Angola Prison: A Place of Encouragement

An Interview with Burl Cain

Burl Cain is the longest serving warden of Louisiana State Penitentiary (Angola), a position he has held since 1995. He formerly worked as a warden at the Dixon Correctional Institute in Jackson, Louisiana. He is well known for his work at transforming prison culture and promoting moral rehabilitation. Warden Cain serves on the board of Prison Fellowship. He recently spoke with managing editor Ray Nothstine.

R&L: What do people outside of Angola need to know about the prison?

Warden Burl Cain: I think Angola proved a lot of things that even Scripture says that does not need proving, like II Chronicles 7:14, "If my people who are called by my name would turn their face to Me, I will heal their land." And that's what happened here, because this prison's culture has changed, not because I'm a smart warden or because of the authority here. It changed solely because these inmates were praying to God to heal their land, and He did.

If you turn to a moral worldview, you'll be okay. But if we turn away from our religious heritage and we keep separation of church and state to the point that is a wider gap than our forefathers intended, you're going to keep having immoral acts and immoral things happen. The seminary program implemented by New Orleans Baptist Seminary has changed the prison culture.

There are 6,100 inmates here and more coming. This is a gigantic prison. Right now it's only murder, rape, armed robbery and habitual felons. If your sentence is less than 50 years, we don't keep you here. We're going to change that in the future because these people have so changed, these lifers, that know they're going to become teachers for the short termers, so that they can make it on the street and save tax dollars by not having to hire so many teachers in literacy and vocational skills and so forth. This place has become a place of encouragement.

I was impressed with the life skills people can learn. It's clear the educational opportunities here are pretty advanced for a state prison.

The four teachers of the generator and diesel school are today in Plaquemines Parish that experienced flooding from Hurricane Isaac. They're working with the sheriff in the community repairing all their air boats and all their generators, and saving tremendous tax dollars.

Angola Inmate and
chaplain Jerome Derricks

So you have four lifers living in Plaquemines Parish, working and fixing things on the Bayou and getting those generators up and running. The largest one they worked on so far is a 250 Kilowatts, which is large enough to run a pretty small town. So that shows some of the leadership of the people here who do have the life sentence. And what's sad is, prison should be a place for predators and not dying old men. These guys who are healed should have a mechanism to be released, or at least go before a board. Louisiana sentencing laws are too harsh. But again, victims trump. Victims are first.

You are a warden of a prison that has historically been known as one of the more violent prisons and you've seen that change under your watch. But how do you change the perception? And I imagine some of it has to do with talking to the media and getting your story with the Rodeo out, but how do you change that perception in terms of Angola's reputation?

It's amazing because I've been here almost 18 years, and we were all talking about it just yesterday. I've just about given up. I cannot change our reputation because it still makes people shudder, "Angola." Life magazine called it the bloodiest prison in America. And we can't shirk the reputation because the people who come here are so violent. People don't realize how much they can change.

And that's why we really built the Rodeo up and have so many tours in this riverboat tour. When they stop here in Baton Rouge or St. Francisville, they get in a bus and they come here, because I'm trying to get people to see that this place is not like they thought, and that people can truly change.

I think part of that is probably just the name, Angola.

It brings up emotion to people and it's a unique name. It's in the swamp. You know? And they've seen that prison movie with Paul Newman, "Cool Hand Luke." And they think of this as being that prison. People ask, was that movie filmed here? They think it was filmed here.

You've said that this shouldn't be a place for dying old men that have been rehabilitated. Are there hundreds of inmates here that you would feel comfortable releasing and have no problem with that?

I would. There's probably hundreds. Not thousands, but hundreds, that could probably go and would never come back. Today the parole board came and so we recommended one for parole and held off on four others. So that was one out of five. In Louisiana we sit on the parole board as a nonvoting member, and so I'm sure today when the parole board leaves, that one will probably get to go and the others won't go. We are the safety net to ensure that the wrong ones don't get out.

Our oversight was designed so that we would have the legislature more comfortable with being a little more liberal with their sentencing laws, so that you just don't panic and lock everybody up. See, the prison business caused stiff sentencing because they failed at rehabilitating. Because the folks who run prisons forgot that the word corrections means to correct deviant behavior. Well, they just lock and feed and incarcerate, and they do traditional prison, so they get traditional outcomes. But we're very non-traditional, so we get non-traditional outcomes more than anybody else in the country. This is probably the safest prison in America today, yet it has the potential to be the most violent because of the type of sentences of the inmates who are living here.

