When Wilbert Rideau was 19, in 1961, he killed a man in a bungled bank robbery. After being convicted and sentenced to death, he was sent to Louisiana State Penitentiary, known by prisoners, guards and locals as Angola after a slave plantation that previously existed on the site. Rideau was given the label C-18. The C stood for “condemned”, and the number denoted his place on the death-row list. His fate was to be the electric chair.
Rideau lived in isolation on death row for more than a decade, and read voraciously. He became interested in journalism and started to write. By the mid-1970s he was living in the main prison and editing the penitentiary’s in-house monthly magazine, the Angolite. In the end Rideau avoided execution, and today he is undoubtedly Angola’s most famous former prisoner. Under Rideau’s 20-year editorship, the magazine won many national awards, but he first made his name as a prison reporter with a column he called The Jungle. The very first topic he chose was the working of the prison economy.
Today there are almost 2.3 million prisoners in the US – by far the highest number of any country in the world. Louisiana today has the second-highest incarceration rate in the US (after Oklahoma overtook it in 2018), with a male incarceration rate that far exceeds the national average, and Angola is the state’s only maximum-security jail. It is also the country’s largest, covering an 18,000-acre site that is larger than Manhattan. On a mission to investigate the world’s most extreme economies, I set out for Angola. My hunch was that I would find examples of simplistic barter; what I discovered was an innovative, complex and modern system of hidden trade that offers an important lesson about the way economies work.
To read the full article free, head to The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/aug/30/prison-economy-informal-markets-alternative-currencies