Inmate leadership at one of America’s most notorious prisons

I recently had the opportunity to tour Angola Prison as a part of my internship. A former plantation, the Louisiana State Penitentiary was once the most dangerous institution in the country and remains the largest maximum security prison in the US. I decided to reflect on the leadership dynamics I witnessed at the prison instead of at my organization because I found it a more illustrative and unique example. Further, many of our clients at Orleans Public Defenders begin their journey being represented by us and end it (unfortunately) at Angola prison. OPD is a client oriented organization whose credo is rigorous defense and service above all. I would be remiss to highlight only the leadership dynamics of the office’s staff and not the population it serves. 

One of the first men we met at Angola was serving a life sentence and had been incarcerated since he was 19. He went on to become a leader in the re-entry and divinity programs, earned a bachelors degree, become a sermon leader at one of Angola’s many churches, and is two weeks away from completing his masters. Many of the inmates who have been incarcerated for a long time and have a record of good behavior are eligible to achieve more lenient levels of supervision. Some even take on leadership positions in their jobs at the prison. Many of these clearances can take ten years or more to achieve. As a result of this, most of the re-entry programs are overseen by people incarcerated for the most egregious crimes with the harshest sentences. While the inmate leaders obviously answer to the correctional officers, they and the inmates they oversee work autonomously on a basis of earned trust. Many of the leaders in the vocational re-entry programs (automobile trades, etc) have special certifications the guards do not possess, and thus function as the “highest-up” in that program. It is worth noting, however, that Angola is a hard labor DOC institution, so everyone must work and many inmates work in the fields for decades against their will making between two and eighty five cents an hour. The comparison between forced, underpaid labor at Angola and the institution’s history of enslavement is not lost on any of us. I believe the leadership style of the inmates who oversee programs and faith based organizations is transforming or charismatic. They must transcend present circumstance and elevate their followers to higher levels of motivation and morality (ie: taking responsibility for their offenses and coping with a life sentence) as well as inspire hope in people that will die in maximum security prison. 

I am struggling how to categorize the dynamic between the correctional officers and the inmates at Angola. Some of the officers come from families who have worked at the prison spanning multiple generations, and they seem to take a lot of pride in the work that they do. However, I am reluctant to characterize the relationship between the guards and the incarcerated men as one that constitutes “leadership.” The gaping power differential between an armed prison guard and an imprisoned man forced to toil in Angola’s fields for the rest of his life may sooner constitute coercion than leadership. Are the inmates willing followers who are driven by their own self interest and preference to obey the guards, or are they under implicit or explicit threat to heed their command?

One thought on “Inmate leadership at one of America’s most notorious prisons

  • July 30, 2019 at 3:46 pm

    Really interesting to think about the leader/follower relationships in the penitentiary given that it is the context for your organization’s clients. Interesting that within the world of the penitentiary, there is a whole hierarchical leadership system (to some extent) that is enacted by incarcerated individuals; really interesting. Also interesting dynamic in that there are some incredibly skilled inmates with leadership roles who have more ‘expert’ or ‘information’ power than the guards. Given this, it seems that there must be times when these incarcerated ‘leaders’ are making decisions (versus the guards making them). Would be interesting to see when guards and legitimate penitentiary staff are the ones who make final decisions and when the incarcerated leaders are the ones that make the decisions; what is the deciding element, component in regards to who makes final call. Maybe it is always the legitimate, formal leadership?

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