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