ANGOLA, La.— In the sweltering heat of the 18,000-acre prison here, a joyful declaration over a loudspeaker pierced the suffocating air. “Shawn Martin,” the name of an inmate’s child, reverberated among a crowd of hundreds of prisoners and their families.
Arms outstretched, young Shawn dashed across the brown dirt of an inmate-built rodeo stadium. Racing to meet him halfway, Shawn’s inmate father fled a gaggle of prisoners across the arena and swept up his son. Each tearfully hugged and kissed the other almost frantically.
The scene played out repeatedly this week — 150 times in all — as inmates dressed in cheerful, bright-colored shirts at the once-infamous Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola united with their children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nieces and nephews.
Inmates known as “lifers” — about four-fifths of Angola’s prisoners are serving life terms or facing execution — were reduced to tears. Hardened prison guards looked on with apparent affection.
It wasn’t always this way. Angola was once known as the bloodiest state prison in the nation, catapulted to infamy from the 1950s through the 1980s by its deadly assaults among prisoners, tragic riots and jailbreaks from what some inmates considered a modern-day slave farm.
The American Bar Association once derided the prison as “medieval, squalid and horrifying.” In the early 1950s, a stunning 31 prisoners cut their Achilles tendons in desperation to protest their living conditions.
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Today, a different atmosphere permeates the prison, which boasts a working farm, a museum chronicling its history, an accredited seminary and even an annual rodeo competition. Staff and prisoners alike credit an emphasis on faith, family and redemption through hard work that a white-haired, burly man named Burl Cain brought to Angola when he arrived as warden in 1995.
The prison no longer suffers from chronic escapes, deadly violence or racism — incidents now relegated to the prison’s public museum. Those inside say it is because this correctional institution views each inmate not as a subhuman incorrigible transgressor, but as a soul worth saving.
“We are teaching these people things like how to be certified mechanics and how to respect themselves and each other,” Mr. Cain, 72, said in an interview with The Washington Times. “But that alone would only make them smarter criminals. We teach them morality through our Christian ministries and the examples we try to set. We change them spiritually.”
On Monday, the prison held its annual family reunion, dubbed Returning Hearts. Some fathers and children met for the first time. Others renewed love and joy in a carnival-type environment where almost all wore brightly colored shirts and some released balloons into the air in celebration.
Mr. Cain presided, with a gaggle of VIPs in tow.
Standing beside him and addressing the convicts were former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, also a former Baptist minister and a former presidential candidate, and former Rep. J.C. Watts Jr. of Oklahoma, who was a football star in college.
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The three leaders seemed to be in cohesion about bringing inmates to Christ and teaching many of them how to be accredited ministers of the Gospel, including lifers whose ministries consist solely of other inmates.
The numbers provided by prison authorities tell a tale that appears to suggest religion, done right, is the answer for all but the most hardened felons.
From 1988 to 1994, the average annual combined totals for homicides, suicides, escapes, assaults on prison staff, assaults by inmates on inmates with weapons and — a separate category — without weapons — were 1,400.
Mr. Cain’s arrival brought a steady decline in that violence rate to a notably low 414 in 2000 and, even more remarkably, to fewer than 275 on average for each of the past four years.
If Angola’s prison walls could talk, they might tell a haunting story of desperation turned to inspiration.
In the recreation areas where inmates were once routinely assaulted with makeshift weapons or beaten bloody, prisoners now walk with Bibles in hand or meditate quietly in prayer.
On the nights when death summons, Mr. Cain may be holding the hand of a death-row inmate lying strapped to a gurney for a lethal injection, offering rare comfort to a man about to face his Maker.
Almost daily, Angie Norwood — a slim, well-groomed woman in her 50s who has been on the job for 30 years — leisurely walks the blocks of death-row cells, pausing to talk with each inmate. Mrs. Norwood, the assistant warden in charge of death row, leans against the bars as she addresses each inmate by name, occasionally touching hands, with eye-to-eye contact, soliciting the momentary joys and deep concerns of each.
“Our security people don’t like to make the rounds with me,” she told The Times during a stroll along the death-row corridor. “They take a half-hour without me, but if they’re with me, I take an hour and a half or two hours because I talk to the men awaiting execution.”
Mr. Cain tells the story about his mother. “She knew about Angola’s reputation as the most violent prison in America, and she challenged me not to let any man under my watch fail to pray with me and challenged me to let every man know about Jesus,” he recalled.
Mr. Cain started a four-year accredited seminary on the penitentiary’s grounds. Most graduates are lifers whose ministries are only within prison walls.
Ann Griffin and her husband, Rusty, who are pastors in Texas, make the trip monthly to Angola to counsel the inmate pastors. Mrs. Griffin said that as soon as Mr. Cain took over, he started caring about the simple, practical needs of prisoners, such as providing socks for their feet.
It bred a sense of dignity.
“Here’s something else,” Mrs. Griffin said. “Prisoners who died at Angola used to be buried in the cardboard boxes in which real funeral caskets were shipped. One rainy day after Warden Cain took over, he saw the body of a dead prisoner fall through the wet bottom of such a box during burial.”
Mr. Cain was determined to never repeat the indignity of that moment, so he commissioned his inmates to manufacture sturdy wooden caskets to ensure suitable resting places for those who pass on inside Angola.
The prison’s casket business is so well regarded that Ruth Bell Graham, the wife of evangelist Billy Graham, was buried in an Angola-made casket, said Pastors and Pews founder David Lane, whose father was on the board of the Angola prison and who supports its ministry efforts.
It’s unclear whether Angola is the answer to the national prison violence crisis or just an exception that is possible only in a community with deep Christian roots and a desire to put its dark, racist history behind it.
But there is little doubt from Angola inmates, workers and visitors that Mr. Cain has made a lasting difference in at least one prison with his regimen of faith, family and earned dignity.
“He did practical things that showed men love and respect that raised the morale of the prison,” Mrs. Griffin said. “I go there all over the prison and never feel endangered. My daughter did an internship there and went everywhere in the prison and never felt in danger. She loved it.”