Angola was and still is very much a plantation. At 18,000 acres, it is the largest prison in the US—the only prison with its own zip code. Mostly black men are still maintaining the same agricultural activity—planting, hoeing, picking cotton and other crops by hand—that slaves did originally. And they are doing so as captives who are compensated for their back-breaking labor with mere pennies per hour. While Warden Cain may not be Simon Legree, he is still a plantation master—albeit one who uses Christianity as a means of controlling the neo-slave labor under his watch. The very same practices and social control mechanism that existed under slavery persist—just under a new name.
My interest in Angola is as both a paradigm of the Southern transformation of plantations into prisons and as a prototype for what we now call the prison industrial complex. Many old plantations in the South became prisons after the Civil War. Angela Y. Davis traces the initial rise of the penitentiary system to the abolition of slavery, writing: “in the immediate aftermath of slavery, the southern states hastened to develop a criminal justice system that could legally restrict the possibilities of freedom for the newly released slaves.”
Slave Codes became Black Codes and criminalized a range of activities if the perpetrator was black. The newly acquired 15th Amendment right to vote was curtailed by tailoring of felony disenfranchisement laws to include crimes that were supposedly more frequently committed by blacks. And, the liberatory promise of the 13th Amendment – “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall exist in the United States”- contained a dangerous loophole- “except as a punishment for crime”. This allowed for the conversion of the old plantations to penitentiaries, and this, with the introduction of the convict lease system, permitted the South to continue to economically benefit from the unpaid labor of blacks.