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One warden's way of instilling hope behind bars

The prison at Angola, La., has gone from being one of history's meanest lockups to one of the most peaceable high-security prisons in America.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 14, 2007

Angola, La.

Seen from the outside, the 5,108 permanent residents of Angola, La., are murderers, kingpins, and sex offenders.

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But inside the Louisiana State Penitentiary here, many of these black sheep of society lead shadow lives as artists, newspaper editors, country singers, and, five times a year, stars of a prison rodeo and arts-and-crafts fair – where convicts who've earned the right get to buck broncs and straddle bulls, as well as mingle with sell-out crowds of happy visitors, including kids.

Some 1,000 Angola inmates are the beneficiaries of Warden Burl Cain's faith-based system of earned privileges that, in the past decade, has turned Angola from one of history's meanest lockups into one of the most peaceable high-security prisons in America. It's a feat all the more remarkable, experts say, because Angola in some ways defines futility: Ninety percent of its inmates will never leave this razor-fenced bend in the Mississippi River.

"The warden puts purposes out there for prisoners to attach themselves to, and that's what you need," says Angola "lifer" Lane Nelson, the death-row correspondent for the Angolite, the prison newsmagazine.

Truth-in-sentencing and mandatory- sentencing laws that became popular in the mid-1980s have driven a population explosion in US prisons. This has created a warehousing ethos, critics say, and a series of lawsuits have focused on nonviolent and first-time offenders getting placed into dangerous high-security wings because of overcrowding.

Under this retributive system, a murder sentence that lasted 11 years starting in 1980 now lasts at least 30 years. At Angola, 51 percent of the lifers are first-time offenders.

"Most prisons always operate on hope, and when you start having sentencing reforms, you start taking away a lot of hope," says Larry Sullivan, a criminology professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

Against that backdrop, Angola's system of "manufactured hope" – epitomized by its rodeo – provides a unique blueprint for achieving at least a balm for increasingly restive prison populations, if not always rehabilitation, some experts say. "Many prison problems are just growing, so it is nice to see trends like this where correctional officials are looking at new ways of providing a safe and secure place for prisoners. That also has potential to give prisoners real opportunities to be productive," says Jody Kent, policy director at the National Prison Project in Washington.

The largest high-security prison in America, Angola spans 18,000 acres of flood plain, bordered by the forbidding Mississippi River on three sides and the bluff-scarred Tunica Hills to the east.

Angola embarked on reforms with a federal judge's order in 1971. Conditions improved under a long parade of wardens, but it wasn't until Mr. Cain's arrival 11 years ago that courtyard stabbings ebbed and escape attempts dwindled.

"You look at shows about some of these 'supermaxes,' and I don't even recognize them," says Dan Courts, a retired Angola pharmacist. "Compared to those places, Angola is kindergarten."

Cain, a former mid-security prison warden as well as a devout Christian with a farming background, has a simple philosophy: Create a tough but fair community, where prisoners are encouraged to self-police their ranks to hold onto carefully meted-out "freedoms."

"Cain is a very savvy guy," says Dennis Shere, a Chicago lawyer who wrote the book "Cain's Redemption." "He's not trying to make [Angola] into Disneyland. But he also believes that the men have made huge mistakes and their punishment is being sent to prison; their punishment is not what goes on in prison."