It was a chilly December morning when I got to the gates of Angola prison, and I was nervous as I waited to be admitted. To begin with, nothing looked the way it ought to have looked. The entrance, with its little yellow gatehouse and red brick sign, could have marked the gates of one of the smaller national parks. There was a museum with a gift shop, where I perused miniature handcuffs, jars of inmate-made jelly, and mugs that read "Angola: A Gated Community" before moving on to the exhibits, which include Gruesome Gertie, the only electric chair in which a prisoner was executed twice. (It didn't take the first time, possibly because the executioners were visibly drunk.)
Besides being cold and disoriented, I had the well-founded sense of being someplace where I wasn't wanted. Angola welcomes a thousand or more visitors a month, including religious groups, schoolchildren, and tourists taking a side trip from their vacations in plantation country. Under ordinary circumstances, it's possible to drive up to the gate and tour the prison in a state vehicle, accompanied by a staff guide. But for me, it had taken close to two years and the threat of an ACLU lawsuit to get permission to visit the place.
I was studying an exhibit of sawed-off shotguns when I heard someone call my name. It was Cathy Fontenot, the assistant warden in charge of PR. Smartly dressed in a tailored shirt and jeans, a suede jacket, and boots with four-inch heels, she introduced me to a smiling corrections officer ("my bodyguard") and to Pam Laborde, the genial head spokeswoman for the Louisiana department of corrections who had come up from Baton Rouge to help escort me on my hard-won tour of Angola.
Everyone was there except the person I had come to see: Warden Burl Cain, a man with a near-mythical reputation for turning Angola, once known as the bloodiest prison in the South, into a model facility. Among born-again Christians, Cain is revered for delivering hundreds of incarcerated sinners to the Lord—running the nation's largest maximum-security prison, as one evangelical publication put it, "with an iron fist and an even stronger love for Jesus." To Cain's more secular admirers, Angola demonstrates an attractive option for controlling the nation's booming prison population at a time when the notion of rehabilitation has effectively been abandoned.
What I had heard about Cain, and seen in the plentiful footage of him, led me to expect an affable guy—big gut, pale, jowly face, good-old-boy demeanor. Indeed, former Angola inmates say that prisoners who respond to Cain's program of "moral rehabilitation" through Christian redemption are rewarded with privileges, humane treatment, and personal attention. Those who displease him, though, can face harsh punishments. Wilbert Rideau, the award-winning former Angolite editor who is probably Angola's most famous ex-con, says when he first arrived at the prison, Cain tried to enlist him as a snitch, then sought to convert him. When that didn't work, Rideau says, his magazine became the target of censorship; he says Cain can be "a bully—harsh, unfair, vindictive."
"Cain was like a king, a sole ruler," Rideau writes in his recent memoir, In the Place of Justice. "He enjoyed being a dictator, and regarded himself as a benevolent one." When a group of middle school students visited Angola a few years ago, Cain told them that the inmates were there because they "didn't listen to their parents. They didn't listen to law enforcement. So when they get here, I become their daddy, and they will either listen to me or make their time here very hard."
Cain told some middle schoolers that when inmates get to Angola, “I become their daddy, and they will either listen to me or make their time here very hard.”
Another former prisoner, John Thompson—who spent 14 years on death row at Angola before being exonerated by previously concealed evidence—told me that Cain runs Angola "with a Bible in one hand and a sword in the other." And when the chips are down, Thompson said, "he drops the Bible."
Who is the man who wields so much untempered power over so many human beings? I wanted to find out firsthand—but when I requested permission to visit the prison and interview Cain, back in 2009, Fontenot turned me down flat. Cain, she said, was not happy with what I had written about the Angola Three, a trio of inmates who have been in solitary longer than any other prisoners in America. Two years and much legal wrangling later, I was here at Fontenot's invitation, ready to see the Cain miracle for myself.
Burl Cain has friends in many places—a vast network of contacts and supporters from Baton Rouge to Hollywood. There has been talk in Louisiana of him running for office—maybe even for governor. But no position could ever be so secure, and no authority so complete, as what he already has.
Cain, now 68, was raised in Pitkin (population 1,965), about 90 miles due west of Angola; he began his career at the Louisiana Farm Bureau, then became assistant secretary for agribusiness at the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections, which runs a number of prison plantations. He became warden of the medium-security Dixon Correctional Institute in 1981 and landed at Angola 14 years later. One official bio notes that "to escape the pressures of running the nation's largest adult male maximum security prison, Cain enjoys hunting and traveling around the country on his motorcycle."
Cain's brother, James David Cain, served in the Louisiana Legislature for more than two decades. Burl Cain himself was until this year the vice chairman of the powerful State Civil Service Commission, which sets pay scales for state workers. Corrections is big business across the nation, but nowhere more so than in Louisiana, which has the highest incarceration rate in the world, keeping 1 in 55 adults behind bars. Angola is one of the largest employers in the state, with a staff of about 1,600 and an annual budget of more than $120 million; it is also a huge agricultural and industrial enterprise, with a network of customers and suppliers that depend on the warden's good graces.
Until 2008, the department of corrections, which oversees the state's prisons, was headed by Richard Stalder, who once worked for Cain. Today, its second in command is Sheryl Ranatza, who previously was Cain's deputy warden. She is married to Michael Ranatza, executive director of the Louisiana Sheriffs' Association. (The sheriffs have a direct interest in prison policy in Louisiana because the state effectively rents space in local jails—at premium rates—to house "overflow" inmates who can't be fit into Angola and other prisons.) Together, the Angola warden and the department of corrections have long been "a political powerhouse in Louisiana," says the Southern Center for Human Rights' Stephen Bright. "[They are] sitting on top of all this power. Governors who come along are afraid to touch them."