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Having a golf course at a prison means that inmates install the sprinkler system and oversized handcuffs mark the tees.
Having a golf course at a prison means that inmates install the sprinkler system and oversized handcuffs mark the tees. (Globe Staff Photo / Stan Grossfeld)

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Penitentiary inmates can only watch at Prison View Golf Course

LOUISIANA STATE PENITENTIARY, Angola, La. -- Frederick Griffin, 48, cuts the fairways at the Prison View Golf Course, America's only nine-hole course located inside a maximum-security prison. He's serving a life sentence for second-degree murder. He's already spent 26 years -- more than half his life -- in a penitentiary where, as the warden says, ''Life means life."

Griffin says he'd love to play, but inmates don't have those privileges. The course is open to prison employees and the public, provided players submit to a background check, are not convicted felons, and do not appear on any inmate visiting lists.

Photo Gallery PHOTOS: Prison View GC

As a prison trustee, Griffin has earned the right to work on the course, to feel the sun on his shoulders and smell the fresh-cut grass. He rises at 4:30 a.m. to get out there with the morning dew, and he loves it.

''It makes me feel like I'm free," he says.

Prison View is not exactly the PGA. The tee boxes are marked with oversized handcuffs, welded shut. When they talk about shots here, they're usually referring to rifles. There's enough razor wire surrounding the five housing camps to make 5,108 inmates wish they could get a mulligan in the game of life. The average sentence is 88.4 years.

The first tee is elevated, 56 steps up what was once called ''Rattlesnake Hill." It offers a panoramic view of the course and the prison's 18,000 acres. There's plenty of rough here. Once known as the bloodiest prison in America (''the San Quentin of the South"), Angola, where ''Dead Man Walking" was filmed, is the largest working prison farm in the nation. It's a remote spot, surrounded on three sides by an elbow of the Mississippi River, which has swirling currents that have been known to swallow men like underwater tornadoes and spit them out 20 miles downriver. On the other side are the inhospitable Tunica Hills.

Griffin knows he's never walking out those gates; that's par for the course here. Ninety percent of Angola's inmates die here.

''I went beyond that a long time ago," says Griffin, looking down at his feet. ''I'm making the best of it. I listen to peace and quiet. It's a little bit of self-preservation."

Golf was never his game.

''It was always too slow for me," he says. ''I liked basketball. But now I see them play and I wonder how I'd be."

As for any thoughts of dashing up Rattlesnake Hill, through the Tunica Hills, and vanishing across the state line into Mississippi and freedom, ''Well, you ain't gonna get far," says Warden Burl Cain, who likes to wear a cowboy hat, and always prays with the men he executes. ''You've got to go about 20 miles, but you got the bear traps out there. Then you've got to deal with all those rattlesnakes and all those copperheads and wild hogs. If we don't catch you first, it's a miracle. And don't let dark catch you, 'cause the mosquitoes will eat you."

No escaping reality
Cain smiles and rocks gently on a porch swing outside the Ranch House, an oasis without bars where he holds meetings. Inside, two convicted murderers have just served up a turkey, some onions and potatoes, all grown fresh here on ''The Farm." Just down the road, there are some grazing horses that the armed officers ride. They are trained not to panic or move a muscle, especially if a guard has to fire his rifle.

Cain returns his thoughts to the hunt.

''We're going to put Buster on your tail," he says. ''He's going to burn you up."

Buster is a bloodhound used in a recent Blake Shelton country music video. ''We took him to Nashville and he spent three days in the Marriott," says Cain with a laugh.

''We're going to catch you in three days. We're going to fly the helicopter and you're going to take off runnin' and we know you're going to be heading to the creek and we're going to be waitin' on the hills. Meanwhile, the dogs are going to be pushing ya and we're going to have you circling and we're going to have you caught. And you're never going to be back out on the golf course. You're going to always live in a cell and all you're going to ever see is striped sunshine the rest of your life. That means you're going to see sunshine through the bars."

Cain says nobody has escaped on his 10-year watch; eight prisoners have tried and been captured. The prisoner who came closest hid in the cotton trailer and made it all the way to Natchez, Miss., 50 miles north. ''He got up in the module, and when he got off at the cotton gin, one of our guys happened to be there on a coincidence," Cain says. ''I was lucky, but we make a lot of our luck."

Cain's enemies say he built the golf course so he could play.

''I've been falsely accused of that," he counters. ''I don't play golf. We built it for two reasons. We wanted to keep our employees here. We've got a swimming pool for the children, a baseball field for the children. We've got to keep mom and dad here. If I have an emergency, I need to have my reserve force here."

He also built a 2-mile concrete golf cart path that doubles as a walking trail. Some 600 penitentiary workers and family members live on prison property.