Angola auto body shop

Now here's the good news. The good news is in places like Texas—and they were here just visiting recently—they're changing their prison system to be exactly like this prison. And so Southwest Baptist Seminary has started an educational program into some of those prisons last year. And they're going to have 1,000 in the seminary within 10 years. And then they're going to send out field ministers. They're going to be sending those to all 111 prisons in Texas. Now, once Texas does it, then we're going to see other states do what we do here. But they have to do it exactly like we did it, because some have tried but they don't truly embrace it and so therefore it doesn't work.

If we can cut the violence, we cut the cost. We also made it safer for us to be guarding these inmates, and so that's a big deal. When they're released from prison, they're less apt to rob and steal and rape and pilfer because they're moral people. So therefore, we broke the cycle. So if we cut our recidivism rate from 50 to 25 percent, then look how many people aren't victims of violent crime. Therefore, there's no justifiable reason not to do what we did. We just have to prove it, and that proof is starting now through research grants through Baylor University. So there you have it. That's what's going to happen. You're going to see these seminaries spring up in prison systems throughout the country. You only need one in each state, and it feeds the rest of the prisons. We saw the violence reduced 43 percent in Dixon Correctional Institute in six months once the two field ministers got there.

But the prison officials have to stop being traditional. And that means being too aggressive toward inmates, and start having the attitude of correcting deviant behavior rather than just lock and feed. And that's where you run into problems with under funded jails or prisons because they don't have the resources to really do the moral rehabilitation. And some systems are afraid to let one inmate teach another because they think they'll create gangs.

But even Miss America can walk anywhere in this prison with no whistles and cat calls, and she's an attractive lady. And that's essential because that means the culture has changed here. You're much safer here than you probably are in New Orleans tonight.

Acton's always had a very close relationship with Chuck Colson. I just want you to comment on your thoughts on Chuck Colson and his legacy. He recently passed away and the inspiration for this interview really grew out of the work Colson has done.

I'll tell you what I think about him. I am on the Prison Fellowship board. I was just inducted on the board in May of 2012. That tells you what I think of Prison Fellowship, because Prison Fellowship is going to play a tremendous role in us establishing the seminaries in other states. Because they have the political clout to open the doors to get the seminary in different prison systems. You have to start with legislators and governors to compel the Department of Corrections to do the seminary because, again, most prison people are hooked up into traditional ways because they think it works. So Colson's reach and influence is certainly deep and he is the reason so much of this is possible.

But prisons still have those high recidivism rates. They try to do re-entry and so forth, and that's fine, but if you teach people skills and trades without the moral component, you just made a smarter criminal.

You have to change the person. It's simple. People have heard me say it many times. A criminal is a selfish person who takes what he wants. He doesn't care about your feelings. He's indifferent. He just takes what he wants. Moral people do not do that. So if we can get them to become moral people, then we can cure our prison problem. But it's like fish. You can't catch them all, so you've just got to catch what you can.

A lot of folks that come to Angola, maybe they're buying in but hopelessness might take over, especially if they realize they've got no chance to get out. What are the best ways of managing that?

You just hit the nail on the head because overcoming hopelessness is crucial. The lack of hope is our greatest enemy in here. In our case, once they become moral, or once they become Christian, or once they become rooted in another faith, then they believe in the hereafter. Most religions believe in life after death. So if you believe in life after death, then it's not hopeless here.

Yeah, your desire for God has got to kind of be greater than your desire to be free, in a sense, from a worldly perspective.

That's right. It does. I've got an inmate in here and he says, "I don't want to get out. I'm here. I'm going to be free in heaven. I want to stay here and do God's work in prison." And he's a horrible murderer. He doesn't even want to get out. He just said, "I'm here. This is a good spot for me to do God's work. I mean, why would I want to go somewhere else? There's plenty of work right here. It's my mission field." So when you get inmates that start thinking like that and talking that, you really overcome hopelessness. And he gives hope to many others.

