Golf Behind Prison Bars

The first article I ever wrote for Golf Magazine, published in the fall of 2003, was about my visit to Prison View Golf Course, built by inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, once the most infamous lock-up in America. The warden at Angola then was the unctuous Burl Cain, who used the same tone of voice whether musing on shooting prisoners or shooting armadillos. He later resigned facing allegations of corruption.

State Road 66 in West Feliciana Parish ends at Louisiana’s most famous gated community and newest golf course. For those who built this scrappy track 59 miles north of Baton Rouge, it really is the end of the road: Prison View Golf Course is part of the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, America’s largest maximum-security prison and for many years its bloodiest.

Prison View opened to the Angola staff in July, and when a no-frills clubhouse is added this winter, the public will be welcome, too. “I think a lot of people would love to go to a maximum-security prison and play golf,” says warden Burl Cain, who would not be out of place in Cool Hand Luke. A sign in his office reads, If the warden ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.

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Golf at Prison View in Louisiana.

Inmates maintain the course, and Cain says he’ll explore using them as caddies: “It’s pretty unique to have a man with a life sentence carry your clubs.” Caddies would have ample time to learn the nuances of the layout: The average sentence here is 88 years. More Angola inmates die of natural causes each year than are released.

Prison View is only the latest innovation—along with drama and boxing clubs and a Bible college—at a penitentiary where inmates used to sleep with phone books on their chests to protect against stabbing. 

Today, Cain boasts, Angola is safe even for women. “Miss America could walk anywhere in this prison and there’d be no whistles or catcalls.” 

Public skepticism about the project was predictable but short-lived. “The first concern was, Are you gonna have a golf course for inmates?” the warden recalls. “Well, no, I’m not. I’m going to make them employable so they won’t hurt you no more.” 

Although 64 percent of Angola’s 5,108 inmates are serving life sentences, Cain insists those working on the course will learn skills they’ll need when they re-enter society. “There’s not any corn or cotton to pick in New Orleans,” he says, nodding toward Angola’s vast prison-labor farm. “But if we train inmates in landscape architecture and maintenance of greens, they would be employable in that field.” The course will also be a boon to the 600 employees and their families who live at the 18,000-acre prison, which has its own fire department, airstrip and zip code.

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Everything at Prison View—from its 17-acre lake to its yardage markers—was made by prisoners, almost all of whom were convicted of violent crimes and none of whom is allowed to play the course. Inmates earn just 20 cents an hour, and the project cost only $80,000. The money came from concession sales at the prison rodeo, which draws about 10,000 spectators each year. This low-budget, do-it-yourself approach explains the choice of course designer: Dr. John Ory, the prison dentist.

Ory’s knowledge of golf architecture was gleaned from books as well as long hours of watching Arnold Palmer’s team build the nearby Bluffs on Thompson Creek. Ory built two sets of tees on each of his nine holes to create a 6,073-yard, par-72 design from a pancake-flat bull pasture.

“There’s a level of pride in the prisoners who work here. You can see this is not a mean, ugly place,” Ory says, standing on the first tee atop 50-foot-high Rattlesnake Hill, the only elevation change in sight. (“I’m worried about armadillos rooting up that hill,” Cain had said. “We’re going to have to shoot ’em.”)

“There’s unlimited potential if you have the manpower we have,” says Ory. In the fairway below, his horticulture team tends flower beds while a rifle-toting female guard keeps watch. “That’s Alphabet,” he says, nodding toward a prisoner convicted of murder. “He has a really long name so they just call him Alphabet. A good worker. He ran over his wife, but then he waited around until the cops came.”

Prison View offers faint echoes of Pete Dye (a par-3 island green) and Donald Ross (a Pinehurst-like crowned green and collection area). But Ory solved design problems the greats never encounter. As he was staking out the 7th tee soon after he took on the project, he found himself beneath the razor wire and watchtowers of Camp J, where 400 of the prison’s hardest cases are held in lockdown.

“I’m a little bit too close to this tower, right?” he asked a guard.

“Yup, Doc,” came the reply.

“This hole just got 30 yards shorter,” he said, and moved the tee forward.

Only “trustees” who have served at least 10 years with good behavior get to work at the course. Angola’s 87 Death Row inmates are ineligible. “They’d run away so we’d shoot ’em and they wouldn’t have to face execution,” Cain explains. 

One trustee working on the course is Kevin Maniere, who has served 26 years of a life sentence for murder. “I didn’t want to work on the golf course at first, but it’s a great job,” he says. “They just leave you alone.” Maniere toils from 7 a.m. until 3 p.m., and even on a scorching August morning he prefers tending bunkers and digging drainage trenches to farm work. “I used to pick cotton, so it’s a change for the better. I’m peachy keen,” he says with a grin.

“The inmates want to show the public they are not animals,” Cain says, “not devils with horns on their heads.”

Inmate Michael Chapman had seen golf courses only on television before he began tending Prison View’s bunkers. “It beats working in the field,” he says, as other prisoners pick cotton under the watchful eye of an armed guard on horseback. Still, Chapman has no illusions about using his experience at Prison View to make a fresh start on the outside: “Not as long as I got a four-letter word after my name.” He means “life.”

Published in Golf Magazine, December 2003.

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