*The following is Part 2 of the Red Hat Restoration. Louisiana State Penitentiary 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.*
When the restoration began, Red Hat was in deplorable condition. The paint was peeling, mortar was falling from the walls, the door opening, closing and locking brackets had been removed with a cutting torch, the door bearings were frozen, the bottom door guides were missing or rusted and the cable and rod mechanism at the front and rear were totally inoperable.
The prisons new machine shop manufactured forty new guides and locking brackets along with forty new locking handles. The Museum Board funded the raw materials for these items. The windlass system was freed up, control rods and cables replaced, new bearing seats machined with new bearings installed in the return pulleys, bottom door guides machined and installed and the entire repaired system was reassembled, installed and properly adjusted.
Other departments of Angola that are overseen by Assistant Warden Bubba Butler contributed to the restoration by completing the sand blasting, welding, and mortar repair. They also installed period-correct toilets that had been removed from an old cellblock. Finally, fresh paint was applied to the entire cellblock.
The restoration of this historic building was accomplished through the volunteer efforts of Judge Ware and the work of the following offenders: Robert Cossich, Jeff Haggins, Chris Sanders, Jason Matthis, Daniel Beach, Bobby Jagers, Chris Gilkers, Thomas Johnson, Willie Robinson, Randoef Hawkins, Leslie Ray, Bernell Thomas, Jake Ortego, Craig Wilson, Edward McGary, Herman Billiot, David Martello and Shelby Arabie. The design work for the parts that had to be fabricated was a joint effort of all involved in the machine ship, with the final design and drawings supplied by inmate Shelby Arabie.
Inmates and former machinist trainees Jeff Haggins and Jake Ortego performed the actual machine work and reassembly of the parts. Both men, after working and training in the machine shop, are now accomplished machinists.
Warden Cain said the Red Hat restoration is important for many reasons. “It's so we don’t forget that the only thing that is permanent is change, and saving this part of the past is important to the future," the Warden said. "We don’t want the circle of hate and cruelty to come back around, and we don’t want to go back to the days of the Red Hat just because of money issues or budget cuts at our facility. Saving this building means something; it means we can learn from our mistakes of the past. We are doing this to remember where we’ve been and to make sure we don’t go back there. Preserving history for future generations is vital.
"I was raised to not throw things away. My mother taught me that, and that inspired me to open the Angola Museum and to restore these historical landmarks for the people," Cain said.
The Warden added that the restoration also brings revenue to the parish from the tourists that visit the prison. "We truly are working to do everything we can to help the community," said Cain. "Our events sell out, and those people spend money in and around the community. We now want to move on and restore other buildings at Angola, starting with the water pumps and motors.”
One notable inmate housed at Red Hat was LSP inmate #23409, Eldridge Roy Johnson, aka ‘Charlie Frazier.’ He was held for many years in the last cellblock in Red Hat with the door welded shut.
Later, Johnson would be the leader of an violent escape attempt that left a camp captain and two inmate guards dead. His escape was a motivating factor in the construction of Red Hat. He died while still in the custody of the Department of Corrections on July 3, 1959, at the age of 62.
Johnson's body was claimed by none other than the future President of the United States, Frazier's nephew, the senator Lyndon Baines Johnson.
For more information or to find out about visiting Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, visit www.doc.la.gov/LSP.
*For Part 1 of this story, search Red Hat at the top of the page.*