On May 8, a group of prisoners at the Louisiana State Penitentiary refused to perform the field labor they are compelled to do for virtually no pay. The prison, commonly known as Angola, stands on the site of a former plantation named for the origin of the slaves that worked its fields. That connection is not lost on the prisoners or their supporters.
“Guys are getting fed up and a lot of guys are just not going [to work],” said Ron,* a prisoner and a member of Decarcerate Louisiana who helped organize the strike. “They don’t want to work for free [because it’s] modern-day slavery.”
The unrest started the week before, when a prisoner, Kristopher Schoeing, ran out of line, despite what the prison reported as warning shots fired by a guard. The Department of Corrections said in a press release that the work stoppage the following Tuesday took place after two prisoners, Emanuel Williams and Earl Harris, “broke out of the security line as they were heading to work” and “attacked” two corrections officers. After the fight, a prisoner named Roy Walker laid down and refused to work, and 27 others joined him, the press release stated, but resumed work later that afternoon. Williams’s ankle was broken in the altercation.
Alonzo, a prisoner who took part in the strike, contends that version is inaccurate, and instead it began when Walker told the guards that he couldn’t work because he had a bad back. Soon after, he slipped and hurt himself, Alonzo said. In solidarity, when the warden called roll call for the work shift, roughly 50 people refused to go out, Alonzo estimated, nearly double what DOC said. Ron said that some workers have been refusing to work since.
Prisoners in Louisiana say the strike wasn’t a sudden or isolated event but part of more than three years of organizing with the help of their supporters.
During the stoppage, the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee issued a list of demands from the prisoners at Angola. “We demand a national conversation,” reads one of them, “inquiring how state prison farms across the country came to hold thousands of people from African descent against their will.”
Work at Angola is grueling, Ron explained. The prisoners spend long hours doing manual labor—such as fieldwork harvesting produce—that requires a lot of bending down in the hot sun. Prisoners complain of a lack of water to keep them hydrated and cool.
Ken Pastorick, communications director for the Louisiana Department of Public Safety & Corrections, disputed that assertion. “The prison provides abundant water, ice, and sports drinks for offenders at the institution’s job sites,” he said. “Agriculture work at the prison provides offenders with a skill they may use once they are released from prison, and the produce helps feed the offenders at the state’s prisons.”
Pastorick acknowledged the presence of armed guards who patrol the fields where men work. “Because some of our offenders have jobs outside of secure areas, we have a use of force policy which authorizes our staff to use the amount of force necessary to maintain custody and control, and public safety,” he said.
Once cleared by a prison doctor, prisoners at Angola can be legally forced to work under threat of severe punishment, including solitary confinement. Even prisoners with physical impediments may still have to work. “Angola frequently fails to accommodate men with disabilities—often forcing them to work in dangerous factories or in the fields,” said Mercedes Montagnes, executive director of the Promise of Justice Initiative.
For example, prisoner Clyde Carter alleged in a 2016 lawsuit that he was forced to work in the fields even after he tore knee ligaments because his “temporary duty” status excusing him from such work kept expiring. In a separate lawsuit, prisoner Jason Hacker alleged that despite cataracts in his eyes that made him legally blind, he was still forced to work in the fields.
Most prisoners who arrive at Angola are required to perform field labor for at least 90 days. After that, they can apply for other jobs in the prison if they have positive disciplinary records, but there aren’t enough nonagricultural jobs for all the prisoners.
For all that hard labor, prisoners make as little as 2 cents an hour, according to the state’s 2015 pay regulations, a sum that Ron argues amounts to working for free. According to data collected by the Prison Policy Initiative, prisoners in Louisiana are paid anywhere between 4 cents to $1 per hour for jobs that support prison facilities, while work on products and services that are sold to outside government agencies and private businesses pays up to 40 cents an hour.
Prison work in Louisiana dates back to before the end of the Civil War, when the state built its first penitentiary, located in Baton Rouge, in 1837 and handed management over to lessees who then profited off the forced labor. Louisiana took control of the Angola plantation in 1901, housing prisoners in old slave quarters and forcing them to work in the existing cotton fields. As recently as 1979, prisoners at Angola were referred to as “hands,” not unlike the way slave masters referred to slaves.
“Profit—and not rehabilitation, retribution, or deterrence—became the guiding penological goal of Louisiana State Penitentiary,” writes Loyola University law professor Andrea Armstrong, which led to “a profit-oriented policy of inmate plantation farming that closely mirrored slavery.” Today, Angola still has the look and feel of the former plantation, with rows of crops tended by the prisoners. Burl Cain, who was warden until 2016, even noted that it’s “like a big plantation in days gone by.”
Yet, there’s also a long history of prisoners resisting their working conditions inside Angola. In the 1950s, 31 prisoners cut their own Achilles’ tendons to protest the prison conditions. In the 1960s, two welders refused a direct order to build a lethal injection gurney. After they were placed in solitary confinement, the next day 37 others similarly refused. The action spread to the fields, where hundreds of prisoners staged a work stoppage to protest of what had happened to the welders.
Today’s organizers want to get rid of forced labor altogether, which is permitted under the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. The amendment outlawed slavery but contained a huge loophole: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude,” it states, “except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.”
“Given the history of slavery in Louisiana and America, these working conditions need to come under particular scrutiny and concern,” Montagnes argued.
Armstrong argues that reforming prison labor in Angola would benefit everyone. “People are going to act out if they’re treated inhumanely,” she said. “Changing the practices can ratchet down the tension, which makes the guards safer and also makes the people who are incarcerated safer,” she said.
Activists inside and outside the prison want to see money that’s being poured into incarceration instead get invested in education. “Classmates, not cell mates,” demands one of their slogans. “We’re asking the governor to de-invest in incarceration and invest higher in education, teacher pay raises,” Ron, one of the prisoners, said. He noted that correctional officers, who nationally make an average of $47,600 a year, can sometimes out-earn teachers, who in Louisiana make an average of about $49,700. In 2014, Louisiana ranked 12th in the country for how much it spent per capita on corrections but 34th on school funding.
The prison organizing has coincided with a movement that has taken hold across the country as teachers go on strike and protest slashed education budgets in their states. The hope is that the prisoners may eventually be able to build a coalition with the teachers and potentially even coordinate their strikes.
Prisoners want the investment to reach inside prisons, too. “They’re just warehousing us in the cells,” Ron said. All he has for stimulation, he said, is a TV. There are waiting lists for programs such as vocational training or GED classes, Armstrong said, a fact Pastorick said was “due to budget constraints.” In 2012, only 1 percent of Angola’s budget was spent on rehabilitation programs.
This year has seen a lot more prison organizing in Louisiana in particular. “Louisiana is one of the biggest prison states,” said Michael Lucas, a delegate of the Industrial Workers of the World and an active member of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee. “Seeing things pop up there is a really epic and really beautiful thing.”
Ron said prisoners at Angola are now planning a protest for Aug. 21, marking 47th anniversary of the death of Black Panther George Jackson while he was incarcerated in San Quentin.
Ron is helping to spread the word. “Guys are with it on the inside. It’s just a matter of staying connected in here and also staying connected with people on the outside that support our demands, that support what this movement’s about,” Ron said. “The guys on the inside, [we have to] let them know that they’re not alone in the struggle.”
*Incarcerated people interviewed for this story requested that only their first names be used out of fear of reprisal.