*Note: This article was not written by The PBS Blog, it is featured as part of the continuation of an ongoing series and is written by Laura Dimon. Please view our Guest Feature or Article Section for Part 1*
In 1972, the prisoners were virtually all black. Merciless guards — all white men, called “freemen” — worked the inmates like slaves. Sugar cane was the main crop, King said. In the documentary film In the Land of the Free, it’s stated that the inmates labored all day every day for a measly $.02 per hour. The abuse didn’t stop there. As NPR reported, “There was a prisoner slave trade and rampant rape; inmates slept with J.C. Penney catalogs tied to their waists for protection.” King was one of three men who formed the famous Angola 3 group, leaders of the Black Panther Party’s Angola chapter. King said they were fighting for equality, but he later realized their efforts had been misaimed: “We were focused on civil rights, but we didn’t have human rights,” he said.
In our most recent conversation, I asked King, “How’s it going?” “It’s … ongoing,” he replied. It’s easy to see why: Little has changed at Angola. It remains a time warp, a living, breathing relic of a shameful past. Of about 6,000 inmates currently in custody, roughly 70% are black and 30% are white. In October 2008, NPR reported, “In the distance on this day, 100 black men toil, bent over in the field, while a single white officer on a horse sits above them, a shotgun in his lap.” The context of this modern day slave plantation is unfortunately appropriate. Nola.com wrote that Louisiana is the world’s “prison capital,” with 1 in 86 residents serving time — nearly double the national average. The racial skew is extreme. One in 14 black men in New Orleans is behind bars; 1 in 7 is either in prison, on parole or on probation. Louisiana is “notorious for racial disparities in its justice systems,” Andrew Cohen wrote in the Atlantic.
One highly concerning aspect of Louisiana’s judicial scheme is that, unlike in 48 states, a unanimous jury decision is not required — only 10 jurors have to vote to convict someone, even for a life sentence. Oregon is the only other state with this system, but it doesn’t have the same tremendous racial component. Cohen wrote, “Prosecutors can comply with their constitutional obligations to permit blacks and other minority citizens to serve as jurors but then effectively nullify the votes of those jurors should they vote to acquit.” It is one of “the most obvious and destructive flaws in Louisiana’s broken justice system,” he wrote, arguing, plain and simple: “Louisiana is terribly wrong to defend a law that was born of white supremacy.”
A Duke University study examined more than 700 non-capital felony criminal cases in Florida and found that, in cases with no blacks in the jury pool, blacks were convicted 81% of the time while whites were convicted 66% of the time. The researchers concluded that “the racial composition of the jury pool has a substantial impact on conviction rates” and that “the application of justice is highly uneven.”
Image Credits: AP, Peter Puna, Robert King, Google Images