What a World

01.28.15 10:45 AM ET

Locked Up In Louisiana: Inside America’s Bloodiest Prison

From ‘Gruesome Gertie,’ the electric chair, to the warden who lashed inmates with a leather strap, Louisiana State Penitentiary celebrates its hellish past in a museum.

The Louisiana State Penitentiary boasts such pleasant nicknames as “Alcatraz of the South” and “The Bloodiest Prison in America,” but when pulled up on Google maps, it has a 4.4 star rating. “Was the loveliest place on earth. Loved it!” one reviewer writes. “[S]uch a fun time!” another gushes.

These, of course, are not written by inmates from inside the prison’s infamous walls, but by visitors to the Angola Museum, a low white building that draws travelers down miles of back roads north from Baton Rouge and dumps them off at an unlikely attraction: the looming gates of the country’s largest maximum security facility.

Right before the grounds of the 18,000-acre, 135-year-old prison, the museum awaits on the right, chock full of the unsavory history of one of the country’s most notorious prisons. And despite its macabre collections, prison aficionados are loving it: the museum boasts a 91 percent rating on Trip Advisor.

The exhibits begin with a room packed with replicas of the animals that roam Louisiana’s swamps. Though it seems entirely unrelated to the criminal system, perhaps this is to gauge whether an escaping prisoner might choose to be eaten by the area’s alligators than spend life in what’s displayed next: a replica prison cell of excruciating small dimensions or visitor photo ops.

This shiver-inducing cell experience is just the tip of the iceberg for what turns out to be a fascinating collection of prison history and culture. The museum’s relics span such an eclectic range as an electric chair, a handmade coffin, an inmate-painted portrait of President Barack Obama, and a pair of boxers once worn by P. Diddy when he played an Angola death row prisoner in Monster’s Ball.

The prison has actually been the setting for a number of Academy Award-winning films, including Dead Man Walking.

Each corner of the maze-like museum is stuffed with the bizarre, terrifying and chilling pieces of Angola’s history. A room displays relics and archival newspaper articles from a dramatic attempted escape in which two prisoners kidnapped the warden and his mother in 1982. The fake body hanging out of a car section that an inmate hid in to smuggle himself out of the prison gates caused this visitor to leap backwards.

“Gruesome Gertie,” the prison’s wooden electric chair in the back corner was last used in 1991, but a sinister aura—87 prisoners died in its arms—hasn’t been diluted by time. Above it, a clock is frozen at 12:01.

There’s a display of coffin-making techniques utilized by the prisoners, who give their dead a respectful, horse-drawn burial at Point Look-Out, the cemetery for those inmates unclaimed by families.

The most incredible display of human ingenuity can be found in a large glass case filled with homemade weapons and tools confiscated from inmates. The centerpiece is a shotgun crafted out metal pipes. Hung around it is a terrifying collection of inventions: knives made from the strap of a hydraulic door closer, the return carriage of a typewriter, and a three-hole punch, among other seemingly harmless materials.

One plastic comb handle carved into a key was so effective that all the locks had to be changed after its discovery.

These whittled weapons are only slightly less horrific than what’s in a nearby case: two broad-bladed medieval axes and a spiked ball on chain. Another is plastered with stomach-churning images of dead inmates who fell victim to a smuggled-in meat cleaver—also on display.

The Angola Museum was created in 1998 by the warden at the time to showcase more than a century of prison history, though it’s an unimaginably shameful past to put on display.

The prison’s roots go back to 1880, when a former Confederate major purchased a plantation called Angola, so named for the country where the region’s slaves came from. He began storing prisoners in the former slave quarters. After stories of brutality leaked from its walls, the state took control of the prison. Unfortunately, conditions didn’t improve.

In 1943, a former prisoner penned in an exposing series of articles about various abuses at Angola, including this one about a warden who’d roam with a three-foot leather strip to lash the inmates. “[He] raised it over his head, with both hands, and brought it down with a sharp pop like a pistol shot on the naked man’s back. One … two … three … twenty; the count goes beyond thirty … the man moans, pleads for mercy, calls on God. The captain tells him: 'You bettah call on someone closer to you—someone who kin help you!'”

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Conditions got so bad in the 1950s that 31 inmates sliced their Achilles tendons to bring attention to their poor treatment. In the following decades, sexual slavery was common place and gun-welding prisoners patrolled as guards called “khaki-backs.” In the early ‘70s, an average of 12 prisoners were stabbed to death each year.

Though these practices are long past, controversy still leaks out from the cells at Angola. The state of Louisiana has the top incarceration rate in the country, and for those at Angola not serving life without parole, the average sentence is 90.9 years. In 2013, Congress asked the Justice Department to investigate the prison’s “egregious” use of solitary confinement. That year, three death-row prisoners sued for a violation of constitutional rights.

But today, the prison is better known for its museum and famous rodeo than the “hell on earth” reputation it once had. The so-called “Wildest Show in the South” is a twice-yearly rodeo manned entirely by inmates. The attraction, which has been running for 50 years, draws thousands of spectators.

Last year, the two-day affair in April raked in $1 million for the prison’s education and recreational programs.

After room after room of gruesome displays, the museum ends on this slightly happier note: lists of rodeo winners, zig-zagging colorful outfits, and a mounted bull head.

This empties you into where you began, a room filled with paraphernalia. There are Angola-stamped boxer shorts and barbecue sauce. “Angola: A Gated Community” is splayed across a selection of shirts and sweatshirts.

After a loop through the museum’s maze and back in earshot of the stream of cars going in and out of the prison facility, there’s something sinister about these souvenirs.