The Gray Metal Badge
Perspectives from a prison guard family
Retired Louisiana corrections officer Stan A. Miller leans on the doorframe of his modest home, a do-able commute to the state maximum-security prison for men at Angola.
Inside his wife, Kathren Miller, who worked as a security officer at Angola for nine years, is recovering from her latest chemotherapy treatment for her cancer. Their 18-year-old son Joshua, a bright, cheerful young man with muscular dystrophy, has sequestered himself in his room.
Outside, Mr. Miller listens to a visitor’s questions about his brother, Angola corrections officer Brent Miller, a 23-year-old newlywed murdered by inmates more than four decades ago.
On the morning of April 17, 1972, prisoners armed with homemade knives ambushed Officer Miller as he sat drinking coffee with an inmate in a prison dormitory. Prison staff found his lifeless body on the floor. A coroner counted 32 stab wounds.
Four inmates were implicated in Miller’s murder. Three have since died, including one exonerated by another prison officer’s alibi.
Today, 44 years later, the criminal case against the last of his brother’s accused killers is coming to a final, ragged end.
Hours earlier – over the furious objections of the Miller family – the only surviving inmate-suspect, now 69, pleaded “no contest” to a lesser charge of manslaughter, part of a plea deal with prosecutors that precludes his third trial for the murder. With the accused killer’s release after 45 years in prison and decades of “solitary confinement” in a 6-by-9-foot disciplinary cell, the international media attention to Brent Miller’s murder will soon be gone.
What will endure is a family’s powerful need to have a loved one’s life defined not by the cruelty of his death, but by the promise of his life.
Stan Miller excuses himself, steps inside the house and returns with a framed picture of his brother. “Brent was a people person,” he says proudly, cradling his brother’s photograph in his left hand. “He was loved by all.” The black-and-white photograph from the late 1960s shows Brent Miller as a handsome, standout wide receiver for the West Feliciana Parish high football team at St. Francisville. In the picture, he’s running. His eyes follow the ball into his large outstretched hands. In the background stands an old two-pole goal post.
Like all of Huey and Jewel Miller’s seven children, Brent Miller was born at Lallie Kemp hospital at Independence and grew up around thousands of convicts serving time for murder, rape and robbery at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.
In 1955, Huey Lee Miller Sr. took a job as an agri-business supervisor, overseeing row crops, hogs, cattle, horses and a cannery on the 18,000-acre prison. The Miller family lived on a hill overlooking Angola, above the warden’s house.
They then moved to “the B-Line,” a special neighborhood built for families of Angola employees on the prison grounds. “Brent was one of seven children, six boys and my sister (Wanda), who can fight like a man,” Stan Miller says.
Brent Miller and his siblings attended Tunica Elementary school about four miles from Angola’s front gate. He excelled at football at St. Francisville, playing wide receiver for the parish’s only high school.
“They say he was one of the fastest white men you’d ever seen,” Stan Miller smiles.
Brent Miller transferred to Centerville High at Woodville, Mississippi, for his senior year. He earned a football scholarship to the University of Texas. His grades were no match for his football play, and he returned to rural West Feliciana Parish.
Like other rural parishes in remote parts of Louisiana, a state prison was one of the places where a young man could get a job. A gray, metal Department of Corrections badge, the kind Brent Miller and other Angola security officers wore 44 years ago, hangs from a corner of the picture frame.
“When we had Brent’s funeral, we had numerous amounts of flowers from the families of inmates at Angola. He was popular. There was a lot of respect for Brent among the inmate population.”
A recent state Attorney General’s investigative report on Miller’s murder acknowledged racial tensions in the prison the year of his murder, and the probe focused on two inmate-suspects who co-founded the Angola chapter of the Black Panther Party. “During this time, there was well-documented hostility between militant inmates and corrections staff,” stated the report.
After Brent Miller’s murder, Stan Miller says he and other family members who worked at the prison remained professional. “We never held the race card against any of the black inmates at Angola because of this situation. You can’t. You have to be professional.”
Professionalism can be a thin buffer against grief.
“My older brother, Huey Lee Miller Sr., was a corrections officer at Angola at the time. He transferred to Dixon Correctional Institute about a year after Brent died.”
Heartbroken, their father, Huey Miller Sr. left Angola in 1975.
Stan Miller said his years as a security officer at the prison became more difficult after Brent Miller’s death.
“I see the hills we hunted in. For 20 years, it was a constant reminder to me. I will never forget when I had to go to Tunica Elementary to break the news to my little brother and sister.”
Stan Miller says he doesn’t go back to Angola often, though he still has relatives among the 1,700 employees who work at the prison housing as many as 5,000 inmates.
Darkness falls, he invites a visitor into the house and continues.
Not long ago, he says, he was stopped and challenged at the front gate to the prison by an officer who didn’t know him or his family.
It is odd to call a prison “home,” he says, “We used to say, ‘It’s the only home you can’t go back to.’”
His stepson, Joshua, recalls returning to Angola’s “B-line” neighborhood late at night and seeing the guard tower and bright white lights at the front gate. “I’d say – ‘Home, sweet, home!’”
Today, now that his brother’s homicide case is finally closed, a visitor asks Stan Miller how he and his family will go on. “Day for day, with prayer – lots of prayer,” he says.
“There’s power in prayer,” says Joshua, whose unused wheelchair sits folded against a wall of the living room. “Prayer and laughter.”
State officials re-named Angola’s “Camp J Road” as “Brent Miller Road” to honor the slain officer. The road runs from an inmate medical center past Pt. Lookout Cemetery, the final resting place for inmates who die at Angola.