The Louisiana State Penitentiary, commonly known as Angola Prison or “The Farm”, is the largest maximum security prison in the United States. Angola sits on 18,000 acres of former plantation land and derives its name from the homeland of the slaves that used to work that land. 5,000 men are imprisoned at Angola and 70% of them are Black.
Angola is one of a number of prisons known as a “prison plantation,” where those incarcerated are forced to work for a few cents per hour picking cash crops by hand. Mostly White guards ride horseback with shotguns on their laps, overseeing the work. The prison is extremely remote, existing in isolation along a bend of the Mississippi. Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate of adult prisoners in the United States; thanks to the state’s unforgiving sentencing laws, at least 90 percent of Angola’s prisoners will die there. It’s a large-scale embodiment of a national phenomenon: elderly inmates are the country’s fastest growing prisoner population.
The postbellum South was forced to come up with alternative means for acquiring free, or as good as free, labor. Incarcerating former slaves became a lucrative means of recreating former plantation life. What has resulted is hundreds of years of arbitrarily severe punishments for crimes, the continued racist targeting of black men, and the development of a for-profit prison industry that is incentivized to keep all beds full.
Prison reform and criminal justice reform in Louisiana is all but impossible, given the extreme incentives for those running for-profit prisons to keep occupancy at (or over) its limit. Louisiana presently incarcerates one out of every 86 of its adult citizens. The majority of folks we lock up for decades have committed non-violent offenses, such as selling or possessing illegal drugs. Senator Dan Claitor (R-Baton Rouge) introduced a bill during the 2014 legislative session that increased the maximum sentence for heroin possession from 50 years to 99 years. The bill was signed into law by the governor in May. And once you are sent to Angola, you will likely die there. Almost all of those incarcerated at Angola will never come back out. And while they are there, they may endure decades in solitary confinement, be coerced into participating in the grotesque bi-annual “rodeo,” or suffer heat exhaustion due to a lack of basic cooling mechanisms necessary for life in the deep south.
“Welcome to the 46th annual Angola Prison Rodeo, the Wildest Show in the South!”
Five Sundays a year, thousands of visitors drive down this road toward an inmate-constructed, 10,000-seat arena to watch Louisiana’s most feared criminals compete in harrowing events like “convict poker” (four prisoners sit around a card table and are ambushed by a bull; last one seated wins); “guts and glory” (a poker chip is tied to the forehead of a bull and inmates try to grab it off); and the perennial crowd pleaser, “bull riding.” Prisoners can win prize money, but have no chance to practice before entering the ring. Critics and fans alike compare them to the gladiators of ancient Rome.
The rodeo long precedes Cain, but today it has become an extension of his philosophy of submission through “Experiencing God,” as the Southern Baptist instructional course he’s instituted at Angola is called. Proceeds pay for inmate funerals, maintenance on Angola’s inmate-constructed chapels, and programs aimed at “moral rehabilitation.” Cain once told Christianity Today that the program helps inmates “accept they’re in prison and that it’s God’s will that maybe they don’t get out–and that while you’re here you do your best for him.” The rodeo may break bodies, but Cain is in the business of saving souls.
Angola has had a brutal history, and numerous federal lawsuits have been filed over the extreme, inhumane conditions that prisoners have been subjected to. In spite of federal intervention, brutality at the prison remains commonplace. In 2013, three inmates filed a federal lawsuit against the prison due to the unbearably hot temperatures experienced in the death row tiers of Angola. That part of the prison is only heated and ventilated, meaning that there is little heat relief during Louisiana summers. The heat index during the summer of 2012 was above 126 degrees on 85 days between May and August, according to the complaint. Judge Brian Jackson, who heard the case, ruled that the lack of relief from the heat constituted cruel and unusual punishment and ordered that air conditioning be provided.
Monroe criminal defense attorney Bob Noel teaches constitutional law at the University of Louisiana at Monroe. While few cases have been reported of prisoner’s rights being violated locally, he’s followed national cases and those reported from Angola. More recent suits included a Muslim prisoner who wanted access to publications associated with their religion, and a Catholic who wanted to watch Sunday Mass instead of Baptist programs that were shown on every television inside the prison.The ACLU’s response to these cases was Catholic and Muslim prisoners deserve the same opportunities to worship freely and they should not have a particular religion forced on them.
In these matters involving prisoners, the state can be sued and prisoners would be entitled to damages while the taxpayers pick up the cost of attorney fees, Noel said, “At a time when we are trying to keep hospitals and schools open, we have people trying to convert prisoners to their particular brand of Christianity and that will cost millions in taxpayers’ money,” Noel said. When prisons are sued over violations of civil rights, the losing party, usually the defendant, must pay attorney fees that can range in the six figures.
