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
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
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.