Much has been written in this blog about Warden Burl Cain. (See here, here, and here for examples). During his nearly two decades at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, the prison has shed its reputation as the “bloodiest prison in America,” and has become a model for other prisons seeking to reduce violent assaults among prisoners.
In an article for First Things, Peter Leithart seeks to find the reason for the prison’s transformation. While he notes several programs that have been implemented that have contributed to the change, Leithart suggests the biggest reason for the turnaround is more a change in attitude toward those behind bars.
“Respecting inmates as human beings goes beyond treating them with dignity,” Leithart says. “Angola’s programs are set up on the assumption that inmates have talents and hopes that can be cultivated so they can contribute to life within the prison and even to society outside.”
Such an approach is especially important in a maximum security facility like Angola, where the vast majority of residents will never leave the prison. The value of the individual is not based on what they can contribute, but on the inherent image of God that exists in every soul. And it is because of the recognition of this innate value that these men actually can contribute to their in-prison community and beyond.
The creation of a hospice program – by prisoners, for prisoners – underscores the sense of humanity Warden Cain has encouraged during his tenure at Angola. Even in their dying moments, prisoners are treated with a respect and decency many of them have never known. And, upon their passing, they are transported to marked graves by a horse-drawn hearse and given a proper burial.
It is this attitude – this recognition of the value of every prisoner– that allows the programs and policies that are implemented to be successful. The establishment of a four-year degree program through the New Orleans Baptist Seminary informs and teaches the men that, while they were still sinners, Christ died for them. It also provides them with a new vocation – proclaiming that same Good News to others in the prison. The more recent Malachi Dads program reminds the men that even behind bars, they have a responsibility to raise their children in a God-pleasing fashion. Hundreds of prisoners attend worship services every week, allowing them to build up the body of Christ inside the prison and to encourage one another in the faith and to bring hope to a place that not too long ago was considered a home for the hopeless.
This change in culture in Angola is having an impact, even beyond the prison walls in southern Louisiana. A prison in Texas started a seminary program similar to the one in Angola in 2011, and other states are also looking to this prison, once described by the American Bar Association as “medieval, squalid, and horrifying,” as a model to follow for reform. (Leithart mentions that on the day he visited Angola, a group from West Virginia was also visiting, looking to offer Bible classes for prisoners in that state.) And Warden Cain is currently serving on an advisory committee for a Prison Fellowship initiative where wardens from prisons around the country can share ideas and best practices.
Perhaps most significantly, Angola has become a “missionary-sending prison,” to use Leithart’s term. Some graduates of the seminary program are being transferred to other prisons in the state to mentor younger prisoners and to serve as in-prison pastors. In other cases, prisoners from lower-security prisons are being transferred to Angola to receive mentoring from program graduates in order to prepare them for release.
Warden Cain refers to this as “moral rehabilitation.” “You have to change the person,” says Cain. “If we can get them to become moral people, then we can cure our prison problem.” And as Angola has demonstrated, the best way to foster morality is to remind people of their humanity in Christ.