Mess Hall Walkout Brings End Of Starvation Diet Era

camp h
Camp-H, circa 1940. Photo courtesy of LSP Museum

Prison's old shoe factory. Photo courtesy of LSP Museum
Prison’s old shoe factory. Photo courtesy of LSP Museum

Female inmate (“house girl”), circa 1950s. Courtesy of the Louisiana State Penitentiary Museum
Female inmate (“house girl”), circa 1950s. Courtesy of the Louisiana State Penitentiary Museum

The Item (July 19, 1943) Part 12

By “Wooden Ear”

(The story of the difficulties encountered by a new administration seeking to eliminate the evils of brutality and graft which had existed on Angola is told in the subsequent articles of this series, written by a former inmate.)

 At Camp H, in 1940, shortly after Blaze had been installed, convicts filed into the mess hall one morning for breakfast. The meal was field peas, boiled. There were weevils afloat on the plates, a not uncommon experience at Angola. But this morning, to a man, they took one look at the food and silently rose, filed out without eating and went to work.

Irked by their actions, the free employee steward, a man by the name of J.L. Camel, himself one of the most brutal and cowardly of the political pap-suckers inside Angola, ordered the same food served up again for dinner—warmed over.

At noon again the men looked at the food, arose and filed out without a word of complaint.

New Era of Food

Camel stood in the mess hall and shouted curses at them—threatened to have all of them punished. He then called Warden Blaze on the phone and Blaze saw and sampled the food himself.

The result of the inspection was the discharge of Camel and the beginning of a new era of food—and the abolishment of starvation little by little.

Many of the free employees, who owed their jobs to Green and the hate machine, vowed to this writer, that when Green left Angola their cars would be “bumper to bumper with him when he went out the front gate” of the penitentiary.

Green’s tenure expired in August of that year. He was immediately hustled off the farm with belongings. He took with him among other things, hundreds of […] cans of inmate-prepared fruits and vegetables. A cellar warehouse at the rear of his residence had been stocked to the ceiling.

He also took several articles of furniture he had made by inmates, the wood of which felled and sawed at the penitentiary—walnut, hickory, oak.

The rejoicing of the inmates when Green was finally off the farm for all time is hard to imagine. Hoe hands out in the field threw their hats in the air and cheered unmolested by the fearful “old regime” foremen.

Checkup Starts

A new note of fear was quickly manifested by the free employees soon after Green left; a number of men from Baton Rouge, all in the hire of Governor Jones, arrived on Angola to make a physical inventory of the state’s property.

“What are we going to do about the things belonging to the state we’ve used,” queried the free employees of each other? “How about the four cows at my house, the six chickens … what will they say about them?” […] “The furniture we sweated out of convict carpenters … the dozens of personal perquisites we have always considered to belong to us, will the state take them away now?” “And what of the dozens … hundreds of implements … we have caused to be lost … destroyed … for no good reason than that they didn’t suit us?”

The inventory was revelatory in a shocking way. It showed a boat which had been built at the penitentiary ostensibly for the use of the prison ferry, but which mysteriously disappeared “down the river” for use, some said, of a well known state politician.

Chickens, Cows, Poultry

It revealed a horse—a proud […] pacer—claimed by ex-Warden Green, which was really the property of the state.

It showed officials harboring three or four cows, the milk which, if not used by their family, was thrown away. And chickens by the hundreds, all of which belonged to the state, but which had been fed with state grain and kept by inmates solely for the benefit of the officials!

(Later, this stock and poultry was gathered together, and while no official or employee was deprived of eggs or chickens, the benefit was also shared with the inmates.)

Responsive to the many rumors that sugar from the great Angola refinery had mysteriously disappeared during “grinding” seasons of several years, Blaze instituted a search of the refinery records in an endeavor to trace down the stories.

It was while this search was in progress the refinery—and the old cannery—burned down.

“Spontaneous Combustion”

The fire, strangely, started in the refinery office where the old records were stored. It was held to be “spontaneous combustion.” But inmates at Angola still tell of how the job of arson was paid for by some “old regime” officials who were still in the saddle at the time.

And those who had directed the gathering of the annual thousands of tons of sugar cane from Angola’s acres for many years, openly predicted—warned Warden Blaze—that the crop could not be harvested without liberal doses of the “bat,” plus sticks and ropes.

Strange then, to record that the harvest was accomplished in a shorter time, and with NONE of the brutality that year? Showing a greater cane-cut-yield per man than any other year?

Taking over the inmate stores in his stride, Blaze, after a surgery, decreed the abolishment of the “excess” profits tax. Prices immediately tobogganed! Tumbling, in stances, as much as 20 percent! Yet there was still a 17-percent margin of profit to be split among the inmates share-and-share alike!

Gift for the Warden

At Christmas, 1940, the “dollar gift” was distributed to every convict on the farm, but this time it was told by Blaze for the first time that the money was, and had been in previous years, merely a division of the store profits—not a “gift” of the warden!

Breaking with precedent, and performing a hitherto unheard-of task, inmates a month before Christmas 1940, set about among themselves to take up a collection to purchase a Christmas gift for Warden Blaze and General Manager Frost.

It was unheard-of because the collection was made and completed before the slightest word of it reached official ears.

Nickels, dimes and pennies poured into the coffers. The purchases were made and suitably inscribed.

And on Christmas Day, 1940, Warden Blaze at a representative assemblage of convicts, white and black, at Camp E, was given a gold watch and chain.

A New Day Arrives

His response, made with a choked voice and tears in his eyes, found many of his listeners with wet eyes.

Christianity had come to Angola—Blaze was the evidence of it in a concrete form.

A silver tray was later presented to General Manager Frost in a similar setting.

The occasion marked the first time in the history of the Louisiana state penitentiary where any official had been honored by a token of esteem from the inmate body.

It might also be noted in passing that that Christmas marked the first time when Angola inmates were served turkey on the tables—turkey and all the fixin’s—home grown. There has always been plenty of turkeys raised on the farm, but heretofore they had always, in the words of General Manager Henry W. Frost, “been given to the state politicians.”

The food situation, after the turn of the next year became increasingly bettered. A program instituted by the new management provided well-balanced, wholesome meals for all.

Where “cull” vegetables had been the rule, they were now the exception—when others could not be had, and yet the figures showed the cost to be but a fraction of that which elicited the statement from the politician anent the economy of keeping Angola inmates at a Baton Rouge hotel.

Knew His Business

Himself a successful planter—a man wealthy in his own right—who had no need of a political job or political emoluments—Henry W. Frost, appointed general manager by Governor Jones, quickly showed those of the “old regime” still on Angola that he knew his business.

Frost abolished “made work”—work that men do so that they might be “kept out of mischief.”

He bought tractors. He revamped the Angola setup, making it a modern agricultural plant instead of the out-moded, labor-costly institution it had been.

One tractor did the work of 100 men. Run-down land was brought back to standard by planting in cover crops. No more were two and three crops planted on one acre at the same time.

Yet his work was decried by “old regime” officials who still clung onto their jobs, and who predicted dire consequences for the “new fangled” methods. One of them refused to use the tractors at all; preferring the old, laborious work of man and beast. He had to be forced to use the machines.

 

Next issue: Politics Alone Can’t Eliminate All Evils Of ‘The System’

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