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Two Die during Latest Angola Escape Attempt

Two Die During Latest Angola Escape Attempt

by Dan Pens

A guard and a prisoner were killed December 28, 1999 at Louisiana's maximum security penitentiary at Angola during a bungled escape attempt that ended after a two hour hostage standoff.

The guard, Captain David Knapps, 49, was beaten to death with a hammer when he refused to give up his keys to six prisoners, all serving life without parole, said Warden Burl Cain.

The warden said the incident began at about 8:30 p.m. in Camp D, an 850 bed unit of cellblocks and dormitories. A sergeant, Reddia Walker, noticed Capt. Knapps struggling with several prisoners near the camp's educational building. Walker sounded her alarm and ran to help, but she and another guard, Lt. Douglas Chaney, were taken hostage along with Captain Knapps and held hostage at knife point in a classroom.

The warden arrived, backed by the prison's tactical team, and began negotiating with the prisoners. Cain told the New York Times that one of the prisoners, 26 year old Joel Durham, hollered out: "I've got nothing to lose. I came here as a young man. I'm going to die in prison."

"Oh, it'll be all right," Cain replied, "We'll work it out."

"You haven't looked in the bathroom," Durham replied, according to Cain, apparently referring to the corpse of Capt. Knapps.

After a two hour standoff, and "after discovering Captain Knapps' body" [so the Times reported, but did not explain how the body was discovered, or by whom], the tactical team tossed a percussion grenade into the classroom and stormed the hostage takers.

Durham lunged at Sgt. Walker with a knife, Cain said, and "one of the officers shot him twice in the chest and once between the eyes," killing him instantly. Cain said another prisoner, David Mathis, 23, was shot "smack dab in the bottom of his lip," but survived.

Two days after the incident, a state judge signed arrest warrants for the surviving five prisoners, accusing each of first degree murder and aggravated kidnapping.

Captain Knapps, like many of Angola's employees, was part of a large family of prison guards. His father, five of his siblings, two of his children and his fiancee are all current or former Angola staffers, prison officials said.

He is the first guard to die at Angola since 1972 when Brent Miller was stabbed in a dormitory. That murder was pinned on Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace who were then leaders of the Angola Branch of the Black Panthers. Their convictions were based solely on the testimony of a paid informant; no physical evidence linked them to the killing. Wallace and Woodfox are still at Angola, having served nearly 30 years in solitary confinement.

Angola was the scene of an increasing number of troubling incidents in 1999. In January, four lifers escaped after a prison employee helped smuggle a can containing guns inside the walls. Three were captured, one shot himself rather than surrender.

In May, five CCR (Closed Cell Restricted) prisoners (including Woodfox and Wallace) initiated a hunger strike that was eventually joined by more than 60 CCR prisoners. On the third day of the strike the prisoners were told the warden would meet with them and they decided to end the hunger strike.

Guards told four of the prisoners to leave their cells to meet with the warden. But instead, the four were gassed., beaten, and charged with "inciting a hunger strike" and sentenced to one to three years in "Camp J", the punishment section of Angola where conditions are extremely harsh.

In November, four death row prisoners escaped by sawing through cell bars with smuggled hacksaw blades but were caught on the prison grounds as they headed toward the Mississippi River with a makeshift raft.

Ten days before the bungled escape in December, the Baton Rouge Sunday Advocate published a long article outlining how security lapses and collusion by prison guards had led to an alarming increase in violent incidents at the 18,000 acre prison plantation. Citing internal prison documents, the newspaper reported another recent incident where a prisoner with a 6 inch knife walked out of the main prison building and into another part of the complex, where he nearly stabbed a guard before being overpowered. The lapses in security have not escaped the attention of local law enforcement.

"It's been going on for quite some time," said Sheriff W.M. Daniel of East Feliciana parish (county), where Angola is located. "It's been kind of deteriorating over a period of time where the inmates are losing respect for the security personnel."

Of note is that none of the above cited incidents have been reported by the award winning prison magazine, The Angolite. Under previous Angola wardens, renowned Angolite editor Wilbert Rideau was given a free hand to publish hard hitting investigative reports of abuse and corruption at Angola. As a result, Rideau and The Angolite received international praise and the magazine was credited by many as being instrumental in bringing about positive changes at Angola by exposing the worst corruption and brutality.

Since Cain arrived in 1993, however, The Angolite has printed fewer "hard hitting" articles and, in fact, none of the above described incidents were reported on the pages of a once first rate prison news magazine. Not that Rideau and staff are to blame. Cain likes to control the flow of information out of Angola. He handles the mainstream media by dishing up a heapin' helpin' of down home corn pone homilies and southern fried soundbites. And he handles the Angolite by clamping down the repressive muzzle of censorship. The Angolite still publishes first rate prison news articles... just as long as they don't cover any of the "bad news" from the plantation.

Sources: New York Times, Associated Press, Revolutionary Worker, Baton Rouge Sunday Advocate

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