- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 30, 2002

The Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola will open its maximum security gates tomorrow on Easter to the public for a worship and music festival intended to make prison life more peaceful and humane.
The prison, which has 3,300 "lifers" among its more than 5,180 inmates, frequently allows public programs and visitors. Now, for the first time, the penitentiary will host a major Prison Fellowship program in its high-security rodeo pavilion.
"I'm for whatever helps people improve themselves," Warden Burl Cain said. "Having the public in is a twofold thing. The inmates want to show they are not demons, and people get a different view of prisons."
He said the prison allows all faith observances but requires none. Those who participate in a faith-based program "adhere to the golden rule more than others, and that means less violence," he said.
Prison Fellowship, founded by Watergate figure and former inmate Charles Colson, and 20 other ministries will cover the $75,000 cost of the one-day "Operation Starting Line" event.
Since 2001, the program has visited 363 correctional facilities in 12 states. The mix of speaking, music and humor has been seen by 200,000 inmates, according to organizers.
Leaders of the project, which has drawn in 5,600 church volunteers, hope they will continue helping a particular prison or supporting inmates who are released.
Mr. Cain, who arrived at Angola in 1994, said prisoners can be "afraid of their own shadows," so he has tried to balance justice and humaneness. At Angola, the average sentence is about 44 years.
"We follow the law, so I have nothing to hide," Mr. Cain said of his reforms.
They include prison clubs, organizations and projects that range from a prison museum, tours by 1,000 students a month, earned degrees, an expanded public rodeo and religious observance for Christians, Muslims, Jews and Buddhists.
The 7,200-seat covered rodeo pavilion was built two years ago to expand a rodeo tradition going back 40 years. It will also house a spring arts and crafts festival.
Prisoners convicted of violent crimes face restrictions, but Mr. Cain said about 2,000 eligible inmates, plus 500 more from a corrections and youth facility, are likely to attend tomorrow.
The inmates sit in a different section from the public, with guards widely posted.
Rocco Morelli, 42 and a former Mafia enforcer, will not be at Angola but has spoken at many of the Operation Starting Line events.
"We go in with a lot of energy and make a big impact," said Mr. Morelli, who came to his Christian faith just before serving time from 1987 to 1989.
But he said it's up to the inmates to think of ways they can improve their lives while in prison. "I don't give them any false hope or pep talk. I say, 'You have to make right choices. While you're in here, renew your mind,'" Mr. Morelli said.
The traveling ministries are part of a private-sector push to support faith programs in prisons and a policy of "restorative justice," which seeks ways for criminals to pay their debt to victims to bolster a return to society.
From the prison side, wardens are interested in reforms that expose inmates to as many positive influences as possible without risking security.
At Angola, where many inmates spend their lives and die, they developed a hospice program to promote caring. "When they die, they leave in a horse-drawn procession, " said spokeswoman Cathy Fontenot. "It's very dignified."
She said such internal reforms aim to impress jurists, legislators and the public so that reformable inmates get another chance in society.
In the 1970s, for example, Angola was known as one of the meanest prisons in the country, while today it is a model of tough love.
"If Angola can do it, other prisons can do it," Mr. Cain said.

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