The Savior of Angola

Aerial view of Angola prison, January 10, 1998.: USGSBy Alan Bean

You don’t work in the criminal justice reform world very long without running up against Burl Cain.  The man is larger than life and, like the hero of the old Kris Kristofferson song, “he’s a walking contradiction; partly truth, partly fiction.”

According to legend, Burl Cain tamed the most corrupt and violent prison in the world with the love of Jesus.  But as James Ridgeway argues in this compelling piece for Mother Jones, the story has been greatly enhanced in the telling.

Many of those who have embraced Cain’s religious regime really have turned their lives around; but what of those who maintain their independence?  That’s the story you never hear, and Ridgeway is here to tell it.

This story is personal for me.  Friends of Justice is working, individually or as part of larger coalitions, on behalf of at least six Angola prisoners who we believe to be innocent.  Burl Cain knows a lot of the folks in his prison didn’t do the crime.  He also knows the death penalty (which he personally administers) is in serious tension with Christian non-violence.  But all of that pales to insignificance compared to his primary task of claiming souls for eternity.

James Ridgeway came to Angola to talk to warden Cain, but spent his time in the company of PR whiz, Cathy Fontenot.  Cain, he learned at the end, was in Atlanta that day.  The warden was wise to decline an interview.

I have pasted a few choice highlights below, just to whet your appetite, but I encourage you to read the entire article.

God’s Own Warden

“If you ever find yourself inside Louisiana’s Angola prison, Burl Cain will make sure you find Jesus—or regret ever crossing his path.”

— By James Ridgeway

By most estimates, including Fontenot’s, at least 90 percent  of  Angola’s prisoners will die here. In Louisiana, what are  effectively  life sentences are now doled out not only for murder, but  for anything  from gang activity to bank robbery. The Angolite  has reported  that in 1977, just 88 men had spent more than 10 years in  the prison. By  2000, 274 men had spent 25 years behind bars, and in  2009, 880 Angola  inmates had spent 25 or more years inside. Sixty-four  men had been  locked up for more than 40 years.

Today, 3,660 men—70 percent of Angola’s population—are serving life   without parole, and most of the rest have sentences too long to serve in   a lifetime. “It is not too far of a stretch to claim life without   parole as another form of capital punishment,” writes Lane Nelson, the   magazine’s star writer (who recently received clemency). “[It is] slow   execution by incarceration. Decades of segregation can numb a prisoner’s   soul until he becomes devoid of an earnest desire for the joys of   freedom.”

. . . It had taken me a while to figure out what bothered me about Cain’s religious crusade at Angola, beyond a healthy respect for the separation of church and state. My grandfather, a Methodist minister, was an evangelist of sorts, so this wasn’t an altogether foreign world to me. And I’ve seen a lot of good come out of faith-based programs—which, particularly in prison, fill the void created when lawmakers nationwide slashed funding for rehabilitation. In 1994, for example, Congress dealt a crushing blow to prison education by making inmates ineligible for higher-education Pell grants. Prison college programs, which had proved the single most effective tool for reducing recidivism, disappeared almost overnight. In Louisiana today, 1 percent of the corrections budget goes to rehabilitation.

But for my grandfather, personal redemption was inseparable from social justice. Cain’s brand of Christianity, in contrast, serves in large part as an instrument of control—and the warden has little patience for those who don’t get with his program, including other Christians. By most estimates, including Fontenot’s, at least 90 percent of Angola’s prisoners will die here. In Louisiana, what are effectively life sentences are now doled out not only for murder, but for anything from gang activity to bank robbery. The Angolite has reported that in 1977, just 88 men had spent more than 10 years in the prison. By 2000, 274 men had spent 25 years behind bars, and in 2009, 880 Angola inmates had spent 25 or more years inside. Sixty-four men had been locked up for more than 40 years.

