Slow workers scream as ‘The Bat’ goes to work

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Convict guard oversees field workers circa 1940. Angolite file photo courtesy of The Times-Picayune

The Item Part 2, July 7, 1943

By “Wooden Ear”

(Editor’s Note—Grinding, backbreaking toil, time out for a watery stew at noon, and for those who “fall out” from fatigue and weakness, 40 cruel lashes from “Bad Eye’s” “bat.” These and other scenes of brutality at Angola are reported in this article, second of a series by a former inmate now working in a respectable job. The Item is printing the series with the belief a fully-informed people is the best guard against the recurrence of such evils in Louisiana.)

 

The day is hot … sweltering … the “sun dogs” are dancing in a cloudless sky this June day. In the fields of Angola the men and women are garbed in white canvas … .

Hoes rise and fall with a cacophony of sound. The profit-less weeds must never catch the crop. The work day begins at 4 o’clock in the morning and lasts until 8 o’clock at night. Sometimes it is longer.

“Newcomer”—”fresh fish,” or new arrival in prison jargon, has just been brought in by sheriffs to the receiving station at the main unit, Camp E, situated almost in the center of the farm.

A Guess Fit

He is dressed in a two-piece suit of white, unshrunk canvas. His shoes are of the durable kind and he is given a guess fit by the officer in charge.

That’s all, except a “farmer” straw hat. No socks. No shirt. No underwear. No soap. No towel. No toothbrush. No comb.

This is to be “newcomer’s” home. This is where “society” says he must spend a term of years in atonement for his crime. This is where, according to theory, he will be turned out at the end of his sentence an older, better and wiser man. That is the intention of the law.

Physical “Examination”

A doctor who is alleged to be both physician and surgeon, examines him. But the examination comes only after he has been first “charted” by an inmate of limited intelligence, and to whom most of the doctor’s work has been relegated. This inmate plies a stethoscope glibly, and unhesitatingly records the fact that “newcomer” has none of the many heart aliments willy-nilly. The chart is accepted verbatim by the doctor. A few verbal questions (the doctor is in a hurry to go to Baton Rouge), a perfunctory skin examination, and “newcomer” is certified as ready for the hardest work in the field.

It makes no whit difference that he had never done farm work before, and unless a malignant disease like tuberculosis is frankly evident, he will be grouped with all the others.

(What happened to those who had tuberculosis on entrance, or developed it later, will be told subsequently.)

Office a Lavatory

The warden at Angola in 1935 was a personage laughed at by both prisoner and free-employee alike. He was a rather kindly inclined man who was warden in name only. His power had been shorn to next to nothing. His “office” was a lavatory. Politics, even this early in the game.

But the man in the warden’s saddle with, literally, the power of life and death over every inmate on the farm, was a person of 225 pounds whose left eye was out of focus, and who suffered constantly from a body itch.

“Bad Eye” Rules

Called “Bad Eye” (behind his back) this man was the big chief … the man from whom all others, inmate and free alike, took their orders at Angola.

It is noon … the baking, sapping heat finds the workers … the “long line” … the field hands … trooping into dinner. This is the menu:

Stew, composed of over or underripe tomatoes which had that morning been rejected by the prison-operated cannery. For upward of 400 men, meat has been issued—40 pounds of it. With bones and all, a division of a piece as big as a thumb would be called generous. That’s all: tomatoes and water and very little meat. A slice of cornbread. If you wished “dessert” there was, always, a gallon jug on the table containing “black strap”—last-run molasses from the Angola sugar refinery. The jug was always full; no one ever ate any, because the roaches, rats and sundry filth which dropped into the molasses during process or into the great 3000-gallon magma storage tank, were never screened out. And no one could eat molasses without bicarbonate of soda as a chaser.

For Hard Day’s Work

This “meal” was one of three allotted by the state to its convicts in return for a hard day of toil.

You could not eat it? You could not sit crowded in a stifling dining room on a board bench, at a board table and eat it without a spoon … with your fingers? Then you might either starve or spend your money at the inmate store, which offered delicacies at fancy prices … 40 percent and more above the regular retail markup, the profits going jointly into the pockets of “Bad Eye,” the camp captain, and his brother-in-law, the then “yard man,” whose duties consisted mainly of seeing that his charges received a square meal.

Spoon? Fingers? Yes, you ate with either, according to your financial status. Spoons cost five cents; if you didn’t have the nickel you used your fingers. And you carried the spoon, handle bent, in your pockets; to work and to sleep.

Pay-Off Time

The noon meal is not half finished when a sudden hush stills the dining room clatter. “Bad Eye” is coming, and with him the “bat.” It is pay-off time for some unlucky soul.

The “bat” needs explaining. It was—and is—a three-foot long strip of sole leather, five inches wide. It is doubled near the two-foot wooden handle, and tapers to a round edge at its nether end.

“John Brown” was foreman of the work gang—‘the long line’ of field hands—at Camp E, the receiving unit which housed nearly 500 white men. “John” together with his brother “Jim,” foreman of the “red-hat gang” (about whom more anon) were men of middle-age and little or no schooling. It was the boast of both that they could get more work out of fewer men than any pair alive.

Noon Hour Fun

“John Brown” paid $90 per month, board and laundry, as foreman, had his sadistic “fun” cut out for the noon hour. As captain “Bad Eye” entered the dining room he drawled: “Well Cap, they’s some of these things can’t pick me enough tomatoes!” Then to the assemblage: “Old Butch … old Red-Haid … old Strawberry … come on up heah.”

Those called rose from their benches with alacrity, to have done otherwise would have only resulted in a worse beating. As they trooped up the aisle to the kitchen each man began removing his clothes. Each stood naked in the kitchen.

Spread-eagle, face down on the splintery, wood floor the convict was held by arms and legs by four others who had been drafted for the task among the diners.

The ‘Bat’ In Action

Placing his foot on the naked man’s neck, ‘Bad Eye’ asked: “So you can’t pick Mistah Brown’s tomatoes? You sorry, good fo’ nuthin! You want to just go out in the field and talk, eh? I’ll l’arn you about workin’, you heah?”

The ‘bat’ is first ‘curled’ under the shoe … the tip must be well sanded. It must bite and tear the flesh.

“Bad Eye” raised it over his head, with both hands, and brought it down with a sharp pop like a pistol shot on the naked man’s back. One … two … three … twenty; the count goes beyond thirty … the man moans, pleads for mercy, calls on God. The captain tells him: “You bettah call on someone closer to you—someone who kin help you!” The man then pleads with “Bad Eye”:

“Captain … please captain … please! I’ll work, captain sir! I’ll work and never fall out! Please captain!”

The flail blows reach 40, 41, 42 and stop. Another blow catches the man over the head as he is getting up from the floor. He hastens to get his clothes—to get back on the table.

(Next “Hell on Angola” installment— Kicks, Curses Part of Convict Guards’ Cruelty)

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