Why on earth would a vacation tour stop at a maximum-security prison? I suspect that the state of Louisiana encouraged Road Scholar to include a visit to Angola to burnish the state’s reputation. It worked.
I do not believe that we were shown all aspects of the Louisiana State Penitentiary. Looking online, I saw reports and images that were more like what one would expect. Still, what we did see was encouraging, giving me a little more hope for our species.
The prison sprawls over 18,000 acres, housing some 5,000 male prisoners, most of whom are serving life sentences with no possibility of parole. At one time the prison had the reputation of being a bloody and dangerous place – the worst in the country.
Now, not so much. The prisoners work: on the rich farmland and in cottage industries. They have their own television station, broadcasting throughout the complex. They have places of worship for most religions. They even have service clubs. And an annual rodeo. They have created a sort of alternate universe where they can have almost normal lives while incarcerated.
Our tour had come up the Mississippi from New Orleans on a paddlewheel boat. We disembarked and boarded a bus that took us into the vast prison complex. Our first stop was at the stables where we ‘met’ some horses. We drove through fields brimming with produce then we stopped in front of what looked like a chapel.
Entering, sitting in the pews, we saw two men, each holding the leash for a dog. It turned out that the men, both prisoners, were training the dogs to be service dogs for veterans. Dogs are rescued from shelters and the offenders work with them over the course of a year until they are ready to help veterans restore their physical and emotional independence.