Officials at one of the United States’ most notorious prisons have reportedly punished an outspoken inmate for daring to correspond with reporters about conditions inside the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.
William Kissinger was abruptly relocated from Angola to the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center some 70 miles south in early February, after emailing with a reporter from the New Orleans Advocate for some weeks. Prison officials say he was moved as a disciplinary action because he was guilty of “defiance” and “general prohibited behavior,” the Advocate reports — two broad and vague rules of prisoner conduct that allow officials to punish inmates for anything they decide insults staff or impedes the prison’s function.
In the emails, Kissinger had shared a number of criticisms of Angola’s staff, including longtime warden Burl Cain. Cain was the focus of a series of Advocate stories over the winter, and he resigned from his post after the first few stories were published.
Most of the stories involved Cain’s many schemes to connect private outside companies with cheap prison labor. Kissinger, who is in prison for life on a murder conviction, helped expose one such scheme in the mid-1990s. At the time, the convicted killer was working as a legal aid to inmates. After Cain’s scheme got derailed in part because Kissinger spoke out, the warden reassigned him to physical labor on a farming unit — something Cain later admitted was retribution, according to the Advocate.
Louisiana Department of Corrections spokeswoman Pam Laborde confirmed that the disciplinary charges against Kissinger stemmed from his emails with reporter Maya Lau this winter. The Advocate describes that correspondence as “not threatening or profane” but notes Kissinger’s “descriptions include criticisms of the staff.”
Angola first became a symbol of the U.S. prison system’s abuses in the late 1990s, when the documentary The Farm: Angola, USA was nominated for an Academy Award. It is a hot, crowded, and brutal place, and serves as one of the primary corrections facilities for a state that ranks near the top of the nation in wrongful convictions — and where the poor are routinely deprived of their due process rights by an overloaded and underfunded criminal court system. Louisiana locks up more of its citizens than any other place on earth, and keeps most of them in for-profit prisons run by private companies whose contracts guarantee them a minimum occupancy rate.
The prison sits on a former slave plantation and gets its name from the nationality of the slaves who provided free labor there in a bygone era of American history. Today, prison labor is not quite free — most prison work programs pay at least a few pennies an hour — but the imprisoned are specifically exempt from the 13th Amendment’s prohibition on slavery.
Legal slavery in U.S. prisons often ends up propping up profits for outsiders, as with the schemes that were routine through Cain’s multi-decade career running Angola. But it also sometimes ends up serving the public more directly. Inmates shovel snow, fight wildfires, and even manufacture goods for the Pentagon.
These work programs have widely varying reputations. Sometimes prisoners get a chance to build genuinely marketable work or trade skills that may ease their re-entry into society after their sentences are up. In other cases, programs that officials justify with skill-building arguments are really make-work nonsense that allow somebody with a store to shave their overhead.