During our recent stop in Louisiana, the Mobile East Team closed our Booth in New Orleans for two days and headed to the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola. There, we found community both behind bars and outside the cell blocks.
Clifford Hampton and Kuantau Reeder have been incarcerated at the Louisiana State Penitentiary 51 years and 17 years, respectively. They discussed the choices and circumstances that brought them to prison, how their outlook has changed since their incarceration, and their hopes for the future. They also discussed punishment, redemption and forgiveness.
Maurice Rabalais and his mother, Dora Rabalais, talked about what it is like living, working and raising a family at Angola Prison. The Rabalais family has lived and worked at Angola Prison for three generations. Maurice and Dora talked about the closeness of the community of employees at Angola. Maurice spoke of how he feels at home as soon as he sees the Louisiana Penitentiary sign at the gates to the prison and that when he helps a co-worker at Angola it is likely he’s also helping a neighbor.
Lane Nelson and Gary Tyler discussed their shared experiences — first living as prisoners on death row, and then, after their release, working in the prison’s hospice program. Lane remembered shaking hands with men walking down the hall on death row to be executed. He couldn’t help but contemplate his own death. Now Lane and Gary help others face death, as volunteers in hospice. They take pride in their work, particularly when patients specifically request them to be their hospice volunteers. They have sat with many people as they passed. Lane remembers one patient who kept hanging on to life long enough to see his family. After the family’s last visit, Lane told him he was free to go, and he closed his eyes and was gone.
Assistant Warden Joe Lamartiniere talked about his work in Angola and his experiences evacuating prisoners from New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. Joe is now Assistant Warden at Angola and leader of the prison’s tactical team. He led the evacuation of Jefferson Parish and New Orleans Jails during Katrina. His team started with the ground level and watched the water rise by the levee. He cut a hole in the metal wall to open the jail and evacuate the inmates. On their final day in New Orleans they evacuated the officers and their families. In his 18 years in corrections Joe has met a lot of inmates, and is often recognized in jails and prisons that he visits.
Additional participants at Angola included Robert M. Tycer and Johnny Bert Dixon; Donald Humble and Ray Jones; Edrick Jenkins; Kerry Myers; Kevin Seward and Stephan Ross Proctor; Ron C. Hicks and Donald R. Biermann; Ronnie J. Fruge and Wanda Fruge; and Bert Dixon.
We’d like to thank the staff and inmates of the Louisiana State Penitentiary for welcoming us and sharing their stories. Special thanks also to Whitney Henry-Lester, Lillie Love and Mitra Bonshahi for contributing to this post.