The Angola gulag

At the opening of the Angola Prison Rodeo in 2009, a Black prisoner carries a Mississippi state flag featuring the Confederate battle flag. It’s the 21st century everywhere in America – except at the Angola Prison Rodeo. – Photo: Damon Winter Photography

by Melvin Thornton aka Hassan Shakur

Every night at 10 p.m., inmates are placed on their beds for what is called the “Black” and “White” count. At this time, we are counted as either Black or White depending on the pigmentation of our skin. 

It does not matter if you are African, Latino, Asian or Indian – if your skin pigmentation is dark enough you are Black and if it is light enough you are White.

A few years back a Native American complained of this and the practice was stopped. A couple of months after he left, the practice started again. 

I then addressed the matter through the prison’s grievance system. On the first step I was denied and told it was a tool security uses to ensure each inmate is in their right dorms. 

Of course, this was foolish because any Caucasian or African could go in another dorm if they chose for the night and just sit on another inmate’s bed of the same race and they would not be the wiser. 

Furthermore, we are labeled by a number as well. If that was the case, security would just call out numbers or break down all the races. 

At the Louisiana State Penitentiary, aka Angola, more than half the prisoners are first-time offenders and up to 90 percent of them will die in there given Louisiana’s harsh prison sentences. The longest running prison rodeo in the country, the Angola Prison Rodeo started as a form of recreation for the prisoners and as entertainment for the prison employees and residents of the surrounding community. As interest grew, the rodeo was opened to the general public in 1967 and has become one of the most popular events in Louisiana. 

I proceeded to the second step which is the secretary in Baton Rouge. They rarely investigate anything. They merely read the first step and deny it by agreeing with the institution’s answer.

This madness has no penological interest. It is nothing more than the labeling of men by a color. A practice that no other country in the world uses. 

People are Malian, Nigerian, British, Scottish, Spanish, Cuban etc. Nobody outside the Dis-United States is labeled by a color. This practice is only in Angola. 

No other facility in the state does this sort of count. But this is a plantation. A lot of the ghosts of the Old South still haunt this place. The racism we experience comes in many forms, most subtle. 

There exists in Louisiana a way of life unlike any other in the nation. Louisiana takes these practices to the extreme opposed to other states. 

At the Louisiana State Penitentiary, aka Angola, more than half the prisoners are first-time offenders and up to 90 percent of them will die in there given Louisiana’s harsh prison sentences. The longest running prison rodeo in the country, the Angola Prison Rodeo started as a form of recreation for the prisoners and as entertainment for the prison employees and residents of the surrounding community. As interest grew, the rodeo was opened to the general public in 1967 and has become one of the most popular events in Louisiana. 

Another example of racism and the blindness to it can be witnessed at the Angola Rodeo. At the opening, when the Angola Rough Riders come in on horses bearing the flags, among the flags is the Confederate flag. This flag is carried by an ill-informed African inmate. 

Even after all of the spotlight on the Confederate statues and flags, this place still flew the flag proudly and in the hands of an African inmate. We exist in a racist and quasi-caste system, labeled by a number and a color and expected to act in a manner almost similar to when we had to face the wall and look down when Caucasians passed. We are expected to “know our place.”

Manly behavior when it comes to speaking up is frowned upon by some and retaliated against by others. I have suffered such a blow in the course of my duties. 

The bottom line is this state has LWOP (the sentence of life without the possibility of parole) – we are on a real ex-plantation. 

We are debased and suffer at the hands of racism. To top it off, our own people are perpetrators of most of the verbal and physical abuse we suffer. 

I am one of a very select few who dares to speak about this. Remember the ghost of the “Old South” – these men are not fighters. 

I don’t know how much you know about this plantation – this was a real plantation. Today it is home to more than 5,000 men, many with life. 

Contesting the people on a political platform is not a mass activity. Tough towards their own, docile towards the others. Like Angela Davis said, “You have to have their back even when no one has yours.” I stand.

Send our brother some love and light: Melvin Thornton, 351810, Main Prison East Yard Ash-3, Louisiana State Penitentiary, Angola, LA. 70712.

Angola was a real plantation

In a cover letter to Malik Washington, Hassan Shakur wrote:

I was born in San Bernardino, but raised in L.A. I am currently serving a life without parole (LWOP) for second degree murder in Louisiana. You were told about me by Ms. Rebecca Hensley, RIP. 

Currently, my job on the slave ship is inmate counsel in the law library. My other activities include chairman of the Angola Lifers’ Association Public Relations Committee, vice-president, writer, producer and director of the Angola Drama Club and poet. 

I don’t know how much you know about this plantation – this was a real plantation. Today it is home to more than 5,000 men, many with life. 

Here there are no real prison politics. Africans, Caucasians, Latinos and Asians mingle together freely. However, these are also some of the most docile inmates in the nation. 

There will be no mass stand against anything. About the best thing going right now is the 10-2 unanimous jury issue. [See “Angola 10-2ers argue for retroactive application of new constitutional amendment requiring unanimous juries.”]

It’s a sickening sight for me because I’m not used to such inactivity in the face of injustice. 

Send our brother some love and light: Melvin Thornton, 351810, Main Prison East Yard Ash-3, Louisiana State Penitentiary, Angola, LA 70712.