. . . Stan Moody, a onetime prison chaplain in Maine who has met with ex-Angola prisoners, believes that “Cain is without question a committed Christian” who “cares about the downtrodden and disadvantaged in a way that’s sadly missing in prisons across the US.” But he questions pushing religion onto a “literally captive” audience, especially in exchange for better treatment. What Cain seems to be creating at Angola, Moody warns, is an atmosphere of “imposed Christian values” designed to put “notches on the old salvation belt.”

. . . With those who resist salvation, Cain takes a somewhat different  approach—as the men known as the Angola Three found out. When they came  to Angola in 1971 for armed robbery,  Herman   Wallace and Albert Woodfox  were Black Panthers, and they began organizing to improve prison  conditions. That quickly landed them on    the wrong side of the prison  administration, and in 1972 they were    prosecuted and convicted for the  murder of a prison guard. They have    been fighting the conviction ever  since, pointing out    (PDF) that one of the eyewitnesses was legally blind, and  the other was a known prison snitch who was rewarded for his testimony.

After the murder, the two—along with a third inmate named Robert King—were put in solitary, and Woodfox and Wallace have now spent nearly four decades in the hole—something Cain has suggested has more to do  with their politics than with their crimes (King was released in  2001 when his conviction in a separate prison murder was overturned).  In a  2008 deposition,    he said Woodfox “wants to demonstrate. He wants to  organize. He  wants   to be defiant…He is still trying to practice Black   Pantherism, and I   still would not want him walking around my prison   because he would   organize the young new inmates. I would have me all   kind of problems, more than I could stand, and I would have the blacks  chasing after them.”

Wallace’s and Woodfox’s lawyers have pointed out that the two men,  now in their sixties, have had a near-perfect record for more than 20     years. In response, Cain argued that “it’s not a matter of write-ups.     It’s a matter of attitude and what you are…Albert Woodfox and  Herman Wallace is locked in time with that Black Panther  revolutionary actions    they were doing way back when…And from that,  there’s been no    rehabilitation.” Wallace has said that Cain suggested  that he and    Woodfox could be released into the general population if  they renounced their political views and embraced Jesus.

. . . In his memoir, Wilbert Rideau writes about how tightly Cain controls his messaging—a practice that had grim consequences for the Angolite, once known for its investigative reporting. At a time when even outside  journalists encountered increasing barriers to access at prisons  nationwide—it’s almost impossible now to interview an inmate,  or even a  staffer, at many state and federal prisons—the Angolite staffers found their calls monitored and their stories censored.   “The only information coming out of Angola,” Rideau says, “was what Burl Cain  wanted the public to know.”

Or perhaps Rideau got on the wrong side of Cain by refusing to embrace the dominant story of the warden as Angola’s savior, a narrative neatly summed up by prison chaplain Robert Toney in congressional  testimony  in 2005: Angola “was once the most violent prison in America.   Today,  we are known as the safest prison in America. This change  began  with  a warden that believed that change could occur.”

. . . In fact, there is considerable evidence that the turnaround at Angola began two decades before Cain became warden, in the 1970s, when a prisoner lawsuit forced the facility into federal oversight and a series of reforms began. According to Burk Foster, a professor of criminal justice at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan and the leading historian of Angola, by the mid-1980s Angola was already the most secure prison in the South. Prison violence is down dramatically across the country; the prison murder rate has fallen more than 90 percent (PDF) nationwide in the last three decades.

. . . Yet the legend of Cain persists—and not just because Cain and his team (the formidable Cathy Fontenot included) are so skilled at PR. Cain does a job that no one else much wants to do, dealing with a group of people that no one else much wants to think about. Rather than face that reality, most of us prefer to believe in a miracle.

When I interviewed John Thompson, the exonerated death-row inmate,   about his time in Angola, he mentioned what he believes is one of the public’s biggest misconceptions about prisons. Most people look at  the fence around the perimeter and think its purpose is to keep   prisoners from escaping. But the barrier “isn’t there to keep   prisoners in,”    Thompson said. “It’s to keep the rest of you out.”

One thought on “The Savior of Angola

  1. The sort of Christianity that can condone and, in Burt Cain’s case, “personally administer” the death penalty, I submit, is form without substance.

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