Bugs, Heat, Dirt Give Little Chance To Sleep

Mural of convict guard with prisoner in shackles at old front gate,by Kevin Hill, Jeromy Seal & Roney Womack, 2008

The Item (July 9, 1943) Part 4

By “Wooden Ear”

Water … water …

Visions of crystal springs arise; of brooks with their cold nectar laving the lips, gurgling down the parched throats. Water … it was obtainable in the field at Angola, in the days of this story, via a “water wagon” and a 3-gallon bucket.

The bucket was filled at the start of work and was left sitting on the “highland.” The first man to finish his row was the man who got the first drink, the rest got what was left. Three gallons for a 100 men, more or less.

By the time the “newcomer” finished his row, hot and sweaty, the bucket was filled with sticks and dirt. The little life-giving fluid left had to be strained through the teeth.

There was no surcease … no rest. As soon as one row was finished, the next patch was “caught” … sundown, and later, would tell Foreman “Brown” when to start his men on the four-mile trek back to camp.

Shoes A Torture

New shoes are often a bother, they pinch and chafe. New shoes at Angola were a torture. Callouses formed from blisters, but not until the blisters had broken, and oft-times infection had set in. No use of complaining, there was no medication for a blistered foot.

Hands too, softened by days in jail, or by previous work, hands unaccustomed to farming, succumbed to the bark-clad handle of the willow-pole hoe. Blisters the size of a quarter formed on the palms. Each downward stroke at a weed brought a stinging pain. Acrid sweat in the blisters accentuated the misery. There was no such things as gloves, just as there were no such things as socks, in those days.

The shadows lengthen … water-bound willows sway gently in a late summer evening breeze. But “newcomer,” and others with the “long-line” are too weary, too tired, too “burned out,” to notice or to care. Camp, and supper, and … dear God, sleep … are but four miles away!

Like A Beaten Army

Like a beaten army, hoes shouldered, the convicts trudge back to camp. Along the road are the houses of the free employees, with their wives and daughters fanning themselves on well-screened galleries. From within the houses comes music. Their clothes are clean, freshly-laundered; at their elbows are glasses of ice water, and in their kitchens well-cooked meals in variety.

It is “mail” right. Once a week, then, the incoming mail was distributed by the free-employee “yardman.” A name was called, if the man was not there to answer, the letter was cast into a waste basket and burned.

Many times, too, mail was summarily disposed of because the “yardman” either “did not feel like reading it,” or was in a hurry to play tennis with other employees who hold cushion jobs. He was a tennis champ!

Letters Lost Two Years

Two years after the time described here, the writer found upward of 100 letters, some with money orders enclosed, which had been tucked away in the back of an old desk and forgotten!

Supper: whippoorwill peas … boiled … soggy corn-bread and the inevitable molasses. Nothing more!

Upstairs, at Camp E, was and is the main dormitory. It accommodated, at one time, 600 men in double and triple decked bunks. The three-deckers, however, were protested, not because the third-deck heat was almost unbearable for the sleeper, but because some man might “take it into his head to saw out through the wooden ceiling during the night.”

Lights Out All Night

Lights, both electric and oil, were left burning in the dormitory all night. Any potential escaper would then be observed as soon as he started. It mattered not that the building was surrounded by four gun towers, at each point of the compass, and that lights also shone around the edifice all night!

In justice, let it be written here that the windows of the dormitory were screened. But the rents in the old screens did not prevent gnats, and sundry other flying and crawling and biting things to infest the beds from without. There was also a myriad of insects from within to disturb the sleeper … the ubiquitous bed bug!

Silence was the dormitory rule within 15 minutes after the “long line” was counted into the sleeping quarters, and the yard bell rung to signify that all the men were accounted for.

No Chance To Bathe

Bathe? Remove all traces of the dust and grime from a body aching and weary? There was a bathroom, it had two spray nozzles. The water was tepid in summer and cold in winter, if a man was lucky enough to get a chance to bathe himself within 15 minutes before the final “taps” for the night at 8:30. More often than not he went to bed dirty.

Clothes? They were damp with sweat, caked with the dust of the field. They must be laid down on the floor, itself already dirty. These same clothes, chafing the flesh as only canvas can, must also serve as a towel for a bath, or after very perfunctory ablutions performed at the yard tap next morning before breakfast.

Insects Are Torture

Sleep? The air is stifling. The man in the next bed has asthma. He coughs, his head a scant three feet away. No pillow. A corn-shuck-and-tree-moss mattress, lumpy and stained. And then the horde of hungry insects, from without and within the building start their nocturnal food seeking. Crawling things, only to be brushed off like crumbs on a plush Pullman seat … immediately springing back to their former places.

Sleep? It is well-nigh impossible.

Loneliness, Heartaches

There is no point in writing here of the poignant heartache every prisoner must feel … the home-sickness … the wish-to-God-I-hadn’t-done-it feeling. The sharp realization of the things missed; of laughter, dances, of love, of the thousand-and-one things which go to make up life. There was never a man, bestial and foul though he might be, castigated by the laws of society, who has not felt this knife-sharp loneliness in prison … .

Long before daylight a bell rings, it is time to get up. Another day has begun. A day of toil and slavery and brutality, and with the setting sun will “newcomer” be alive? It is a question God alone can answer!

And for recreation? What to do on Sundays (the rare Sundays which were not worked)? A barbed wire fence enclosed the camp area of about four acres, beyond which no man might go. Sunday was spent in sleep, in rest, in accumulating strength enough to go on with the next day’s labor.

(This article is one of a series written by a former inmate telling the grim story of brutality, corruption and graft at Angola during the “boody days.”)

Next issue: Prisoners get holiday to “mourn” for politico, brace for a new “regime

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