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The Louisiana Penitentiary Museum and Early James Lee Burke

I recently visited Louisiana, mostly in New Orleans, but on a side trip north I discovered that the Louisiana State Penitentiary, long regarded as the nation's nadir in penology, has spiffed up its image under a new warden.

It has, in fact, opened a Museum with Gift Shop.

And what, you may be wondering, is featured in this Museum?  For starters, they've got the old electric chair there, looking oddly benign, with details on and pictures of the various men who have been executed over the years. A Hollywood section has posters and glossies from such movies as "Dead Man Walking" and "Out Of Sight." A sample cell is small and dingy, and an exhibit of various weapons confiscated over the years shows some amazing creativity. Among dozens of hand-made knives is one fashioned from a toothbrush, and there are a couple of shotguns made out of metal pipes.

A lot of school groups tour the prison (staying in their buses) and when we were there, a bunch of teenagers were getting ready to have their picnic lunch just outside the prison gates.

The docents are mostly retired wardens, oddly enthusiastic and full of fascinating stories.  The prison population, according to one, is now largely older men, 90% of whom are there for life. (Life imprisonment in Louisiana means just that—no parole.)  80% of the population is black, and Death Row is so crowded that they're building an extension.

The Gift Shop, by the way, offers an assortment of items, including boxer shorts, golf tees and t-shirts for "Angola: A Gated Community."

There's much more at:  http://www.angolamuseum.org/

Prior to this visit, most of what I knew about Angola came from reading James Lee Burke, and purely by serendipity, I had Burke's first novel, "Half of Paradise," with me.  It's not a mystery, but the three men it chronicles have various problems with the law and nobody lives happily ever after.  It's a beautifully written book, as all of his are, full of the rich characterizations and artful prose I've found in all his work.

It was published in 1965 when he was still in his twenties.  The last forty years have been a gift to us all.


All content © 2005-11 by Taffy Cannon.