Louisiana’s ‘Prison View’ Golf Course Promises Arresting Views And Captivating Play
If you’ve dismissed the story that there’s a public golf course on the grounds of Angola as an urban myth, you have some backtracking to do.
Prison View Golf Course is every bit as real as Angola’s guards on horseback, razor wire and world famous rodeo.
Not only is the course real, but the price is right. You can play the course for $10. Add $5 for a cart fee.
The experience of playing this course will differ somewhat from the typical golf course experience. And the differences extend beyond the fact that the course just has nine holes.
Your Prison View Golf Course experience begins on a rise 75 yards up in Tunica Hills. This elevation gives the player “a spectacular view of Louisiana’s only maximum security prison,” promises the marketeering copywriters at Louisiana State Penitentiary’s official website.
Think you might like that view? You’ll have to work to see it. Prison View Golf Course requires that every player go through a background check. For practical purposes, this means you’ll need to provide the appropriate personal information at least 48 hours before you want to play. Be prepared to give up your DOB, driver’s license number, Social Security number and so forth.
Don’t bring cameras to this course. They aren’t allowed. And be ready to submit to a search of either your person or vehicle if you’re asked to do so. That’s course rules.
Also, keep in mind that play can be suspended at any time, at the warden’s discretion.
The course is a par 72. Although nine holes are played twice to make 18 holes, Angola promises you will “never” use “the same tee boxes … with the front and back nine.” Of the 18 de facto holes you play, “water [comes] into play on 16.”
Each tee marker is made of a pair of handcuffs welded shut.
The Money Shot
When the first-time player comes to the sixth hole, he’s treated to the sight of long rows of razor wire, one sitting atop the other. The seventh hole is close enough to the prison that it’s possible to hear prisoners talking.
You can bring a group of up to 40 to play. Of course, they’ll all have to pass the background check, and nobody in the group can be on an inmate’s guest list.
Obviously, the tone is going to be a little different on this course. But course designers have tried to make the experience as pleasant as possible.
Amenities include a clubhouse, pro shop and restaurant. At the pro shop, you can buy a t-shirt with the slogan “ANGOLA: A GATED COMMUNITY.” The restaurant serves both Louisiana favorites and popular snack bar and grill food.
The course also has a driving range with a 60- by 20-yard tee box. You can enjoy 419 Bermuda grass.
The course was completed in 2004. It’s the only U.S. golf course located on prison grounds.
Prison View gets a lot of national media attention. The course is easy prey for writers and reporters who are up for easy golf or jail jokes. (See the subhead of this story.)
In her report on Prison View, CNBC’s news editor Cindy Perman happily chirped, “And yes, they’ll let you out” when you finish playing. She also noted that the travel site Cheapflight put Prison View on its list of Top 10 most hazardous golf courses.
In all fairness to Cheapflight, it’s been reported that golfers at Prison View may encounter alligators, rattlesnakes and water moccasins. One would think these same creatures might be encountered at other courses on the Gulf Coast. (Also on Cheapflight’s list is the Singapore Island Country Club course, where one might run into cobras, monkeys and wild boars; and South Africa’s Skukuza Golf Course, where the potential threats include elephants, leopards, warthogs and hippopotamuses.)
Lots Of Work And Lots Of Room
When the Prison View course was being constructed, some Louisiana publications questioned the value of the project. Columnists wondered whether the course might be a bureaucratic boondoggle: a misguided and wasteful attempt at inmate recreation, rehabilitation or job training.
These criticisms may have developed from a naïve understanding of what Angola is all about.
Although it may have mellowed a bit in recent years, Angola still has and deserves its reputation for serving up some of the hardest time in the world.
Angola is a working prison. Almost every inmate there works at something, whether it’s doing a job or taking classes or both.
Angola’s inmates produce 4 million pounds of vegetables each year. They tend 2,000 head of cattle. They run a mattress factory, print shop, silkscreen shop and the country’s only inmate-run radio station. If they like, they can obtain a bachelor’s in theology within the prison walls. Long before there was a golf course, inmates were taking courses in golf course maintenance.
It’s probably just as well that inmates at Angola stay busy. Angola is the largest maximum security prison in the U.S. It has more than 5,000 of the toughest inmates in the country. It might be just as well not to let them sit around too much. Warden Burl Cain is on record as stating (to The Guardian) that “you’ve got to keep the inmates working all day so they’re tired at night.”
And Angola has lots of room to work with. The prison comprises 18,000 acres. That’s an area the size of Manhattan.
The golf course sits on what was once a pasture for bulls that performed in the rodeo. It wraps around the building where inmates take their horticulture classes.
It’s the only U.S. golf course in the last half-century that was built primarily by hand. Because inmates did most of the construction work for the course, the cost of building it was a very moderate $80,000. That funding came from the prison rodeo by way of the employees’ recreation fund. No taxpayer money was used.
Inmates are never allowed to play on the course, and only prisoners with a long record of good behavior can work on it. These inmates all belong to the group designated as “Class A trustee prisoners” — the highest tier of Angola inmates. In addition to having a good record, inmates are required to take horticulture classes before they begin any work on the course.
Definitely Open On Weekends
While a common-sense interpretation might dictate that Prison View was built to provide inmates with job skills, the original intention was quite different. The concept behind Prison View was that the course would entice employees to come to the prison on the weekends.
“My goal is to keep employees here on the weekend because that’s the reserve force in case we have an emergency,” Cain told the San-Diego Union Tribune last year. “Some of them love golf.”
Cain believes the presence of the golf course reflects a jail culture that has become less violent than it was in the past. “When I came here [in 1995], this place was still rockin’ and rollin’, and I don’t think we would have had this golf course.”
He doesn’t seem to think the main purpose of the course is to teach prisoners job skills. Rather, he feels the course raises prisoners’ spirits and creates an environment where they can thrive.
However, the job-training aspects of the course are still a part of his thinking. He’s told Golf magazine that “if we train inmates in landscape architecture and maintenance of greens, they would be employable in that field.”
In reality, there isn’t a great likelihood that many of those working on the golf course will be able to use their skills on the outside. Very few in Angola will ever be on the outside again. Of Angola’s inmate population, more than three quarters are lifers or on death row. Among the remaining prisoners, the average sentence totals more than 90 years.
Telecommunications expert John Begley wrote a report on his time on the course for the sports news site Deadspin. Begley says a team of 33 prisoners built the course. He says when he played, one of the 33 told him the greens might be a bit fast on the day he was playing, explaining, “We just cut the greens yesterday.”
This inmate, Alphabet, is serving a life sentence for murder. Alphabet points out that there are still places in Angola where prisoners pick cotton for 4 cents an hour. At the golf course, Alphabet does work he likes for 20 cents an hour. “I’d rather be out here than the alternative — trust me.”
Right now, says Begley, 10 inmates comprise the greens maintenance crew at Prison View. Since they all have life sentences, they may not get a chance to carry their skills and experience to a job outside the prison walls.
Cain maintains that 10 percent of Angola’s population eventually leaves the prison. He says that whatever job opportunities the golf course offers, it will offer to this 10 percent.
I wasn’t able to track down any stories of inmates who have successfully transferred their Prison View skills to the workaday world. But it’s a little early on to find such stories.
I was able to talk with the manager of the course’s restaurant, who told me that inmates do prepare the po-boys and hamburgers and do most of the maintenance on the course. Any person who knows how to prepare a tasty catfish po-boy should have fairly good job prospects in Louisiana. And Begley attests that the po-boys at Prison View are indeed tasty.