The deadly prison that dared to pray Louisiana’s in­fa­mous An­gola pen­i­ten­tiary used faith, fam­ily to stem vi­o­lence

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. - BY RALPH Z. HAL­LOW

IANGOLA, LA. n the swel­ter­ing heat of the 18,000-acre prison here, a joy­ful dec­la­ra­tion over a loud­speaker pierced the suf­fo­cat­ing air. “Shawn Martin,” the name of an in­mate’s child, re­ver­ber­ated among a crowd of hun­dreds of pris­on­ers and their fam­i­lies. Arms out­stretched, young Shawn dashed across the brown dirt of an in­mate-built rodeo sta­dium. Rac­ing to meet him half­way, Shawn’s in­mate fa­ther fled a gag­gle of pris­on­ers across the arena and swept up his son. Each tear­fully hugged and kissed the other al­most fran­ti­cally.

The scene played out re­peat­edly this week — 150 times in all — as in­mates dressed in cheer­ful, bright­col­ored shirts at the once-in­fa­mous Louisiana State Pen­i­ten­tiary at An­gola united with their chil­dren, grand­chil­dren, great-grand­chil­dren, nieces and neph­ews.

In­mates known as “lif­ers” — about four-fifths of An­gola’s pris­on­ers are serv­ing life terms or fac­ing ex­e­cu­tion — were re­duced to tears. Hard­ened prison guards looked on with ap­par­ent af­fec­tion.

It wasn’t al­ways this way. An­gola was once known as the blood­i­est state prison in the na­tion, cat­a­pulted to in­famy from the 1950s through the 1980s by its deadly as­saults among pris­on­ers, tragic ri­ots and jail­breaks from what some in­mates con­sid­ered a mod­ern-day slave farm.

The Amer­i­can Bar As­so­ci­a­tion once de­rided the prison as “me­dieval, squalid and hor­ri­fy­ing.” In the early 1950s, a stun­ning 31 pris­on­ers cut their Achilles ten­dons in des­per­a­tion to protest their liv­ing con­di­tions.

To­day, a dif­fer­ent at­mos­phere per­me­ates the prison, which boasts a work­ing farm, a mu­seum chron­i­cling its his­tory, an ac­cred­ited sem­i­nary and even an an­nual rodeo com­pe­ti­tion. Staff and pris­on­ers alike credit an em­pha­sis on faith, fam­ily and re­demp­tion through hard work that a white-haired, burly man named Burl Cain brought to An­gola when he ar­rived as war­den in 1995.

The prison no longer suf­fers from chronic escapes, deadly vi­o­lence or racism — in­ci­dents now rel­e­gated to the prison’s pub­lic mu­seum. Those in­side say it is be­cause this cor­rec­tional in­sti­tu­tion views each in­mate not as a sub­hu­man in­cor­ri­gi­ble trans­gres­sor, but as a soul worth sav­ing.

“We are teach­ing these people things like how to be cer­ti­fied me­chan­ics and how to re­spect them­selves and each other,” Mr. Cain, 72, said in an in­ter­view with The Wash­ing­ton Times. “But that alone would only make them smarter crim­i­nals. We teach them moral­ity through our Chris­tian min­istries and the ex­am­ples we try to set. We change them spir­i­tu­ally.”

On Mon­day, the prison held its an­nual fam­ily re­union, dubbed Re­turn­ing Hearts. Some fa­thers and chil­dren met for the first time. Oth­ers re­newed love and joy in a car­ni­val-type en­vi­ron­ment where al­most all wore brightly colored shirts and some re­leased bal­loons into the air in cel­e­bra­tion. Mr. Cain presided, with a gag­gle of VIPs in tow. Stand­ing be­side him and ad­dress­ing the con­victs were for­mer Arkansas Gov. Mike Huck­abee, also a for­mer Bap­tist min­is­ter and a for­mer pres­i­den­tial can­di­date, and for­mer Rep. J.C. Watts Jr. of Ok­la­homa, who was a foot­ball star in col­lege.

The three lead­ers seemed to be in co­he­sion about bring­ing in­mates to Christ and teach­ing many of them how to be ac­cred­ited min­is­ters of the Gospel, in­clud­ing lif­ers whose min­istries con­sist solely of other in­mates.

The num­bers pro­vided by prison au­thor­i­ties tell a tale that ap­pears to sug­gest re­li­gion, done right, is the an­swer for all but the most hard­ened felons.

