Acton Commentary

Angola Prison, Moral Rehabilitation, and the Things Ahead

Jerome Derricks

Inmate Jerome Derricks.
Photo: Erin Oswalt for Acton Institute

(Angola, La.) -- Bruce Davis, a former follower of Charles Manson and a convicted murderer, was recommended for parole last week in California after 40 years in prison. Davis, a born again Christian, has been heralded as “completely rehabilitated” by the parole board.  Halfway across the country,  Damon Thibodeaux recently walked out of Louisiana State Penitentiary a free man after his conviction for raping and murdering a girl was overturned.  He had spent 15 years on death row. Under pressure Thibodeaux initially gave a false confession.

But most violent inmates will never make headlines this way once they are incarcerated for their crimes. They are, as citizens prefer, out of sight and out of mind. Louisiana State Penitentiary’s Warden Burl Cain is trying to change that. The prison, better known as Angola -- after the country of origin of the slaves who worked the plantation on which it was built -- still holds a reputation as one of the most violent prisons in America. Today it is widely accessible to visitors, media, and a host of ministries. Visitors will notice these words upon entering the gate, “Forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead.” The passage directly quotes the Apostle Paul in Philippians 3:13.

Cain likes to brag that hundreds of inmates could be released today from Angola and would pose no threat to society. He solemnly adds that, “Angola should be a place for predators, not dying old men who have been rehabilitated.” The likelihood of release from Angola is slim however; the average sentence is now 93 years. And in Louisiana, a life sentence means just that, life without parole. The vast majority of inmates at Angola will die there. That won’t change anytime soon, with Louisiana’s harsh sentencing laws only getting stiffer. Cain himself admits along with virtually all of his staff that “Louisiana’s sentencing laws are too harsh,” but he also adds that “victims’ rights trump inmate rights.”

How has a prison that was once wracked by violence, sexual assault, and described as “medieval” by the American Bar Association changed so drastically? Cain credits the work of God for the change. He knows that violence won’t reign at Angola because there are thousands of men of God locked away here who won’t tolerate it.

Cain’s insistence on and promotion of moral rehabilitation has prisons across the country trying to learn from Angola and replicate their programs. On the prison grounds at Angola, wheelchairs are restored for children and adults affected by disabilities through the Wheels for the World ministry. A hospice program was set up by the inmates to treat and comfort dying inmates. A measure of dignity was brought back to to the prison funeral:  Cardboard boxes were replaced by wooden caskets made and prepared by inmates. Billy Graham’s wife Ruth was buried in a casket made at Angola Prison. Graham’s own casket will be made by the same inmates.

Jerome Derricks, incarcerated for murder and serving a life sentence, leads a number of ministries at the prison. When asked what the people of Louisiana are looking for from the inmates that swell Angola’s ranks, Derricks says simply, “godly sorrow.” He echoes Paul’s 2nd letter to the Church at Corinth, where the apostle writes, “For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death.” Derricks is an inmate graduate of the Bachelors degree program run by New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary is replicating it in Texas prisons. Mississippi and Georgia have already implemented similar programs.

At the first graduation, held inside the Angola prison walls in 2000, the New Orleans seminary’s president Chuck Kelley proclaimed, “We can suffer because of the bad choices we made in our lives or because of the bad choices of others, or we can suffer because of our devotion to Jesus Christ.” Warden Cain adds that, “We have a situation in Angola where many inmates have a more advanced theological education than the people who come from the outside to minister to them.”

Inmate missionary programs span the state, permitting lifers to speak at other prisons trying to break the cycle of violence. Cain has also promoted victim and inmate meetings, to assist with reconciliation and hope.

Across the country, headlines point to a world in disarray and facing moral chaos. It might seem ironic that hope is coming from those that the world has deemed unredeemable. But God is faithful and lifts up those who toil for him in obscurity with almost no hope of regaining their worldly freedom.

In the words of Isaiah:

If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
    with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
    and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
    and your night will become like the noonday. (Isaiah 58:10)