Now certainly they want to go free. And the other thing we say is, you want to be prepared. You want to be prepared that if you do go free, that you can stay free, that you don't hurt anyone again. This whole thing is so simple. It is incredible that we miss it. All I'm talking about it just pure common sense when it comes to moral rehabilitation and too many miss it.

You have a lot of critics, ACLU, other organizations, lawsuits.

Angola inmates work outside the auto shop

They like me. I get along really well with the ACLU. I really like them because they're protecting my rights and I understand them and they understand me. I don't cross the line. I do not mix church and state.

And I keep that separate. The churches and ministries we work with don't want to mix them. The seminary doesn't want you to mix them because they would lose their tax exempt status. They do not want any state resources. So that's not a problem for us.

Behind bars we have to have all religions. And that's what we do. So we get along. I don't cross those lines. And they like me for that.

You've been warden here since 1995. How has being the warden changed your own spirituality and your own walk with the Lord?

It wasn't being the warden that changed me very much. I was a warden at another prison for 13 years before that. I've been a warden now since 1981.

So as a senior warden longer than anybody in the whole country, the thing that changed me was an inmate execution, and particularly when I realized that we're dealing really and truly with life and death. You can say it, but until you look there and do it, and that guy is lying there dead, and then you think why you did it, you killed this person, someone is in the grave. The Secretary of Corrections, James LeBlanc, feels the same way because he was there with me. He was a witness as a co-warden at the time. We realized then that our job was to correct deviant behavior and prevent people from being victims of people who are in our care, because then we fail.

So we judge our failure - meaning that the inmate was released and murdered somebody. So we failed. We took that really serious and we said we've done this long enough that we really do know how to rehabilitate people. We really know how to make it work. We're going to start doing it. And so that drove us to really get out to the moral rehabilitation and the change. LeBlanc was a warden of the first prison that I mentioned earlier that we sent the missionaries to. He didn't really believe they worked, but he took a chance that it would work. I knew it would work because I had them here, but he didn't have them. So once they got there, these two lifers went to this medium security prison, the chaplain was afraid because he thought we were going to replace him. But they became the best chaplain orderlies he ever had because they were well educated and smart, and they love God, and they started Bible studies. They started preaching in the pulpit and it worked great.

What's interesting to me is we have people who come here that want to do prison ministry all the time, but they really could do a lot better if they did prison ministry more in their own community. But they won't go out in the community and get groups together and have religious study programs. They want to come up here and get this captive group because it's easier, and study with them. And at this prison, we don't really need to do that anymore because we have our own preachers.

We're thinking a lot on the same lines because I spoke to that earlier. Our whole concept of missions is that we go to a society and train that society to take care of themselves and then we step back.

So now you've got these inmates that have this four-year seminary degree and you have people that come and try to do prison ministry with them and teach them about the Bible, but they know more about the Bible than the guy trying to teach him. You know? So then we try to divert them to other places without hurting their feelings. And we like them to come, but we wish they would come and sit in church with them and listen to the inmate preach. There's a number of inmate preachers that are just knock down great preachers.

What areas of Angola could still be improved and enhanced to really expand on some of the things you're doing here in terms of reaching people?

Well, I think it's like we're doing with Texas. And they bring over different preachers and church people and so forth, to come see what's going to be the outcome in Texas, and they're amazed. And so I think that we exist now so that we can perpetuate the faith through what we are because the great commission prevails even for Angola.

We have an inmate preacher who is a dynamic preacher, loves God, really doing it right and he gets out of jail. Some would say you don't want the prisoner to go back where he come from, because he'll be corrupted again. But in this case, we want him to go back where he came from because he's incorruptible. He will change a community where he came from. We talk about all this violence that we have in communities, that we don't even want to go to into those places, but we need to be sending these kinds of guys in prison who came from there back and change that community.

How are we going to change a culture? How are we going to fix a community? How we going to do it? We're preparing the people in this prison to go back to that community and change it. The problem is, the politicians have got to figure out and realize that and let's let them out of jail when they're rehabilitated. Just don't punish them for the sake of punishing them and to get justice because we're mad at them. Let's let them get rehabilitated, correct the deviant behavior and then let's get them back out into the community to change a community and prevent more victims of violent crime.