From 1988 to 1994, the aver­age an­nual com­bined to­tals for homi­cides, sui­cides, escapes, as­saults on prison staff, as­saults by in­mates on in­mates with weapons and — a sep­a­rate cat­e­gory — with­out weapons — were 1,400.

Mr. Cain’s ar­rival brought a steady de­cline in that vi­o­lence rate to a no­tably low 414 in 2000 and, even more re­mark­ably, to fewer than 275 on aver­age for each of the past four years.

If An­gola’s prison walls could talk, they might tell a haunt­ing story of des­per­a­tion turned to in­spi­ra­tion.

In the re­cre­ation ar­eas where in­mates were once rou­tinely as­saulted with makeshift weapons or beaten bloody, pris­on­ers now walk with Bibles in hand or med­i­tate qui­etly in prayer.

On the nights when death sum­mons, Mr. Cain may be hold­ing the hand of a death-row in­mate ly­ing strapped to a gur­ney for a lethal in­jec­tion, of­fer­ing rare com­fort to a man about to face his Maker.

Al­most daily, Angie Nor­wood — a slim, well-groomed woman in her 50s who has been on the job for 30 years — leisurely walks the blocks of death-row cells, paus­ing to talk with each in­mate. Mrs. Nor­wood, the as­sis­tant war­den in charge of death row, leans against the bars as she ad­dresses each in­mate by name, oc­ca­sion­ally touch­ing hands, with eye-to-eye con­tact, solic­it­ing the mo­men­tary joys and deep con­cerns of each.

“Our se­cu­rity people don’t like to make the rounds with me,” she told The Times dur­ing a stroll along the death-row cor­ri­dor. “They take a half-hour with­out me, but if they’re with me, I take an hour and a half or two hours be­cause I talk to the men await­ing ex­e­cu­tion.”

Mr. Cain tells the story about his mother. “She knew about An­gola’s rep­u­ta­tion as the most vi­o­lent prison in Amer­ica, and she chal­lenged me not to let any man un­der my watch fail to pray with me and chal­lenged me to let ev­ery man know about Je­sus,” he re­called.

Mr. Cain started a four-year ac­cred­ited sem­i­nary on the pen­i­ten­tiary’s grounds. Most grad­u­ates are lif­ers whose min­istries are only within prison walls.

Ann Grif­fin and her hus­band, Rusty, who are pas­tors in Texas, make the trip monthly to An­gola to coun­sel the in­mate pas­tors. Mrs. Grif­fin said that as soon as Mr. Cain took over, he started car­ing about the sim­ple, prac­ti­cal needs of pris­on­ers, such as pro­vid­ing socks for their feet. It bred a sense of dig­nity. “Here’s some­thing else,” Mrs. Grif­fin said. “Pris­on­ers who died at An­gola used to be buried in the card­board boxes in which real fu­neral cas­kets were shipped. One rainy day af­ter War­den Cain took over, he saw the body of a dead pris­oner fall through the wet bot­tom of such a box dur­ing burial.”

Mr. Cain was de­ter­mined to never re­peat the in­dig­nity of that mo­ment, so he com­mis­sioned his in­mates to man­u­fac­ture sturdy wooden cas­kets to en­sure suit­able rest­ing places for those who pass on in­side An­gola.

The prison’s cas­ket busi­ness is so well re­garded that Ruth Bell Gra­ham, the wife of evan­ge­list Billy Gra­ham, was buried in an An­gola-made cas­ket, said Pas­tors and Pews founder David Lane, whose fa­ther was on the board of the An­gola prison and who sup­ports its min­istry ef­forts.

It’s un­clear whether An­gola is the an­swer to the na­tional prison vi­o­lence cri­sis or just an ex­cep­tion that is pos­si­ble only in a com­mu­nity with deep Chris­tian roots and a de­sire to put its dark, racist his­tory be­hind it.

But there is lit­tle doubt from An­gola in­mates, work­ers and vis­i­tors that Mr. Cain has made a last­ing dif­fer­ence in at least one prison with his reg­i­men of faith, fam­ily and earned dig­nity.

“He did prac­ti­cal things that showed men love and re­spect that raised the morale of the prison,” Mrs. Grif­fin said. “I go there all over the prison and never feel en­dan­gered. My daugh­ter did an in­tern­ship there and went every­where in the prison and never felt in dan­ger. She loved it.”

Once known as the blood­i­est state prison in the na­tion, it has be­come a place of spir­i­tual change. Staff and pris­on­ers credit an em­pha­sis on faith, fam­ily and re­demp­tion that War­den Burl Cain brought to An­gola.

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