Tag Archives: Louisiana State Penitentiary

Prisons Becoming Warehouses for the Old


I have written hefore about the aging population in American prisons and jails, due in large part to the draconian sentencing policies of the courts, federal, state, and local. As a result these places seem destined to become nursing homes surrounded by razor wire.  

Angola prison in Louisiana, for instance, boasts that some 90 percent of its population will die there. The prison has managed to equip itself with a hospice, and trained inmates to attend to a convict’s last days. Burl Cain, the warden, is backed up by a phalanx of Christian fundamentalist preachers who freely roam the 18,000 acre former slave plantation recruiting inmates to be preachers. The clergy instruct  prisoners their only way out is through redemption made possible by the  acceptance of Jesus Christ. When an elderly inmate, knowing his end was near, sought to be win release so as to die in the so-called “free world,” the parole board refused. The procedure is to go to your death in the Christian way–from cell to hospice to a prison cemetery where your grave will be dug by the inmates who will mark your bruial with gospel hymns

 The travesty at Angola is held up as a model  for the nation and Cain celebrated by the media  as a new corrections messiah. Elsewhere,old,sick people,piled into these living tombs by the courts, stand in line for hours to get an aspirin; arthritic old women  are made to climb into upper bunk beds.Parapalegic men are denied canes, which are ruled to be weapons, and instead must crawl to the toilets.People are locked in solitary for years. Mentally ill convicts who act out in the general population are put into solitary because they howl and scream in public.  Locked down, they go truly mad. Old sex offenders can be released into the hands of friends or family. but often noone wants them, so they are released to the county jail, reindicted, and sent back to prison.

The American public is  up in arms about  CIA jails in far away places. But it  could care less about American prisons. Now a new report by the Sentencing Project in Washington adds to the growing body of information about  prisons here at home. No Exit: The Expanding Use of Life Sentences in America contains, among other things, the first nationwide collection of life sentence data documenting race, ethnicity and gender, and reveals “overwhelming racial and ethnic disparities in the allocation of life sentences”: 66% of all persons sentenced to life are non-white, and 77% of juveniles serving  life sentences are non-white.

  The the report’s key findings:

140,610 individuals are serving life sentences, representing one of every 11 people (9.5%) in prison. Twenty-nine percent (41,095) of the individuals serving life sentences have no possibility of parole.

The number of individuals serving life without parole sentences increased by22% from 33,633 to 41,095 between 2003 and 2008. This is nearly four times the rate of growth of the parole-eligible life sentenced population.

In five states—Alabama, California, Massachusetts, Nevada, and New York—at least 1 in 6 people in prison are serving a life sentence.

The highest proportion of life sentences relative to the prison population is in California, where 20% of the prison population is serving a life sentence, up from 18.1% in 2003. Among these 34,164 life sentences, 10.8% are life without parole.

Racial and ethnic minorities serve a disproportionate share of life sentences. Two-thirds of people with life sentences (66.4%) are nonwhite, reaching as high as 83.7% of the life sentenced population in the state of New York.

 There are 6,807 juveniles serving life sentences; 1,755, or 25.8%, of whom are serving sentences of life without parole.

Seventy-seven percent of juveniles sentenced to life are youth of color.

There are 4,694 women and girls serving life sentences, 28.4% of females sentenced to life do not have the possibility of parole.

The Angola 3: 36 Years of Solitude


For the last several weeks, I’ve been working on this story, which appears on the Mother Jones web site. These two men, both in their sixties, have been in solitary confinement in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, for more than half their lives. 

What’s left of Albert Woodfox’s life now lies in the hands of a federal appeals court in New Orleans. By the time the court hears his case on Tuesday, the 62-year-old will have spent 36 years, 2 months, and 24 days in a 6-by-9-foot cell at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola. An 18,000-acre complex that still resembles the slave plantation it once was, the notorious prison, immortalized in the film Dead Man Walking, has long been considered one of the most brutal in America, a place where rape, abuse, and violence have been commonplace. With the exception of a few brief months last year, Woodfox has served nearly all of his time there in solitary confinement, out of contact with other prisoners, and locked in his cell 23 hours a day. By most estimates, he and his codefendant, Herman Wallace, have spent more time in solitary than any other inmates in US history.

Woodfox and Wallace are members of a triad known as the “Angola 3″—three prisoners who spent decades in solitary confinement after being accused of prison murders and convicted on questionable evidence. Before they were isolated from other inmates, the trio, which included a prisoner named Robert King, had organized against conditions in what was considered “the bloodiest prison in America.” Their supporters believe that their activism, along with their ties to the Black Panther Party, motivated prison officials to scapegoat the inmates.

Along with this gross miscarriage of justice, the Angola case raises the issue of old people in prison. Sentences are so long in the state that about 85 percent of the 5,000 men in Angola Prison will die there (a few from lethal injections, but most from illness and old age). The prison has not only its own hospital, but a hospice, a cemetary, and a full-blown funeral industry.