Marjorie Esman, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana, said besides the monetary cost to taxpayers, the bigger issue is the violation of the law when prisoners are not treated equally, not given the same opportunity to practice their religion or when they have a religion forced on them.
Like all of Angola’s wardens, Cain (Warden Burl Cain ) has continued the tradition of hard labor: most inmates work in the fields eight hours a day, five days a week, harvesting hundreds of acres of soybeans, wheat, corn, and cotton–picked by hand and sold by Prison Enterprises, the business arm of the Louisiana Department of Corrections. But unlike his predecessors, Cain, an evangelical Christian, has also made it his mission to bring God to Angola.
Inmate ministers tell new prisoners that they can either work on their “moral rehabilitation” or remain a “predator”–“the choice is yours.” The radio station plays gospel music. On the walls leading to the execution chamber are two murals: Elijah ascending to Heaven and Daniel facing the lion. One of Cain’s favorite anecdotes is the execution of Antonio James, a born-again Christian whose hand he held just before giving the go-ahead to end his life. As James lay on the gurney waiting for lethal drugs to enter his veins, Cain said, “Antonio, the chariot is here…you are about to see Jesus.”
“The Life of Jesus Christ,” which was performed in the rodeo pit before a reactive audience of inmates, relatives, church groups and ticket buyers, is not quite like anything that has come before. It is a fully costumed and staged theatrical production with musical interludes. Watch The Life of Jesus Christ Prison Passion Play (Video)
The Inconceivable Start of African-American Christianity
By the eve of the Civil War, Christianity had pervaded the slave community. Not all slaves were Christian, nor were all those who accepted Christianity members of a church, but the doctrines, symbols, and vision of life preached by Christianity were familiar to most.
The religion of the slaves was both visible and invisible, formally organized and spontaneously adapted. Regular Sunday worship in the local church was paralleled by illicit, or at least informal, prayer meetings on weeknights in the slave cabins. Preachers licensed by the church and hired by the master were supplemented by slave preachers licensed only by the spirit. Texts from the Bible, which most slaves could not read, were explicated by verses from the spirituals. Slaves forbidden by masters to attend church or, in some cases, even to pray, risked floggings to attend secret gatherings to worship God.
His own experience of the “invisible institution” was recalled by former slave Wash Wilson:
“When de niggers go round singin’ ‘Steal Away to Jesus,’ dat mean dere gwine be a ’ligious meetin’ dat night. De masters … didn’t like dem ’ligious meetin’s so us natcherly slips off at night, down in de bottoms or somewhere. Sometimes us sing and pray all night.”
Master’s Preachin’, Real Preachin’
Slaves frequently were moved to hold their own religious meetings out of disgust for the vitiated gospel preached by their masters’ preachers. Lucretia Alexander explained what slaves did when they grew tired of the white folks’ preacher: “The preacher came and … he’d just say, ‘Serve your masters. Don’t steal your master’s turkey. Don’t steal your master’s chickens. Don’t steal your master’s hawgs. Don’t steal your master’s meat. Do whatsomever your master tells you to do.’ Same old thing all the time.… Sometimes they would … want a real meetin’ with some real preachin’.… They used to sing their songs in a whisper and pray in a whisper.”
Slaves faced severe punishment if caught attending secret prayer meetings. Moses Grandy reported that his brother-in-law Isaac, a slave preacher, “was flogged, and his back pickled” for preaching at a clandestine service in the woods. His listeners were flogged and “forced to tell who else was there.”
Slaves devised several techniques to avoid detection of their meetings. One practice was to meet in secluded places—woods, gullies, ravines, and thickets (aptly called “hush harbors”). Kalvin Woods remembered preaching to other slaves and singing and praying while huddled behind quilts and rags, which had been thoroughly wetted “to keep the sound of their voices from penetrating the air” and then hung up “in the form of a little room,” or tabernacle.
On one Louisiana plantation, when “the slaves would steal away into the woods at night and hold services,” they “would form a circle on their knees around the speaker who would also be on his knees. He would bend forward and speak into or over a vessel of water to drown the sound. If anyone became animated and cried out, the others would quickly stop the noise by placing their hands over the offender’s mouth.”
Many slaveholders granted their slaves permission to attend church, and some openly encouraged religious meetings among the slaves. Baptisms, marriages, and funerals were allowed to slaves on some plantations with whites observing and occasionally participating. Annual revival meetings were social occasions for blacks as well as for whites. Masters were known to enjoy the singing, praying, and preaching of their slaves. Nevertheless, at the core of the slaves’ religion was a private place. For no matter how religious the master might be, the slave knew that the master’s religion did not countenance prayers for his slaves’ freedom in this world.