The warden doesn't have the urge to play.

''No, I can't play golf," he says. ''I play about three times a year. I shoot about 120 and I have some rules that I play with. I use 3-inch fairway tees. I also scramble with the best golfer in the group. I get to move my ball where his is. And if I'm on an 18-hole course, I never play past 14 or 15. That improves my score. Now, that's golfing."

Investing their time
Cain says his employees paid for the course with recreation funds, profits from the controversial Angola Prison Rodeo billed as the ''Wildest Show on Earth." Now held twice annually, it draws thousands of thrill- and sometimes blood-seeking spectators. Cain says the only expense to the taxpayers is the horticulturist he hired to teach the inmates gardening. ''The employees learn and they get a certificate and they're employable when they get out of jail, and maybe they won't commit a crime," he says. ''It's a win-win for everybody." He also runs a branch of the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary which enables inmates to get college degrees.

But only about 500 of the 5,108 prisoners will get out.

''It's like winning the lottery," says the warden. ''They may get a pardon. We go ahead and pretend we're going to all get out of jail. And that's part of being able to do the time."

But the golfers can't pretend they are playing in a country club here. On the seventh hole, they are just a chip shot away from Camp J, where some of the most violent offenders are kept in cells behind miles of razor wire and a guard tower. Through the wire, they look like ghosts. They don't yell. They just stare.

Is it a good idea to tee off in front of criminals who are already teed off? Is the warden teasing them?

''Teasin' 'em?" he says, making a face. ''Well, don't be in prison. Don't break the law, don't be here. We're going to be as normal as we can. This is what people do in the real world. It's not that I punish them; they're denied freedom."

The idea for golf here came from Trampus Butler, a third-generation corrections officer who wanted a driving range installed on a prison pasture where bulls graze. Cain heard about it and upped the ante.

''We'll just build a whole golf course in that bull pasture," he says. ''It was too hard to get the bulls in there anyway." He appointed Butler the golf pro, although he cannot legally charge for lessons.

The course was designed by Dr. John Ory, the prison dentist. He read course-design books and consulted with people at the nearest course, The Bluffs, which was designed by Arnold Palmer and is 30 miles away.

Prison View features 37 sand traps, and has water hazards on seven of the nine holes. There's an island green on the eighth hole, and the original gate from the bull pasture is on the fourth hole. The course has both front and back tees so that it can be played as an 18-hole course. Par is 72 for those 6,100 yards. Prison prices prevail. Greens fees are only $10, golf carts $5. Po-boys and chips are only $3 and a Prison View T-shirt is $10.

Inmates built the course in one season. They dug up the bull pasture, created lakes, installed gravel and sand drainage areas on the greens, and planted high-quality 419 Bermuda grass on the greens. They earned anywhere from 2 cents to 20 cents per hour. According to the warden, the project cost less than $130,000, including the new sprinkler system currently being installed by inmates watched by shotgun-toting officers on horseback.

Some kinks on links
Cain learned that building a golf course is not easy.

''We had a lot of problems we had to iron out," he says. ''The fire ants loved to build on the greens real quick 'cause it was really short grass. They gave us fits. Fire ants are bad. They can cover you real quick on the feet. You just can't play with fire ants. They bite you bad. We had to get chemicals to get rid of them and that was expensive."

It's probably best to avoid the 17-acre lake in the middle of the course, too.

''We put an alligator in the pond out there," Cain says. ''[Work crews] saw him when they were cutting grass. We caught him at night, one inmate did. He's about 4 feet long."

Doesn't that discourage the public?

''No, they like to see an alligator," he says. ''He won't come out of the water, he'll just eat their ball if it goes in there. Rudolph's his name."

At the modest clubhouse, Butler, who holds the course record of 64, talks about another record: most water moccasins killed.

''I probably killed 10 in the last two weeks," he said. ''I used a 3-iron. I didn't want to ruin my driver."

They stopped calling the first tee ''Rattlesnake Hill" because it was scaring away customers. But the public still isn't flocking to Prison View; on a recent Friday, there was only one foursome scheduled. They were from Baton Rouge, 55 miles away, and they didn't show up.

''I do get the public here some," says Cain, ''but they don't come much. They don't think it's challenging enough, maybe? I don't know. It's in prison, so you know they may not want to go through that gate."

The real reason may be that no beer is allowed on the premises, not even in the air-conditioned clubhouse.

''They do want beer," Cain says. ''We don't have beer. You're in the South, everybody wants beer."

Profanity, too, is frowned upon, as a visitor learned after his very first shot. Inmates are not allowed to swear. Golfers are, but they draw dirty looks from the administration.

''We don't use profanity here," says Cain. ''Profanity is one step away from violence."

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