At Louisiana State Penitentiary, despair has a name: Gov. Buddy Roemer.
The maximum-security prison, once among the nation’s bloodiest, is under a state of emergency declared by U.S. District Judge Frank Polozola after a string of murders, suicides and escapes this year. Inmates blame Roemer’s stinginess with clemency for the 4,800 men, most serving life or very nearly life.
“It’s the hope of release that generates faith in the system. When an inmate loses faith, you have a ticking time bomb,” said Ron Wikberg, who has served 21 years of a life sentence for murdering a grocery clerk during a robbery in Lafayette.
Roemer granted clemency to four people--only one of them from Angola--and approved 10 pardons from March 13, 1988, to June 23, 1989. Predecessor Edwin Edwards approved clemency for 42 people and 22 pardons from March 13, 1984, to June 23, 1985, the start of his last term in office.
Inmates accuse Roemer of going back on his word to reduce sentences fairly, based on merit. Under Edwards, money and political connections got inmates out of prison, they said. Howard Marsellus, Edwards’ pardon board chairman, is now serving five years in prison for his role in a pardon-for-sale scandal.
When model prisoners have no hope of release, they try to escape or kill themselves, Wikberg said. “Unmodel prisoners” assault or kill others.
“I don’t believe that’s the problem. That’s an excuse,” Roemer said.
“There’s two schools of thought,” said state Department of Corrections chief Bruce Lynn. “One, inside the prison, says they need more clemency. The people on the outside say, ‘No they don’t.’
“The governor’s caught between a rock and a hard place.”
Prisoners cite the case of lifer Francis “Corky” Clifton, 52, who after 27 years in prison was made a trusty, tending bloodhounds and attack dogs. But two months ago he ran away from the house where he lived, forfeiting the chance to spend the rest of his sentence free of chains and cells.
“I realized I had a lot to lose,” Clifton said after surrendering five days later. “To think you’re going to die here, it just gets to you. It gets to working on your mind.”
Assistant Warden Roger Thomas said: “The unwritten message from other inmates and employees used to be, ‘If you behave yourself, in 10 or 15 or 20 years you’re going to be able to go home.’ What’s happening is the long-termers aren’t going home.”
Consequently, many prisoners believe they have nothing to lose, he said.
Inmates want only what they have earned, said Wilbert Rideau, the editor of the award-winning prison magazine The Angolite.
“They’re not asking for anything special. They’re asking for people to treat them fair. I can’t imagine the average citizen having a problem with that,” said Rideau, 47, who has served 28 years of a life sentence for slashing the throat of a bank teller in Lake Charles.
“The bottom line is he needs to grant clemency to deserving inmates. He needs to keep his word to prisoners,” said Floyd Webb, 36, who has served nine years of a life sentence for a shotgun slaying in St. Tammany Parish.
Wikberg, 46, an associate editor of The Angolite, said much of the dissatisfaction can be traced to an April “20-20" television show on Rideau and his inability to secure release. “Every inmate at Angola was watching that show.”
In the “20-20" piece, Roemer made his stand on clemency clear.
Clifton said that was when he decided to flee.
On May 1, lifer Steven Calloway Howard, 34, escaped after 10 years in prison. He was captured nearby three days later.
On May 8, lifer Donald Fink, 39, tried to run off and, after warning shots, was wounded by guards. “I’m tired and I’m going home,” long-term inmate Henry Patterson quoted Fink as saying.
Angola has long had a reputation as a hard place. The state’s 38 Death Row prisoners live here, close to “Gruesome Gertie,” the electric chair used to execute 18 men since 1983. Eight were executed in the summer of 1987.
The 18,000-acre prison, 50 miles north of Baton Rouge, is surrounded by the Mississippi River on three sides and the impassable Tunica Hills on the other. The location is remote, accessible only by a single, winding dirt road.
In 1971, the American Bar Assn. described conditions as medieval, squalid and horrifying. Inmates told of the “Red Hat,” where unruly prisoners were kept naked in dark, damp dungeons and given only spoonfuls of food. There were reports of 70 murders in 18 years and rampant homosexuality.
State of Emergency
In 1975, Polozola of Baton Rouge declared the prison in a state of emergency. Ross Maggio, called “the gangster” by inmates for his unwavering adherence to rules, was brought in as warden to scour away the blood and filth.
By most accounts, he succeeded. Food was improved, wretched dining halls were cleaned, prisoners were kept busy with work in the fields and organized recreation. More guards were hired and given better pay.
The prison seemed dormant for almost a decade until four murders, four suicides, 64 stabbings and 11 escapes in 14 months forced Polozola to declare a new state of emergency June 21. Another suicide occurred earlier this month.
The fury at Angola is hidden behind the concertina wire. The grounds are trim and neat. Guard towers rise above white fences, rows of corn and herds of cattle. The prison camps look washed and the steel bars are painted.
Maggio, who retired in 1984, is coming back as Polozola’s court-appointed prison specialist, but Warden Hilton Butler remains in his job. Polozola will not comment about the case.
Maggio is a nervy man. Kidnapped at knifepoint with his mother by two trusties in 1982, he ran his truck into the main gate, grabbed a pistol from a guard and unloaded it into the cab. One inmate was killed and another wounded. Doris Maggio, then 64, was cut by the windshield’s spraying glass.
Butler, chosen warden of the year in 1987 by the North American Assn. of Wardens, said Maggio isn’t needed, that there is no state of emergency. What is needed, he said, is more guards and better pay for them.
For two years, Butler has run Angola with a $46-million budget and 1,200 guards. This year, budget cuts deprived guards of the $100-a-month premium for working in a maximum-security prison. It’s been years since they had a raise.
That doesn’t help inmates either, Wikberg said. “There’s a ripple effect here. When employees are happy they treat prisoners a bit better. When they’re demoralized, it’s hard on inmates.”
“It’s a situation that’s ripe for anything,” Webb said.