Louisiana State Penitentiary, commonly referred to as Angola, is the state’s only maximum-security prison with an inmate population of 5,108. LSP is located about 59 miles northwest of Baton Rouge in Angola, La., at the end of La. Hwy. 66.
The prison is surrounded on three sides by the Mississippi River and is built on 18,000 acres of some of the richest farmland in the south. LSP employs a workforce of 1,740, many of which choose to live on the property.
Of LSP’s inmates, 86 percent are violent offenders, and 52 percent are serving a life sentence. There are currently 84 male inmates sitting on death row at Angola.
Warden Burl Cain, along with St. Francisville resident Judge George “Hal” Ware, recently restored one of the original cellblocks called the Red Hat.
Built in 1934, two years after a couple of guards were killed during a prison escape, the Red Hat cellblock is locally significant as a milestone in the development of prisoner control.
Designated as Control Cells-E (CCE) when built, it would later become known as the Red Hat cellblock because prisoners confined to the unit worked in the fields while wearing felt or straw hats, the tops of which had been dipped in red paint. This distinguished the Red Hat inmates from other prisoner farm lines.
About 18 months ago, Judge Ware asked Warden Cain to consider establishing a machine shop at Angola. Ware said the shop could be used to repair equipment while providing job training for short-term inmates. Ware said the shop could also save the Department of Corrections a considerable amount of money each year by repairing machinery on-site.
Ware’s suggestion came at an opportune time considering that prison administrators were trying to come up with ways to save money due to the state requested budget cuts, but still keep the same adequate security and just treatment of inmates.
After getting the go-ahead from Warden Caine, Ware made a few phone calls and donated machines began coming in from across the country.
After a few months of inmate training, and after noting their amazing progress, Cain decided to use the shop to restore Red Hat. His goal was to return it to working condition in order to preserve the facility's history.
Assistant Warden Cathy Fontenot began researching the cellblock and prepared a detailed history of Red Hat. Her research, along with first-hand information from a few people who were around when the cellblock was operational, now provides a full history of Red Hat.
The concrete building consists of 40 cells which are 5 by 7 feet in size. The cells are windowless except for small screenless holes at the top of the outside walls for ventilation.
Cell doors were made of solid steel and barred at the top. The cellblock was used to hold inmates who were considered to be agitators, escape risks and dangerous.
Original bathroom facilities consisted of removable buckets in each cell, but during the 1940’s, the buckets were replaced with a hole in the floor. The holes were connected to an underground pipe running to the outside of the cellblock. Eventually toilets and sinks were installed, and these amenities can be seen, fully restored, in the cellblocks today.
Central heating and air were used from the initial construction of Red Hat in 1934 until the cellblock was decommissioned. “The heating and cooling system, provided my Mother Nature, proved to be very cost effective,” said Ware.
Because of the nature of the opening, closing and locking mechanism, steel doors had a flap opening for food. There were no padlocks used until the late '40’s or early '50’s, when many of the cell doors were modified with traditional open bars at the top.
Before this change, it would not have been possible to open any of the cell doors without the assistance of additional people. The mechanical door opening system was simple but elegant, and single-cell or multiple-cell doors could be selectively opened or closed. (The system was state of the art in 1934!)
In 1955, the Red Hat relinquished its status as the facility’s only cellblock, but continued to be used sporadically for the next 18 years as a disciplinary unit or to hold overflow inmates when major incidents involving a large number of offenders occurred.
In 1957, after lawmakers ordered all executions be carried out at Louisiana State Penitentiary instead of the parish where the crime was committed, a small chamber was built to the right of the Red Hat cellblock to maintain the state’s electric chair.
From 1957-1961, eleven executions were carried out at Red Hat.
It was closed permanently in 1973 as part of the U.S. Middle District of Louisiana court’s initial reforms over prison conditions.
In April of 2003, the Red Hat was designated as a historical landmark and listed on the National Registery of Historical Places.
Today, Red Hat is a popular stop on the prison tour; a major factor in deciding to have the building restored.