Louisiana State Penitentiary Museum
"This was the bloodiest prison in America for many, many years," said Cathy Fontenot, an assistant warden at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known simply as "Angola." The prison museum, which stands just outside its front gate, chronicles Angola's horrible history.
Just getting to the museum requires a drive down a single lane, 20-mile-long, mostly empty road that wasn't even paved until the 1980s -- and that's probably enough to send some nervous visitors u-turning for less ominous destinations. The prison entrance is a simple carport and gate; it looks no more criminal-proof than the fence around a Home Depot mulch lot.
Cathy was reassuring. The prison, she said, is much less violent today. "The museum," she said, "reminds us of how far we've come from a past that we don't want to go back to."
One of Angola's many nicknames is "Alcatraz of the South." Like a prison island, Angola is surrounded by deadly natural barriers that make a prison wall unnecessary. A small room in the museum features a taxidermy diorama of the local wildlife: a coyote, an alligator, several big rattlesnakes. "We didn't intend for it to be a warning," said Cathy of the exhibit, "but it does work when we try to make that point."
The penitentiary, in a remote corner of Louisiana, covers 26 square miles. Its 6,000+ inmates are all serving sentences of 50-years-to-life, or are on death row. One exhibit in the museum features the prison's horse-drawn hearse, explaining that, "At Louisiana State Penitentiary most inmates are destined to only be released after their death." The fancy hearse, built by the prisoners, "has proven to promote compassion and decrease fear among the inmate population."
In Angola there was plenty to be afraid of. One museum exhibit is a bullet used by an escaped convict to kill himself rather than return. Another display, "Prison Horror," details the murder of two inmates by a third with a meat cleaver (The meat cleaver is featured). "He just hacked 'em up," said Cathy. Photos show the gruesome scene in the prison dormitory, and Cathy pointed out that the beds in the photo are all neatly made. "The officer who ran the dorm had the inmates all make their beds around these dead bodies before they went to work."
Cathy knew this because she was told by one of Angola's old inmates, just one example of how the museum benefits from having so many life-long "curators" at hand.
The museum's most infamous artifact is "Gruesome Gertie," the official Louisiana state electric chair. It killed 87 men and women. Visitors are kept from sitting in it by a rail, although a photo in the museum's Hollywood gallery (the prison welcomes film crews) shows Sean "P. Diddy" Combs being strapped into the chair for his brief role in Monster's Ball. Next to the chair, hung on a wall inside a glass box, is the leather hood worn by the last prisoner to die in Gertie in 1991 (Louisiana has used lethal injection ever since).
Another accompanying display, "If At First You Don't Succeed," tells the story of Willie Francis, a 17-year-old who survived a botched electrocution in Gertie, then six days later was dragged back into the chair and electrocuted again.
Like a military base museum, the museum at Angola is often toured by families visiting their loved ones. The busiest time is October, when the prison hosts "The Wildest Show in the South," its prison rodeo, over four consecutive Sundays. A room in the museum is devoted to the event, popular with tourists and inmates. One item is the flashy leather outfit of convicted murderer Johnny Brooks, "a crowd favorite," who dropped dead of a heart attack during the rodeo of 1999. Another highlight is the mounted head of No Duty, the rodeo's "Guts and Glory" bull for 11 years. Prisoners would try to grab a $500 chip strung between his horns.
"He was named No Duty" said Cathy, "because if you got hit by him you couldn't do any work."
Displays of prisoner art and exhibits of modern-day training programs and services offer a hopeful coda to the Louisiana State Penitentiary Museum. Inmate artwork sometimes sells for thousands of dollars at the rodeo (The money is frequently sent home to the families).
And as Cathy pointed out, convicts clocked by No Duty -- or his successors -- receive applause, perhaps for the first time in their lives.