Hell On Angola – The Wooden Ear Series

Old Camp-E ruins circa 1940. Angolite file photo courtesy of The Times-Picayune

The Angolite is pleased to print “Hell on Angola,” a series of articles written for The Item in New Orleans by “Ole Wooden Ear,” the pseudonym of Angolite founding editor William Sadler, and published in The Angolite with permission from The Times-Picayune, the progeny of The Item and other former New Orleans newspapers.

Sadler first came to Angola in 1935 and by the end of the decade had launched his prison journalism career with the Argus, a tabloid-style newsletter. In ancient mythology, Argus refers to a giant with 100 eyes. The meaning has evolved to describe any “observant or vigilant person or watchful guardian.”

Sadler was released from prison and soon after wrote the 1943 “Hell on Angola” series which helped spur prison reforms and improve the barbarous and squalid conditions at Angola. In his absence, the Argus died of neglect. Tagged with the moniker “Wooden Ear” because his hearing was irreparably damaged in a brutal prison attack, Sadler returned to prison in the early 1950s. In 1952, newly-elected governor Robert F. Kennon appointed Dr. Edward D. Grant as state Director of Institutions. Under Grant and new Angola warden Maurice Sigler, The Angolite was born and Sadler was tabbed as its first editor. Much like the Argus in format (four to eight page tabloid), Sadler transformed the editorial content into more real news from inside the prison. To do his job, Grant got him a bicycle to travel from camp to camp. Sadler’s hearing loss eventually became complete. He hired an assistant editor, he once wrote inThe Angolite, to be his “ears.” Ole Wooden Ear was pardoned by Kennon in 1958, one of his last official acts before leaving office, at Grant’s request. This series is relevant today if only to remember the lessons of the past, though remembering them does not guarantee that history’s darker periods will not be repeated. It is, it seems, inherently human for ordinary people, power brokers and governments to forget.

We owe a great debt of gratitude to Grambling University professor Marianne Giorlando who, while doing research in her specialty, the history of Louisiana’s female prisoners, uncovered this series in the Tulane University library archives. Dr. Giorlando also uncovered several copies of The Argus and early issues of The Angolite from the 1950s, copies which now reside in our archives. On behalf of our readers and the staff, we are grateful to Dr. Giorlando for her assistance and long-standing support of the magazine. Also deserving of special recognition is Lane Nelson, Angolite managing editor, who painstakingly transcribed photo copies of the original documents that often required immense patience and a magnifying glass.

Angola has changed more than once since Ole Wooden Ear chronicled for the public the cruel and fearsome conditions of the 1930s and 1940s. Reform—humane living and working conditions, rehabilitation, and a penal policy based on restoration rather than warehousing—is cyclical and heavily dependent on strong leadership and vision that promotes the positive even in the face of political opposition. In the 1970s, violence and crowded living conditions earned Angola the title of “Bloodiest Prison in the Nation” and prompted federal court intervention. The most recent era of reform comes not from politicians, but from wardens and corrections leaders who have fostered personal productivity and responsibility for inmates in the midst of two decades of harsh, and harsher sentencing and release practices. Some Angola old-timers still languishing in prison are wistful for the “old days” when, despite the violence, they had a reasonable chance of being released. “Hell On Angola” has historical significance because, as Angola Warden Burl Cain said several years ago during dedication ceremonies for the old Red Hat cellblock as a national historic building, “You have to know where you’ve been before you can know where you are going. We can never go back to that era.”

Inmate Kerry Myers

Hell On Angola – The Wooden Ear Series
Ex – Inmate Tells Of Brutalities
Slow workers scream as ‘The Bat’ goes to work
Kicks, Curses Part Of ‘Convict Guards’ Cruelty
Bugs, Heat, Dirt Give Little Chance To Sleep
A New Warden: Prisoners Get Holiday To Mourn For Politico
Reward Guards For Killing
Work Goes On In The Rain
Death For Some: Many Bear Scars On Mind and Body
Even Medical Care Of Prisoners Run By ‘The Regime’
‘Brutal Bill’ Cures Epilepsy With Beatings
New Warden Arrives And Hope For Better Days Lies Ahead
Mess Hall Walkout Brings End Of Starvation Diet Era
Politics Alone Can’t Eliminate All Evils Of ‘The System’
Can Happen Again; Only The Ballot Box Holds Answer