The prison cell is 6 feet by 9 feet. Its old metal bars evoke a William Faulkner truism: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
The cell was once on a patch of land owned by the Louisiana State Penitentiary. In the 19th century, that same land was home to a slave plantation. Both the prison and the plantation share the nickname Angola, referring to the African country from which its slaves came.
After slavery was abolished, the Angola plantation was purchased by a major in the Confederate Army who was awarded a lease to operate the state’s penitentiary. Inmates were housed in old slave quarters and subject to a notorious labor system that allowed private individuals to lease prisoners.
“People — mostly young black men — were rounded up for petty crimes, and they were put to work as a way to control the newly free,” said Paul Gardullo, a curator at the National Museum of African American History and Culture who organized the Angola exhibit.
Angola would become one of the nation’s largest maximum-security prisons — and one of its bloodiest. Over the many decades, reforms have been made, but criminal justice advocates continue to push for more. Angola, Gardullo said, is a lesson in the “long arc of history and what changes and doesn’t change.”
To tell the story of Angola, Gardullo and others from the Smithsonian contacted the prison’s former longtime warden, Nathan Burl Cain, for artifacts.
“It was a process of a little bit of convincing,” said Gardullo, who flew to Louisiana several times and visited the prison museum on Angola’s grounds. “They were open to talking about the past of the prison. They were less thrilled about us connecting that past to the present.”
But after a series of negotiations, prison officials agreed to donate a guard tower and a cell from part of the penitentiary no longer in regular use.
“Angola is a very historical prison,” Cain said in a statement after the donation was made. “It has a very colorful past, and a very horrible past as well.”
Item: Cell from Angola prison
Donor: Louisiana State Penitentiary
Museum exhibition: Power of Place
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