Penal System

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“The jailor turns the key on the large flat-iron door with a narrow viewing slit, pulls it open wide, and pushes you not-so lightly on your back with his baton. He clangs the door behind you, twists the key, and shoots the steel lock-bar. And just like that, you enter your new home: the Orleans Parish Prison Penitentiary.”

“It’s little different from any jail that you may have seen on television or been inside elsewhere within the United States. Jails, and their occupants, are not known for their creativity. The toilet stinks, the air smells of stale sweat, cigarette smoke, and mattresses that have turned black with body grease. The walls are scratched with the names of prior residents, racial slurs, peace signs, crude scribblings of male and female genitalia, and other facile scatologies. More enterprising people have climbed atop the cell bunks and burned their names across the ceilings with cigarette lighters. On the floor area around the main door is a ‘dead line’, a white line painted in a rectangle inside of which no one is supposed to stand when the door opens and the night-screws and trustees roll in the rusty food cart with its cold, barely edible rations of grits, instant coffee, and fried pork butts.”

“Until evening lock-down, you’re free to roam around in the area called the bull run, take showers, play cards with a deck whose missing members have been replaced with cards fashioned out of penciled cardboard, or stare listlessly out the window at the top of sunlit trees swaying in a clean breeze that can no longer touch you.”

“And the company is without equal. Alongside the usual drunkards, streetcar gropers, and those too penniless to post bail, there are the ‘regular’ irregulars: the violent sociopaths and the criminally insane. You might meet an enormous, demented negro by the name of Jerome “Hugs” Duparde who smothered his own infant child because he had a headache. He’ll entertain you by arguing with himself, urinating on the floor of his cell, bashing his head against the bars, and searching his toilet bowl for the key he ‘knows’ was left there by the warden just for him. Or you might meet a peckerwood reject from the Third Reich, a Neo Nazi biker who traffics illegal firearms to local Ninth Ward gangs just to watch the ‘niggers’ shoot themselves -and pay him for the pleasure of it. He’ll gladly tell you he’s in jail for the tenth time for using a nail-gun to crucifix his girlfriend against a barn-door (But don’t fret -she had it coming because she fooled around during his last jailhouse stint). Maybe you’ll meet a serial rapist and sodomist who’s wanted in Alabama and is just waiting to be shipped out for his big court day and his inevitable TV dramatized documentary. Perhaps you might run into a Vietnamese thug and car booster who garroted his business partner with jumper cables and cuts his china white with baby powder and prescription-strength laxatives. Or maybe you’ll have the pleasure of sharing a bunk with a four-time loser like Biff McCready, a fat, grinning, and absolutely vacant-eyed man who murdered a whole family after escaping from Sugarland Farm in Texas. Or perhaps you’ll meet the boss of this fine establishment -no, not the warden, but the old mobster who has guards buff his shoes, bring him fresh-cut flowers, and make his stay like a visit to the Ritz. One wrong word or look to one of these ’guests’ and you’re liable to have one of them chuck a gasoline bomb into your lap or shove a sharpened toothbrush into your ear. Then again, even if you somehow manage to navigate the diplomatic minefield of psychopaths, most of these deviants will still melt you into grease for an extra pack of cigarettes or the chance to impress their newest jailhouse bitch.”

“At night, you can hear such luminaries breaking wind, babbling to themselves, masturbating, and snoring. They’ll sing jailhouse blues like ‘My soul is a paper bag at the bottom of your garbage can’ and inanely recycle “That’s what she said” jokes. You can try to sleep, but it’s an exercise worthy of Sisyphus. Iron doors slam all day and night. Drunks shake doors against the jams, and irritated street cops retaliate by raking their batons across the bars. People are gang-banged and sodomized in the shower, their cries lost in the clouds of steam dancing off the tiles. The crazies howl their apocalyptic insight at the windows like dogs baying under a yellow moon.”

“It’s no wonder the place curses its inhabitants with a grimy malaise. Yet, the fatigue runs deeper than the physical. Stay more than a night or two in the pen, and the ennui bites into the bone and leaves the muscles as flaccid as if they had been traversed by worms. It’s a spiritual fatigue, a sense of failure, moral lassitude, defeat, and fear that comes with spending time with the worst that humanity has to offer -and seeing much of it in yourself. Stare into that abyssal mirror long enough, and you’ll likely realize that maybe you and the others deserve to be locked up like animals. Because ultimately that’s what we are: animals fit for a cage.”

~Louis Fontaine, retired NOPD detective and regular (but only sometimes voluntary) visitor of the parish jail

“I drove up to Angola, north of Baton Rogue, rolled past the cattle-guard and the fences topped with rolls of razor-wire, and followed the narrow road past the block and the enormous fenced compound where both the snitches and big stripes were kept in lock-down. Through fields of sweet potatoes and corn and freshly plowed acreage that dipped down to the water, I passed by the old cemetery where its interred felons serve time for the rest of eternity. Beside the boneyard, there stood the bulldozed and weeded foundations of Camp A’s sweat-boxes. There had been two of them, upright and cast-iron places of torment with a single hole the diameter of a cigar to breathe through, the space so tight that if a convict collapsed, his knees and buttock would wedge against the walls and burn from the sunbaked metal. Next was the crumbled ruins of the stone buildings left over from between the War Between the States that used to house negro inmates, including three of the best twelve-string blues guitarists: Leadbelly, Robert P. Williams, and Hogman Matthew Maxey. And finally, the old Red Hat house, down by the riverbank. A squat ugly off-white building that took its name from the red-painted straw-hats worn by the big stripe levee gangs who were locked there before the building became the home of the electric chair, which has since been moved to a more modern environment, one with tiled walls that glow with the clean antiseptic light of a physician’s clinic. The Mississippi River was high and churning with mud and uprooted trees, and out on the flat among the willows, I saw a gunbull on horseback working a gang of convicts, his Stetson slanted and shotgun slung low. That burial ground is a burial place for an untold number of convicts who were murdered, some as object lessons by prison personnel. Ask anyone who worked in Angola or did time there. There used to be two old-time gun-bulls, brothers, who would get sodden and mean on corn whiskey, sometime take a nap under a tree, then wake, single out some hapless soul and tell him to start running, and then kill him. It’s no wonder Angola’s so frequently called the Farm –few just no that the main crops they plant are misery, banality, and bones.”

~Louis Fontaine, retired NOPD detective whose regular ‘donations’ helped maintain Angola’s population.

Penal System

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