Louisiana State Penitentiary, 1970s. Armed inmates acted as guards, convicted felons organized prison sexual slavery, and murders raged on throughout the correctional facility nicknamed Angola Prison. In fact, between 1972 and 1975, there were a total of 350 “serious stabbings” and 40 inmate deaths. According to Kevin Brown, “for those inside, both inmates and prison staff, the experience [was] one of constant fear and danger.” No one wanted to work at Angola, and no one wanted to serve their sentence there. Angola was one of the bloodiest and most dangerous prisons in the United States. There was no order or security. In order to try to find some control in the dangerous world that was Angola Prison, prison employees sent inmates who showed even the most subtle disobedience to solitary confinement, sometimes for decades at a time. It was here, in the bowels of Angola, a place inmates were sent after having violated prison rules, where more subtle dangers existed.
In a six by nine by twelve foot cell stands Robert King, an inmate at Louisiana State Penitentiary. Completely alone for twenty-three hours each day, King paces back and forth, his mind occasionally racing and occasionally blanking. After being convicted of killing another prisoner and having an affiliation with the Black Panther Party, King was sent to solitary confinement for twenty-nine years before his release in 2001. This was the reality for the 1970s, 80s, and even 90s Angola Prison. Prison administrators believed that solitary confinement was the best form of punishment for inmates with behavioral issues. In reality, it was counterproductive and led to more disobedience and bad behavior.
During his time spent at Angola, King experienced years of psychological abuse, rarely hearing people speak and participating in meaningful human interactions. He describes it as almost worse than “total sensory deprivation.” When people ask him how he came out of it sane, he states “it’s impossible to get dipped in waste and not come up stinking,” alluding to the fact that he is not in any way similar to his prior self before being socially isolated for over two decades. Along with the psychological trauma he endured by spending so much time alone, he developed vision problems after his eyes had been acclimated to short distances for such a long period of time. The very violence that was happening inside Angola’s prison was landing prisoners in the hell that is total isolation, which ironically did not correct behavior and led to inmates developing mental health issues. Like King says, no one comes out sane. Solitary confinement is a dangerous self-fulfilling prophecy. And for decades, Angola stayed like this: dangerous.
However, all this changed in 2018 when Angola Prison decided to observe and restructure their administrative segregation unit. Following the lead of other prisons nationwide and with the help of Assistant Warden Perry Stagg, Angola has implemented a new, transparent system that attempts to mitigate the negative psychological effects of isolated housing. Warden Stagg explains that administrative housing has changed drastically over the past few years. It is no longer a place with heavy, steel doors trapping inmates inside. Doors are almost always open, but when they are closed, they are made of steel bars for inmates to see and talk through.
Also, administrative housing has become a leveled system with guidelines for how inmates can move through the levels to be released back into the general population. There are less restrictive and more restrictive housing options depending on the severity of prison crimes and behavior records. Additionally, Angola has implemented a tier-walking program. This program trains inmates to look for signs of mental distress and report them. This has been put into place to reduce self-harm and suicide attempts in restrictive housing units. All of these additions have made a significant impact on the administrative housing system at Angola. Assistant Warden Stagg explains that before the COVID-19 pandemic he saw a dramatic decrease in inmates being sent to restrictive housing. However, Angola cannot stop here.
The reforms made by Angola Prison have been fairly recent; therefore, the success of the restructuring effort will not be known for quite some time. But, some success has already been observed. Assistant Warden Stagg says “[the number of inmates in restrictive housing] was going down rapidly before COVID hit.” If Angola’s program experiences even a fraction of the success that similar restrictive housing restructuring programs have observed, like Maine State Prison, the amount of inmates and the time inmates spend in restrictive housing will continue to plummet dramatically.
The question therefore becomes, where do prisons go from here? Numbers of isolated inmates and time spent in isolation will most likely decrease. With these tentative results, Angola will be able to use the newly available space and correctional officers to implement more extensive reform and rehabilitative measures, such as substance abuse, therapeutic, mental health, or educational programming. These are just a few ways that Angola can take the results of their restructuring and further them to integrate rehabilitation into the prison community, centering prison culture around reform and rehabilitation. Most beneficial may be Angola transforming former isolation cells into mental health units where inmates who developed mental health issues during their time in isolation can go to therapy, take classes, and attempt to recover from their time spent in solitary confinement.
Angola has changed drastically in the past four decades. It has transformed from America’s worst prison to one of the most progressive. It realizes that total isolation and sensory deprivation is detrimental to the mental health of inmates, is counterproductive, and puts the entire prison community at risk. However, the remedies Angola has in place are very recent and prisoners are still suffering from mental distress, especially those who have spent considerable time in isolation like Robert King. Angola Prison should consider prisoner experiences like King’s when deciding how to proceed with prison reforms. I often wonder how different King would be--healthier, saner, happier--if he had experienced the reforms Angola has developed during his time in prison.