Professor’s poetry uncovers gruesome history

As a poet, I’m always on the lookout for anything that might contain the seed of a poem. Often I find ideas sprouting right in my own backyard, but this past summer, funded by a summer scholarship grant, I followed a potential poetic trail to the Angola State Penitentiary in Angola, Louisiana. My goal was to research a particular moment in Angola’s history: In 1951, 37 inmates slashed their Achilles tendons. Prison officials called it a power ploy, while other sources viewed it as an attempt to make public Angola’s brutal conditions. An investigation, led by an appointed group of local citizens, led to substantial reform.

I first read about this incident when I was researching material for an article Professor of English Mary Vermillion and I wrote about the Mount Mercy Prison Book Club, a student-inmate book discussion group at Anamosa State Penitentiary. Walter Rideau, a prisoner at Angola for many years, became a strong advocate for literacy opportunities in prison. In Rideau’s memoir, “In the Place of Justice,” he gave a brief history of Angola that included one sentence about the heel slashers. I remember shaking my head in disbelief when I read that line: Prisoners attacked themselves? I wanted to know more.

My original thought was to write one poem about the event, but as I read more, I saw the potential for a much larger project, and so on a sweltering July morning I found myself inside the gates of Angola.

Angola is unlike any prison I’ve visited. To begin with, the prison encompasses 18,000 acres, with 6,300 inmates—the largest maximum security prison in the U.S. The prison began as a plantation, and it still has its roots in agriculture, demonstrated by the inmates I passed harvesting sweet corn. Angola raises all its own vegetables and supplies several other prisons with produce. While the facilities that house inmates have changed drastically since 1951, I was able to visit a no-longer-used barracks that housed some of the heel slashers, as well as an historic cell block known as the Red Hat where problematic prisoners were housed during that era. I also talked extensively with the Angola archivist—a former criminal justice professor—who has a deep knowledge of Angola’s history.

Besides the four-hour tour of Angola, I explored the Angola Museum, just outside the prison gates; poked around in the 1951 attorney general records at the state archives; and read a collection of inmate letters sent to Maggie Dixon, editor of the Baton Rouge Morning Advocate and vice-chair of the citizen committee that investigated Angola following the heel slashings.

I took a ton of notes. Right now I’m in the process of organizing and brainstorming how I might reconfigure these materials into poems. I’ve also been following current newspaper articles about prison conditions and imagining how I might create some resonance between what happened 64 years ago and current prison issues.

It will likely take me at least another year to write all the poems that have been stirred up by this research trip, but here’s a poem that has already emerged.

The Heel Slashers:  Remaking Achilles

These thirty-seven men had no hope
of being immortal. After crossing
the River Styx into the Underworld
of Angola, they were already forgotten,
seeking only to live long enough
to return to the free world. For them,
the razor arrow, crippling as it might be,
held the hope of mortality, the chance to live
before dying.

If they couldn’t walk
they couldn’t work in the fields,
and if they couldn’t work in the fields
they wouldn’t have to confront the convict guards
who towered above them on horseback
and carried guns. And so they passed the dull blade
from man to man in Camp E, the strongest tendon
in the body snapping like a windowshade.

They did not flinch as they hobbled
to the hospital in Camp H
dragging their disconnected feet,
praying this would be the heel
that would save them.


Written by Carol Tyx, Professor of English