'Town' without pity Life inside Angola, notorious Louisiana prison

January 22, 1993|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,Staff Writer

ANGOLA, LA. — Angola, La.--Winter storms powder the sky a sullen gray, an opaque band of ash stripped across the horizon. And the threat of rain keeps workers from the lush green fields, leaving carrots, onions and collards unpicked one more day.

Except for a lone cowhand spearing a bale of hay, only Holsteins and horses roam the emerald pastures of the Louisiana State Penitentiary here.

But that's none of Darryn Clouatre's concern. He's whistling and making kissing noises, nudging a dozen of his "girls" into milking stalls at the prison's dairy. Rain or shine, this New Orleans city-slicker and convicted burglar is washing udders, tugging on teats, checking for a clear stream before hooking up the mechanical milker -- all for pennies a day.

"One bad titty can contaminate 1,500 gallons of milk," says the 27-year-old as he looks for signs of infection in a complacent Holstein's milk.

This pastoral snapshot -- a clucking dairyman attending his hefty black and white charges -- belies the image of Louisiana's largest penal facility and its 5,186 prisoners, two thirds of whom are serving life sentences. Known more for its violent, turbulent past, Angola stretches 18,000 acres from the banks of the muddy Mississippi to the forested Tunica Hills.

It once earned the reputation as the "bloodiest prison in the country" and, as recently as three years ago, was under "a state of emergency."

But today, the headlines and television broadcasts about this penal plantation are more apt to feature Angola's popular traveling band, award-winning inmate journalists, the annual prison rodeo or the progressive policies of Warden John P. Whitley.

"This is a unique place," Warden Whitley says with more than a hint of understatement.

Despite its placid setting, among lakes and bayous, moss-draped oaks and craggy pines, this is a prison some men will never leave. There are those who will die here from old age, a stab wound or, under a death warrant signed by the governor, lethal injection. Some will be buried in the prison cemetery, where a white stone cross will mark their grave.

Others, whose petitions for clemency have been unheard or denied, may find their own way out. If they clear the razor-ribbon on the chain-link fences or climb the levee bordering the Mississippi, if they swim the rain-swollen river or emerge from the rugged woods, if they outrun the bloodhounds, outfox the shotgun-toting chase teams, maybe then they will be free.

Inmate Tyrone Brown went out New Year's Day, hiding in a garbage bag. Within 24 hours, the chase teams found him sleeping behind a school outside the prison gates. "This one is a little unusual," assistant warden R. Dwayne McFatter says, reviewing the escape reports, "because he had to be shot to stop him [from escaping from the school grounds]."

Did he die? the assistant warden is asked.

Mr. McFatter nods his head, then looks up from the paperwork: "He would not stop."

When film director Oliver Stone arrived at Angola several years ago to film a scene for the movie "JFK," he found the penitentiary entrance unsuitable -- it didn't look like the gateway to an infamous maximum security prison. The entrance, painted the color of buttermilk and redwood, resembles a toll booth with a wooden gate that must be raised by hand.

The contrasts inherent in this 123-year-old prison plantation -- documented in a stark retrospective written by inmates and published this summer -- lures church groups and students, filmmakers and novelists to this outpost, about an hour northwest of Baton Rouge.

Although inmate guards no longer oversee prisoners, Angola's 1,521 security officers patrol the vast acreage on horseback and travel between the eight prison camps in four-wheel drives.

Angola's is a rich and grisly history. Blues singer Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter sang his way out of Angola in 1934, penning a song for the governor that ultimately won his release. Some 20 years later, more than 30 inmates slashed their Achilles' tendons to protest working conditions at the prison.

In the mid-1970s, for three years running, a dozen prisoners died annually from stab wounds. Since 1990, only one prisoner has died from such wounds.

Prison labor force

Since before the turn of the century, Angola inmates have been the labor on this once privately owned farm where egrets wade in the waters of Lake Kilarney. While inmates no longer cut sugar cane, prisoners hand-pick cotton like the chain gangs of old as well as process 5 million pounds of vegetables from the 38 crops grown here.

They hold jobs as electricians, cooks, tractor drivers, landscapers, field hands and carpenters. They work in mattress and broom factories, a license tag plant and a silk-screen shop; and they produce a host of crafts, from leather purses to oil paintings.

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