Prison Coffin Maker Sees Increase in Work

Meet Richard Leggett, age 53. He builds coffins at Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana. He's never been busier. (Wall St. Journal, subscription required.)

At the Angola state penitentiary here, Richard Leggett, a yellow pencil tucked behind his right ear, put the molding on his latest creation: a 7-foot coffin . He worked with some urgency, sewing and stapling the white bedding inside. He always likes to keep three coffins in stock, so he doesn't run out.

As the prison's coffin maker, Mr. Leggett, 53 years old, has been busy. The prison has needed one or two of his caskets in each of the last five weeks. At Angola, 97% of inmates now die in prison, up from about 80% a decade ago. "I'll probably end up making my own," he says.

As to why more coffins are needed.

The rise of lengthy, mandatory sentences and a nationwide tough-on-crime attitude has resulted in a booming prison population -- 2.1 million last June, compared with 501,886 in 1980 -- and an aging one. The number of inmates dying from natural causes rose to 2,700 in 2002 from 799 in 1982, according to the U.S. Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Angola is no longer the most violent prison in the country, even though it only takes prisoners serving 50 years or more. The prisoners are too old. At Angola, they call it "criminal menopause."

The prison lost its oldest inmate earlier this year, a 95-year-old, who had been in and out of prison since Harry Truman was president.

At Angola, funerals are elaborate affairs, with hand-made coffins pulled to graves by horse-drawn carriages, in rites conducted almost entirely by inmates. Warden Burl Cain believes such services are a stabilizing influence, keeping inmates busy and offering purpose to those who have no hope of leaving alive. "A man wants to be productive, even the ones here," he says.

....During the last decade, there have been only four prison murders at Angola. Some inmates attribute that to what they call "criminal menopause" -- meaning when they hit a certain age, their violent natures dissipate. They also credit the warden, a former teacher who says he came to corrections because high-school students were too unruly.

Angola has been growing with its prisoners:

To deal with its aging population, over 500 inmates at Angola have been trained to perform CPR and there is a hospice here for those who are in the final stages of terminal illnesses. And Warden Cain has created a funeral industry, of which Mr. Leggett's coffin-making is a primary piece. Other inmates make shrouds for the caskets and plan services.

There's lots more to this article, but here's just one more quote:

About half of those of who die at Angola are buried on the prison's grounds because inmates have lost touch with their families and have no one to collect the remains. "Even your bones don't get a second chance to get out," says Mr. Dennis, the prison's unofficial historian.

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  • Re: Prison Coffin Maker Sees Increase in Work (none / 0) (#1)
    by scarshapedstar on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 12:59:13 PM EST
    If you're serving 50-to-life and you're at least 18 years old, do the math.

    Re: Prison Coffin Maker Sees Increase in Work (none / 0) (#2)
    by DawesFred60 on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 12:59:13 PM EST
    Would like to say my old cat was 20 when he died today, most of the people who are killed in prison are not 60 or 70 years old, but are 20 to 40 and do not die from normal causes but from state non care from disease/handicapped/physically disabled/AID/HIV, Name it? and 20 percent are murdered by guards and other inmates. i say its about 60,000 per year. from the FBI You can find a-lot more info, also check out key Lee.