BOSTON — Angola State Prison in Louisiana has long been thought of as a kind of mythic place of barbarity. Murderers, rapists, and armed robbers are dumped there, usually without hope of parole. It's a lonely, 18,000-acre maximum-security prison, so far from anywhere that it has no wall around it.
Just the place to find God.
This was one of the outcomes Daniel Bergner hoped for when Warden Burl Cain gave him a year's unrestricted access to Angola to write a book. Mr. Bergner had already written about Angola's infamous inmate rodeo for Harper's Magazine. Now he wanted to tell the inside story as much for public consumption as for bolstering his own "tenuous faith in God."
The result is "God of the Rodeo" (Crown Publishers), a riveting, raw, occasionally sexually explicit story told from the eye of Angola. "I really didn't want to write an expos," says Bergner, who focuses mainly on the lives of seven inmates. But Warden Cain, at first a Bible-quoting, fatherly figure, eventually tried to extort money and editorial control from Bergner in exchange for continued access.
Bergner refused to pay, brought a lawsuit against Cain - even though Crown Publishers offered no support - and won. "After that," he says, "the overwhelming response from the prison employees, who had been so favorable to Cain before, woke me up." Bergner went on to uncover incidents of corruption where Cain mixed private and official business, and abused his power. Cain dropped charges he had broguht against Bergner.
Ironically, even as Cain's abuse surfaced, a Louisiana judge ended 27 years of court oversight of Angola, stemming from a lawsuit brought by abused prisoners. What effect this revocation will have on Cain's job is unclear.
In addition to writing an expos, Bergner sees the harsh lives of some of the inmates as bravely redemptive, knowing they will never be free again. But did the total impact of Angola bring Bergner closer to God? "Not necessarily," he says, but there's more to the story.
Following are excerpts from a recent interview with Bergner in Boston.
Why a book on Angola prison?
The reason I was so interested in Angola, where so few people leave, is partly that the moral questions seem so much deeper. We have a moral need to take on a kind of sacred trust. The warden is the embodiment of that trust with control over 5,000 lives, but as we are the warden's employer, in a sense, we hold that trust as well.... I don't think this is bleeding heart liberal. I think it is fundamental values. There is no religious or humanistic tradition that says, write people off. All of the [traditions] say the human endeavor is about elevating yourself and other people. But I'm not forgetting what these guys did.... Prisons are for punishment, and that can't be diminished. But they just have to be about transformation too.... I think prisons fail in the chance to make people better.
At first, you were impressed with Warden Cain.
Even as I hoped for a kind of improbable hero, I was taken with Cain as fitting the mold of Robert Penn Warren's portrait of Huey Long, which is a heroic one. The tragedy of Cain is that he inherited a place that was secure enough, where there was enough trust in the administration, that he could have moved toward the rehabilitation mode without envisioning a wonderful prison of social workers.... My incident with him, the other incidents [of abuse] that I chronicled, are part of a long list.... At one time a [judge] literally held Cain in contempt and sentenced him to a 24-hour immersion in a course on the US Constitution.... But I think he will weather this [attention from the book] the same way he weathered the string of corruption scandals that have been reported in the local press in Louisiana. I just don't think anyone cares about replacing him.
In the New York Times review of your book, questions were raised about your methodology, such as possible reconstruction of phone conversations and intimate scenes.
As to Cain, anything in the book would meet a daily journalist's level [for accuracy]. Everything is on tape or in superdetailed, contemporaneous note-taking right there. I also have some 200 hours of inmate tapes. I don't think I hid the fact that in some places I had to reconstruct scenes. In those cases I did relentless questioning of both parties: How did you say it? What was going through your mind? ... As I began to see what I was going to do I began to really quiz [people] for details that would make the thing come to life. I think I'm on the right side of the murky line.
At the end of the year, did you come away with a better view of man?
These guys put themselves in the deepest pit. Some are able to climb out. Yes, I think I had a positive sense of possibilities, a kind of humbling sense of shared humanity. And again, in religious terms, a sense that is grounded in forgiveness, but really says, we can't measure the difference between Danny Fabre [an inmate] and his victim. She was the good Samaritan, and he murdered her. So in earthly terms, there is every difference between them. But in religious terms there is only an unknowable difference, ... just the humbling thing that says: Wait, stop. Recognize some grain of humanity in Danny that can be built into something better.