guy reportedly escaped via the wooded side – and after 3-4 days, just sat down and waited for the dogs to find him. The prison sits on 18,000 acres of good farm land – it was probably part of a plantation prior to being a prison.

It is known as an agricultural prison. Most of the inmates – generally all men, but they are currently housing a few hundred women form a nearby prison that was flooded out earlier this year – live in military style dorm-like facilities and are separated into multiple “Camps”. They have their own radio station, magazine, close to 20 different religions represented, and a variety of education and technical training/certification programs – in 16 vocations. They even have their own fire department, geriatric section, grave yard, etc.

Most inmates are serving life sentences – and in Louisiana, the saying is “life is life”. Seventy inmates are currently on death row. You don’t get out. Fairly recently, they introduced shorter termed inmates (less than 20 years) that number close to 1,000, with the goal of rehabilitating these inmates and returning them to society. So far, so good. They used to see recidivism rates of about 50% – and due to new programs, they are seeing less than 10%. Wow!

The prison has been implementing a “seminary”-based program for the last 20 years, and there is no denying that it appears to be working. All newcomers are assigned a senior inmate mentor, who watches over 3-5 inmates. Newbies spend their first 3 months in the agricultural fields until they settle in. If you are capable of working – you work – basically a 40-60 hour week. If you earn it, you become eligible to work half-time, and become educated in a trade or other area the other half. They grow nearly 4 million pounds of vegetables, which go toward feeding prisoners here and at other facilities. They also breed and raise horses, train dogs, have a camel that was donated, and run a successful rodeo for the weekends during October; proceeds of which go to their ‘transition’ program.

In the old days, they used to record on the order of 1,500 violent acts within the prison in a given year. That is now just down to about 300. Impressive.

We listened to one prisoner, who has been there 21 years of his life term for 2nd degree murder. Nice guy. He is a mentor and spoke about their program. No gangs. Stay active. Live FOR something, even though you are there, literally to death. It is “home”, so make the best of it.

Angola had a simple, but interesting museum and gift shop – they highlight being the t-shirt that reads Angola State Prison – A Gated Community.  I bought one!

On the long trip back to the ship, our guide played a video about the Angola Rodeo. I think I might like attending a rodeo, but I’m not sure about this one. The inmates are the cowboys and are also in the audience, and the general public audience appears quite interesting, too.

Did I mention that due to budget cuts, the guard towers are no longer manned, and we didn’t see a single guard with a gun.  But the assistant warden assured us that we were safe, being tracked, and the staff is VERY well trained. They also reminded us that they don’t negotiate in hostage situations.

We returned to the ship in time for lunch in the Main Dining room – lamb burger and fries (eh) and a good beer and cheddar cheese soup, and a not so good cherry pie for desert.

At 1:30, Alison and I went down to the River Laureate, Bobby Durham’s  presentation – a good one, where we learned of the very first Pittsburgh to New Orleans discovery into the viability of steamboats on the Ohio and Mississippi – and then the inaugural trip of the first steamboat in 1811-12, which happened to correspond with a 7.5 to 8.0 earthquake centered on Madrid, just north of Natchez, that was felt as far away as Philadelphia and New Orleans. I never heard of it, but validated via Google. Wow! I may have to read the book, Mr. Roosevelt’s Steamboat.

We lounged on Marion and Barry’s patio on the front of the boat – fruit platter, cheese and crackers and wine. Mmmm. We watched a dredge barge being landed, and watched other barges being pushed down river. One was 7 across and 7 deep, for 49 barges, in total – the larges that we have seen to-date.

The American Queen shoved off just before 5. No fanfare, as usual. But, wait! The ship’s steam carillon was playing, no, it can’t be….. Popeye the Sailor Man, and other favorites.  LOL

Dinner at 5:15. The tables are no longer numbered. We all know where to go. Dinner was generally good, or in Alison’s words, OK. Marion brought the drawing book and we each drew our page for the day, and we also generated couples pages – that’s new. The book has become a big tradition on our trips.

Tonight’s show featured the house band and singers with a theme of Broadway Musicals. We generally decided to pass on this one; yet we look forward to tomorrow night’s show.

Before closing. I told you about the twin stacks and the pilot house and communication tower that can be raised and lowered. Well, apparently, Marion and Barry were standing on deck when the stacks were lowered. They are relatively quiet, and came down on their resting spot very close to Marion – scary. At her height she would probably have been OK, but if Barry had been standing there – thunk. They made comments to two different parties regarding the incident. No feedback, yet.

It started raining around 8pm. We heard the stacks go down – although I missed them. I was able to hear them start to go back up, so I wandered out in my PJs (shorts and a t-shirt) and watched them. Woot! Now I can cross that one off my list.

Good night.



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