Angola — Inmate Pete Clement, the mule driver, bit into a syrup-sopped biscuit as armed prison guards looked on.
“Boy, that is good!” he said.
Tuesday was syrup-making day at the Louisiana State Penitentiary. Last year, Angola got back into the cane syrup business after a decades-old hiatus. Prisoners cook the sticky-sweet food using ancient techniques and sell the product at the prison gift shop.
Workers fed the prison-grown sugar cane into a mill powered by Bonnie the mule, whose slow pacing ground the juice from the plants. Nearby, prisoners extracted juice from a comparatively high-tech mill connected to the engine of a 1952 John Deere tractor.
Once they got about 150 gallons, the prisoners poured the juice into an evaporator, a shallow vat heated by a wood fire that thickens the syrup. As impurities bubble up, the workers skimmed the top of the liquid with ladles before pouring the syrup through a silk screen.
Work Tuesday began just after sunrise. By 9:30 a.m. the first batch finished cooking, and Angola staff brought out a tray of biscuits with plastic spoons and take-out boxes. Prisoners and staff poured the syrup over the biscuits to sample the product, still warm from the evaporator.
“It’s perfect,” declared prisoner Haywood Campbell.
“When I tasted it the first time, it flashed me back to my younger days,” he said, remembering the syrup his mother used to serve him.
Prison staff arrived later with lunch — disks of ground beef some prisoners called Salisbury steak, served with rice, bread and vegetables. Again, the prisoners headed to the syrup cooler. Thick amber strands dripped from utensils and food as prisoners ate.
“I got syrup on the okra, and it’s tasting pretty good,” said inmate Jackie Williams.
Angola grew sugar cane as recently as the 1970s, when the old refinery was dismantled and taken to South America, said public information officer Gary Young. A few years ago, a central Louisiana farmer donated the old mule-powered mill that was once owned by his grandfather, said Angola Warden Burl Cain.
“This one here is real primitive,” Cain said, gesturing to the old mill. “It’s about history. It’s about seeing our past. … Nobody ever does this anymore.”
For the warden, the mill conjures memories of making syrup around Thanksgiving time when he was a child in Vernon Parish, making sure the juice didn’t ferment where the hogs could get to it.
Adam Oliveaux, a mechanic at the prison, grew up cooking syrup at a farm in Mississippi and has helped train the prisoners to make their own.
Angola has devoted an acre of farmland to growing sugar cane, yielding about 100 gallons of syrup from the harvest. Next season, the prison will allocate an additional acre to raising cane.
The prison sits on good soil, Oliveaux said. An acre elsewhere in the region may net only 60 gallons of syrup per year. After it’s made, prisoners bottle the product in 16-ounce containers to sell to the public for $8. It’s stocked in the prison gift shop along with the farm’s jellies, fig preserves and Guts & Glory, the Angola brand of hot sauce. Cain pitches the syrup as the perfect Christmas gift while supplies last.
“There’s quite a market,” he said.
The prison sold out last year. Customers came from all over to buy the prison’s syrup, Clement said.
His own relatives came over from Loranger to buy a few pints. They had to make the drive and pay a little more, but the effort was worth getting the “family brand,” he said.
Clement helped Tuesday by feeding stalks into the mill. Before he came to Angola, he trained mules as a hobby, and while in prison he has trained a number of animals for work, including Bonnie.
“You can’t just take anything and hook it up and go to town,” he said.
A few fields away, another group of prisoners picked mustard greens. At Angola, prisoners are expected to pitch in raising crops. Making syrup is a welcome change of pace from working in the fields, Campbell said.
“This is, I would say, a break for me,” he said.
Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.