It was a cloudy, steamy day in Southern Louisiana. The tall razor-topped wire fences encircled the housing units of one of the most notorious prisons in America – the Louisiana State Penitentiary.
This prison, located in Louisiana’s steamy delta, is more popularly known as Angola. The prison covers 18,000 acres on what used to be several plantations, particularly the Angola Plantation. It is a productive farm with prisoners working the crops. It has also been called the “Alcatraz of the South.”
Wikipedia calls it the largest maximum security prison in the United States, reporting 5,000 prisoners and 1,800 staff members.
Angola is bordered on three sides by the Old Man himself – the Mississippi River.
This reflection is based on a visit to the prison in the 1960s. Conditions today are apparently far different and much improved. Just check Wikipedia for a complete report.
I was there with two of the most important men in my life – Fathers Alexander O. Sigur and Charles B. Fortier, respectively the founding editor and business manager of our diocesan newspaper, The Southwest Louisiana Register. The paper was then headquartered in the downtown offices of the Lafayette diocese’s chancery offices.
We had been carrying a series on prisoners and prisons in South Louisiana. We were here to look over the facility, speak with the warden and staff and with some of the prisoners. We were also to visit Death Row and Gruesome Gertie – the electric chair once used to dispatch socially undesirables, presumably all of them guilty. Today, death is by lethal injection.
Having visited prisons before, I wasn’t too surprised with what we saw there; it all looked the same but felt much worse. The atmosphere breathed of despair and hatred, of lost hope and a loneliness that seemed to permeate the very air we breathed.
The men on Death Row either ignored us or gazed at us with contempt; but one I’ll never forget: He reached through the bars to touch us, for us to touch him. His eyes, filled with tears were pleading. I’ve never ever seen such desperation and longing in another human being.
But I was in for a shock, a view of the most insensitive thing I have ever seen. We were given a ride from Death Row to visit Gruesome Gertie.
On the ride to the site of execution, as I sat in the back seat between a priest and a guard, I sensed emptiness and sadness, even a subtle fear as I imagined the condemned man going to his death.
The ride, as I recall, took us through a rather deserted area of the prison compound. We drove through a ditch and stopped outside a warehouse. Inside the warehouse, there were various materials, stacked up lumber and some things that looked like junk.
I could imagine the condemned man, shackled and hustled forward by guards through this trashy place, getting the message: “You are junk. You are being discarded.”
But that was nice compared to what we saw next, and what the condemned would see in the last moments of his life – the Death Chamber, the residence for Gruesome Gertie, Louisiana’s electric chair.
In the rear of the warehouse, the guard stood aside and opened a side door – and there was Gruesome Gertie, housed in something that looked like an old-fashioned outdoor Johnny. Huge electrical wires were linked from a power source to the top of the Death Chamber.
The condemned was treated to a horrifying, degrading view of his way out of this world.
I don’t ignore or minimize the terror and pain of victims of capital crimes or the unrelenting sorrow of their families.
However, I think we might agree that in degrading the condemned, given their heinous crimes, we are degrading ourselves.
Times have changed – but I’ll never forget that visit to Angola.
I’m still filled with revulsion as I think of it. And I am filled again with revulsion as I have to admit that at times I have that insane tendency to think of revenge more than justice – the kind of justice God wants for us and from us. His justice offers salvation, not condemnation (John 3:17).