Angola site on list of U.S. historic places
ANGOLA -- Once used as a “working cellblock” for hardened criminals laboring in the farm fields, Louisiana State Penitentiary’s Red Hat building “works” again, but it won’t be used to hold prisoners.
Members of the Angola Museum’s board of directors and others met Friday to rededicate the 40-cell facility, built in 1935 and used as a maximum security facility until closed by federal court order in 1973.
In a project financed by the museum board, some of the prison’s best inmate craftsmen restored the Red Hat’s cell-door gang-locking mechanism, salvaged and installed vintage toilets, and thoroughly cleaned and painted the interior and exterior.
The cellblock was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2003, reflecting its significance as the first cellblock at Angola. Before then, prisoners lived in crude dormitory-style buildings.
The building became known as the Red Hat because its prisoners wore straw or felt hats dipped in red paint to distinguish them from other groups of prisoners toiling in Angola’s fields.
It held prisoners considered escape risks or who caused trouble elsewhere in the prison.
The building was hot in the summer, cold in the winter and infested with mosquitoes, said Angola employee Ike Vannoy, who worked the Red Hat’s 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift from 1972 to shortly before it closed.
“It wasn’t much better for the people who worked here as it was for the inmates put in here,” Vannoy said.
The Red Hat was always full during December, when inmates had to harvest sugar cane by hand.
“A lot of them didn’t want to cut cane. It was cold, wet and muddy in the cane fields,” he said.
The cells were 5 feet wide and 7 feet long, with a raised concrete slab for a bed space.
Angola built the Red Hat in 1935, in the aftermath of a 1933 escape in which two correctional officers were killed. Its most infamous prisoner was Charlie Frazier, who led the escape but eventually was captured.
“The September tragedy of 1933 showed clearly that troublemakers must be segregated and placed under conditions of very definite control,” the prison’s 1934-36 biennial report says.
Eleven prisoners were executed at the Red Hat between 1957 and 1961, including two condemned men sent to the electric chair on April 28, 1958.
Angola Warden Burl Cain said preserving the Red Hat is important because it represents a part of the past to which Louisiana should never return and shows how much the prison has changed for the better.
“Saving this building means something; it means we can learn from mistakes of the past,” he said.
Today, the building is a “must-see” stop on prison tours, including those for passengers on Mississippi River tour boats.
Cain credited 20th Judicial District Judge George H. Ware Jr. for driving the project, after first establishing a prison machine shop with equipment donated by Ware’s fellow machining hobbyists around the nation.
Inmates Jake Ortego, Jeff Haggins and Shelby Arabie worked to fashion missing locking mechanisms that allowed all, or some, of the doors on each side of the building to be opened through a system of rods, cable and pulleys.
Ware described the mechanical system as “simple but elegant.”
“Because single or multiple cell doors could be opened at the same time, I believe at the time, circa 1934, the system was state-of-the-art,” said Ware, who later gave a demonstration of the cell doors.
Ware said a book by Peter Tattersall, published in 1980, says Frazier’s real name was Eldridge Roy Johnson and that Frazier was an uncle of President Lyndon B. Johnson.
The judge said Frazier, after the 1933 escape, was said to have been held in the Red Hat in a cell with the door welded shut. Frazier died at Angola in 1959.