The religious format varied from plantation to plantation for the slaves. Former slave John Brown depicted two extremes: “Sunday was a great day around the plantation. The fields was forgotten, the light chores was hurried through, and everybody got ready for the church meeting. It was out of the doors, in the yard.… Master John’s wife would start the meeting with a prayer and then would come the singing—the old timey songs. But the white folks on the next plantation would lick their slaves for trying to do like we did. No praying there, and no singing.”
Some masters did not allow their slaves to go to church and ridiculed the notion of religion for slaves because they refused to believe that Negroes had souls. Others forbade their slaves to attend church because, as an ex-slave explained, “White folks ’fraid the niggers git to thinkin’ they was free, if they had churches ’n things.”
Missing teachings of white Christianity
The gospel presented to slaves by white owners, however, was only a partial gospel. The message of salvation by grace, the joy of faith, and the hope of heaven were all there, but many other teachings were missing.
House servants often sneered and laughed among themselves when summoned to family prayers because the master or mistress would read, “Servants obey your masters,” but neglect passages that said, “Break every yoke and let the oppressed go free.”
One white evangelist to slaves, John Dixon Long, admitted his frustration: “They hear ministers denouncing them for stealing the white man’s grain, but as they never hear the white man denounced for holding them in bondage, pocketing their wages, or selling their wives and children to the brutal traders of the far South; they naturally suspect the Gospel to be a cheat and believe the preachers and slaveholder [are] in a conspiracy against them.”
The institutional church, in both the North and South, had long before deserted the slaves—even the Methodists, who early on insisted that slave owners, upon their conversion, free their slaves. But by 1804, the General Conference agreed to let Methodist societies in the Carolinas, Georgia, and Tennessee allow their members to buy and sell slaves. And in 1808, the annual conference of the Methodist church authorized each conference to determine its own regulations about slaveholding.
After Denmark Vesey and his fellow conspirators (many of whom were Methodists) were arrested, southern clergy felt constrained by public opinion to affirm the racial status quo. Baptists and Episcopalians in Charleston denied any intention of interfering with slavery. By the early 1800s, the southern churches had completely folded on the issue.
In instance after instance recorded in countless slave narratives, the conversion of masters made matters worse for slaves. As ex-slave Mrs. Joseph Smith explained it, the non-religious owner simply gave slaves Sundays off and ignored them the entire day. But Christian owners, eager for the sanctification of their charges, could not let Sundays pass without due vigilance.
As Smith explained, “Now, everybody that has got common sense knows that Sunday is a day of rest. And if you do the least thing in the world they [the owners] don’t like; they will mark it down against you, and Monday you have got to take a whipping.”
Some didn’t wait until Monday. One slave reported that his master served him Communion at church in the morning and whipped him in the afternoon for returning to the plantation a few minutes late. Susan Boggs recalled the day of her baptism: “The man that baptized me had a colored woman tied up in his yard to whip when he got home. … We had to sit and hear him preach, and [the woman’s] mother was in church hearing him preach.” It is not difficult to see why Frederick Douglass called slaveholding piety “a cold and flinty-hearted thing, having neither principles of right action nor bowels of compassion.”
Presiding over slave baptisms, funerals, and weddings was the slave preacher, leader of the slaves’ religious life and an influential figure in the slave community. Usually illiterate, the slave preacher often had native wit and unusual eloquence.
Carefully watched and viewed with suspicion, the preacher had to straddle the conflict between the demands of conscience and the orders of the masters. Anderson Edwards reflected on the difficulty he experienced as a slave preacher in Texas: “I been preachin’ the gospel and farmin’ since slavery time.… When I starts preachin’ I couldn’t read or write and had to preach what massa told me and he say tell them niggers iffen they obeys the massa they goes to Heaven but I knowed there’s something better for them, but daren’t tell them kept on the sly. That I done lots. I tell ’em iffen they keeps prayin’ the Lord will set ’em free.”
By comparison with other slaves, some preachers were privileged characters. One former slave from Alabama remarked that “Nigger preachers in dem times wuz mighty-nigh free.” As long as he didn’t interfere with other slaves’ work, he [the slave preacher] was allowed to hold services whenever he wished, and frequently he traveled to neighboring places to conduct prayer meetings. It was from the preacher, this relatively mobile and privileged slave, that the rest “first heard of the Civil War.” During the war he offered whispered prayers for the success of the Union Army.
