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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.

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Reforms include a theology college where inmates train to become prison chaplains, a TV station that produces documentaries and hard news, a kind of Santa's toyshop, and a wheelchair refurbishing shop. The Angolite is the least-censored prison publication in the country and reaches 1,500 outside subscribers. An annual family picnic for inmates with kids and expanded hospice care for elderly and ailing inmates boost morale, inmates say.

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"We talk about being our brother's keeper, and that's what it takes to make it on this earth," says Cain. "We have to look out for each other, and that's the opposite of being a criminal, who is a taker."

Still, Cain's reforms aren't likely to spawn a widespread legislative mellowing on crime issues, especially in Louisiana – one of six states, plus the federal system, where all life sentences are without parole. But his results at Angola have opened eyes in Baton Rouge, legislators say, where state lawmakers recently enacted a new panel to give nonviolent drug offenders another chance at parole.

"There's a lot of people in jail who aren't necessarily bad people," says Louisiana state Sen. Daniel Martiny, who is a former chair of Louisiana's House Committee on the Administration of Criminal Justice. At the same time, he says, "to vote against taxes, to put somebody in jail for the rest of their life, and against gambling – those are still the safest votes."

Cain has his share of critics. In the 1999 book "God of the Rodeo," Daniel Bergner describes Cain as part father figure, part preacher, part huckster – based on the warden's insistence on payment for Mr. Bergner's access to the prison. (Bergner filed suit against Cain and won access.)

Bergner also hints that Cain's reforms provide false hope and that the rodeo is a thinly disguised coliseum affair, where audiences laugh at events like "Convict Poker" – in which a bull is let loose on four inmates seated at a poker table. (Last man sitting gets a cash prize.)

While the rodeo began as daredevil entertainment for inmates and guards, Cain has improved safety at the event, bringing in professional rodeo managers and clowns (whose real job is to protect fallen riders). The atmosphere – kiddie rides, brightly painted outbuildings, steaming étoufées, and live music by prison bands – is so family-friendly that even Southern Living sent a correspondent.

Indeed, the rodeo offers a measure of dignity for inmates such as James Blackburn. A participant in the bareback, wild horse, buddy pickup, wild cow milking, and bull ride events, Mr. Blackburn briefly lost consciousness at the Oct. 28 event after a horse ran him into a rail.

"That's why it's exciting and the wildest show in the South," Blackburn says later. "This is the only time you honestly see free people and the inmates combined together."

For Matthew Morgan, an inmate who has earned privileges to become a "trustee," the rodeo and the accompanying fair offer promise of a redeemed, and even consequential, existence at a prison.

"A man like Warden Cain, he can't give you hope, because he's just a man in a big position," says Mr. Morgan, one of the main anchors on the prison's new cable-access channel. "But what he can give you is an opportunity to prove that you can be a responsible person, and responsibility will breed good behavior in some people. It will show you who you are or who you're not or who you want to be."