Work Goes On In The Rain

Point Lookout (the prison cemetery) grave marker circa 1934. Angolite file photo
Point Lookout (the prison cemetery) grave marker circa 1934. Angolite file photo

The Item (July 13, 1943) Part 7

By "Wooden Ear"

 

Today, as well as in the period of the following articles—1935, 1936, 1937—the sun, at Angola, is called "Hannah," and not without a certain dash of sardonic humor. Rain is known as "jake," probably from Jupiter Pluvius, perhaps named by some old-time convict-scholar and later corrupted.

Rainy days are usually holidays on a farm. It is too wet to plow, too soggy to hoe, so your "outside" agriculturalist puts on his slippers and either goes out to the barn to mend harness, down to the village store to play poker or swap gab around the cracker barrel, or just sit.

But not so on Angola! A Green edict was "take them out and get them wet."

So whenever it was raining at the time the "long-line" was to leave the camp quarters early in the morning, the edict was put into effect: men would be taken out for an hour or two of "made work"—digging ditches or hoeing until they were thoroughly soaked. Then they would be brought back into camp for the rest of the morning. Dry clothes were issued but once a week.

It was Green's contention that by such methods the men were "kept out of mischief."

Ostensibly for the purpose of repairing inmate shoes, and of making new shoes for inmates, the prison-operated shoe shop situated at Camp E became, under the regime of Warden Green, a treasure trove for politicians, state police and sundry other of their ilk.

Cowboy boots, belts, pistol holders, scabbards, saddles and other leather articles were turned out by the dozens in this shop, which kept eight inmates busy. All of the articles went to Warden Green's "friends." All were "charged" to them. No one bill was ever paid, however.

Green's almost fanatical resolve that no inmate should escape from Angola during his tenure of office brought a startling climax.

Shoes With Cloven Heels

Green, with typical lack of foresight, promulgated a rule that all inmates should have cloven heels.

Accordingly, a large "V" was cut into the heel of the shoes the men were then wearing, and all new shoes were cut before being issued.

It was Green's contention that, in the event of an escape, the fugitive would be easily discernible.

It is an interesting sideline on the workings of Green's ten-cent mentality that he overlooked the fact that mud quickly filled the "V," nullifying the effect of the innovation insofar as an escape aid was concerned. There was nothing, also to prevent the escapee from tying a piece of cloth over the heel, again obliterating the "V."

But for three years, all heels were cloven, and hundreds of pairs of shoes were the sooner ruined by the senseless order.

Warden Green's second Christmas in office was marked by an occasion unique in the history of the penitentiary: A one dollar bill was distributed to each inmate as a "gift" from the warden along with a form letter, printed in red and green, which bore Green's picture.

The inmates were told, however, that the dollar came from the inmate camp stores—a pitiful division of the high markup charged for the merchandise sold.

Green, however, sought to make this an evidence that, although the program was rapidly dying elsewhere, on Angola "share the wealth" had taken a concrete turn!

It might be stated, in connection with these inmate camp stores, that the annual gross turn-over is in excess of $50,000. Forty percent of this figure was net profit. Green at no time ever attempted a statement as to where the money went, or gave an accounting to his charges for the enormous profits.

Stripes in Order Again

After five years of "white clothes," stripes were again in order for the majority of the inmates via edict of Warden Green.

Why the stripes were returned when it had been proven under General Manager Smith that white canvas was considerably cheaper is anyone's guess.

A story, which this writer was never able to confirm, told that the switch came about in this fashion:

During the Green wardenship, a New Orleans firm of wholesale clothiers had the exclusive contract to furnish Angola with dry goods. This firm sold everything the inmate wore, both at work and when he was discharged.

"Price Concession"

It was said that after the death of General Manager Smith, the dry goods company approached Warden Green with information that they had on hand several bales of striped goods cloth which had been purchased some years previously for the account of the penitentiary, but which they had been unable to dispose of.

A "price concession," which may or may not have involved a "rake-off" to Warden Green, resulted in bringing the striped attire back to Angola.

It is interesting to note that Louisiana is still one of but three or four states which continues to use this humiliating garb for its inmates.

The prison cannery was in charge of J.M. Wood, who, with his wife, as matron, also had charge of Camp D, the unit for white and Negro female prisoners.

Wood brought his charges to work at the cannery alongside male workers. For an infraction of work or discipline involving a male worker, the man would be whipped within full sight of the women by a foreman. Where a woman was involved (and several were) Wood would use the ‘bat' himself, often beating a woman, white or Negro, on breast or stomach.

No physical examination was made of cannery workers during the season of 1936, although a sketchy show of one was made during 1937. If a worker had running sores of syphilitic or other origin he worked alongside healthy workers just the same.

Would Not Eat Food

It is a fact that no Angola free employee ever permitted "Pelican" canned goods to be served on his table!

The two main "industries" of Angola, aside, of course, from the farming operations, were the sugar refinery and the cannery.

Sugar, mostly 96 percent raw, was made from the farm's cane crop and sold to other mills for refining. The refinery at Angola annually produces over ten million pounds of this sugar.

The cannery, named the "Pelican Cannery," and the products of which all bore the Pelican label, with the notation that they were canned in Baton Rouge, turned out hundreds of thousands of cans of vegetables each year which were sold in the open market.

The cannery itself was one of the most unsanitary, filthy places ever permitted to exist!

Of course, no inspection was ever made of the premises even though many times "Pelican" brand canned goods backfired on the unsuspecting grocer who had sold them!

The following incident may or may not have had direct bearing on the discharge of Captain Wood and his wife:

"Please Don't Tell Captain"

A note, via the prison "underground," reached this writer as editor of the inmate publication which said: "Please ask those boys (office workers) when they lose a shirt in the laundry not to tell the captain about it. I am doing life; I lost two shirts _______ (the inmate's name) and had to pay Captain Wood $1.50 for them out of my own pocket."

(White shirts were issued to some inmate office workers and were laundered at the women's unit.)

Investigation by this writer revealed that the woman had indeed paid Captain Wood $1.50 out of her own pocket, for two shirts that had been mislaid. Further, that although the shirts were the property of the state, Wood had not remitted the money to the state for them.

Long-Standing Practice

Other women inmates reported that the practice was of long standing. That Wood charged for any article of clothes lost, but that the money was never turned in. Many colored washwomen complained that over a period of years their meager funds, received from home, had been sequestered in this manner.

To be fair about it, this writer asked a free employee to confirm the fact that Captain Wood had charged the washwoman $1.50 for the shirts. Captain Wood was called on the phone and a long conversation ensued with the free employee who turned and said: "You're all wet about $1.50." That was all he would say.

Asked personally, if he had taken the $1.50—or any other sum—from the woman, Wood said yes, but added: "I do that to keep them from getting careless and losing things; later on I give the money back."

He had never, in all the years the practice had been going on, returned one cent, said the women inmates!

The facts were reported by this writer to the new general manager, Henry W. Frost. Wood's walking ticket came three days later!

Next issue: Death For Some: Many Bear Scars On Mind and Body