“What wonderful preachers these blacks are!” exclaimed one correspondent from Georgia to the editor of the American Missionary: “I listened to a remarkable sermon or talk a few evenings since. The preacher spoke of the need of atonement for sin. ‘Bullocks c’dn’t do it, heifers c’dn’t do it, de blood of doves c’dn’t do it—but up in heaven, for thousan and thousan of years, the Son was saying to the Father, “Put up a soul, put up a soul. Prepare me a body, an I will go an meet Justice on Calvary’s brow!” ’ He was so dramatic. In describing the crucifixion he said: ‘I see the sun when she turned herself black. I see the stars a fallin from the sky, and them old Herods coming out of their graves and goin about the city, an they knew ’twas the Lord of Glory.’ ”
Were the slave preachers a force for accommodation to the status quo or a force for the exercise of slave autonomy? On the one hand, the slave preacher was criticized by former slaves as the “mouthpiece of the masters.” On the other hand, some slave preachers preached and spoke of freedom in secret.
The weight of slave testimony suggests that the slaves knew and understood the restrictions under which the slave preacher labored, and that they accepted his authority not because it came from the master but because it came from God. They respected him because he was the messenger of the gospel, one who preached the word of God with power and authority, indeed with a power which sometimes humbled white folk and frequently uplifted slaves.
For a black man and a slave to stand and preach with eloquence, skill, and wisdom was in itself a sign of ability and talent which slavery’s restrictiveness could frustrate but never completely stifle.
Unable to read the Bible for themselves and skeptical of their masters’ interpretation of it, most slaves learned the message of the Christian gospel and translated it into songs in terms of their own experience. As John Dixon Long observed, “Many of them could state the cardinal doctrines of the gospel in the language of song.” It was in the spirituals, above all, that the characters, themes, and lessons of the Bible became dramatically real and took on special meaning for the slaves.
Drawing from the Bible, Protestant hymns, sermons, and African styles of singing and dancing, the slaves fashioned a religious music which expressed their faith in “moving, immediate, colloquial, and, often, magnificently dramatic terms.” Spirituals are too often seen simply as words and notes printed on a page. What must be recognized is that they emerged as communal songs, heard, felt, sung and often danced with hand-clapping, foot-stamping, headshaking excitement.
In 1901 W.E.B. Du Bois wrote a classic essay, “Faith of the Fathers,” in which he distinguished the three characteristics of the slaves’ religion as being the preacher, the music, and the frenzy or shouting. He might well have added a fourth characteristic, the conversion experience.
The experience of conversion was essential in the religious life of the slaves. For the only path to salvation lay through that “lonesome valley” wherein the “seekers” underwent conversion, an experience which they treasured as one of the peak moments in their lives.
The typical conversion experience was preceded by a period of anxiety over one’s salvation which lasted for days or even weeks. Josiah Henson, at the age of 18, was struck by the words of a sermon he heard, “Jesus Christ, the Son of God, tasted death for every man; for the high, for the low, for the rich, for the poor, the bond, the free, the negro in his chains, the man in gold and diamonds.” Henson recalled, “I stood and heard it. It touched my heart and I cried out: ‘I wonder if Jesus Christ died for me.’ ” Of his conversion George Liele wrote:
“I was convinced that I was not in the way to heaven, but in the way to hell. This state I laboured under for the space of five or six months.… I was brought to perceive that my life hung by a slender thread, … and I found no way wherein I could escape the damnation of hell, only through the merits of my dying Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.…” Abandoning himself to prayer, Liele found relief and “felt such love and joy as my tongue was not able to express. After this I declared before the congregation of believers the work which God had done for my soul.…”
At the center of the evangelical Protestant tradition, the tradition which slaves increasingly made their own, stood the experience of conversion.
Some slaves rejected Christianity and preserved their traditional African beliefs or their belief in Islam.
Other slaves accepted Christianity of a different type—Catholicism. Relatively few slaves, mainly concentrated in southern Louisiana and Maryland, were Roman Catholics. According to a generous estimate, the number of black Catholics, free and slave, at the time of emancipation was one hundred thousand [out of approximately four million]. The predominant religious tradition, then, among the slaves and their descendants in the United States was evangelical Protestantism.
Comin’ into Canaan
Slaves believed that God had acted, was acting, and would continue to act within human history and within their own particular history as a peculiar people, just as long ago he had acted on behalf of another chosen people, biblical Israel. Moreover, slave religion had a this-worldly impact, not only in leading some slaves to acts of external rebellion, but also in helping slaves to assert and maintain a sense of personal value—even of ultimate worth. That some slaves maintained their identity as persons, despite a system bent on reducing them to a subhuman level, was certainly due in part to their religious life.
ACLU questions prison ministry practices at Angola -Inside the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, once the nation’s bloodiest prison, religion is a driving force in prisoner rehabilitation, but as recent law suits and Supreme Court decisions reflect, lines can be crossed that infringe upon an inmate’s rights.