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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.

But Cain's reputation has reached far beyond Louisiana. Shortly after taking the reins at Angola, he gained a national audience through a 1998 documentary about the prison, The Farm: Angola, USA, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and was nominated for an Academy Award. Soon Cain found himself interviewed by an admiring Charlie Rose and profiled in Time, which noted his quest to "give the 5,108 hopeless men on this former slave-breeding farm hope." A follow-up to The Farm was released in 2009 (PDF), with Cain as the central character.

The "Convict Poker" event at the Angola Prison Rodeo: Photo: Mike Schreiber "Convict Poker" at the Angola Prison Rodeo. Photo: Mike SchreiberCain has also had an open-door policy for Hollywood. Parts of Dead Man Walking, Out of Sight, and Monster's Ball were filmed on the prison grounds, and more recently, William Hurt spent a night there to prepare for his role as an ex-con from Angola in The Yellow Handkerchief. As Fontenot proudly told me, Forest Whitaker recently visited to prep for narrating a two-hour documentary on the prison's hospice for Oprah's new network. Even parts of the recent Jim Carrey film I Love You Phillip Morris, about two men who fall in love in prison, were filmed at Angola. "All the extras we were using were lifers, real killers," costar Ewan McGregor bragged. (Cain drew the line, though, according to one Christian blogger, at allowing a gay sex scene to be filmed in the prison.)
 

With Cathy Fontenot at the wheel, talking a mile a minute, our SUV sped through Angola's expansive grounds. At 18,000 acres, the prison covers a tract of land larger than the island of Manhattan. Surrounded on three sides by the Mississippi River and on the fourth by 20 miles of scrubby, uninhabited woods, it is virtually escape-proof.

With its proximity to the river, this is prime agricultural land, made up of five former plantations and named for the country of origin of the slaves who once worked its fields. Today the prisoners, three-quarters of whom are black (PDF), still work the land by hand, earning between 2 and 20 cents an hour.

Angola's agribusiness operation grows cash crops like cotton, corn, and soybeans, as well as fruits and vegetables. In addition to working the fields, inmates tend to Angola's hundreds of beef cattle, its prize Percherons and quarter horses, and the dogs it breeds for law enforcement. (In addition to raising bloodhounds, the Angola kennels have experimented with crossing German shepherds and black wolves.) Prisoners also make license plates and vinyl mattresses and fashion toys for charity.

The prison rodeo is famed for such events as “Convict Poker,” in which four inmates try to remain seated at a card table while being charged by a 2,000-pound bull.

Fontenot crossed one levee after another, rolling off facts and figures and telling little stories about points of interest as we flew past. In 1997, she told me, a flooding Mississippi came close to breaching the ramparts, but they kept the water out with teams of inmates sandbagging, Warden Cain working by their side. We passed a herd of horses, which at Angola are used not only by officers riding guard over prisoners in the fields, but also to pull wagons and plows, replacing gas-guzzling tractors. Angola is working very hard to go green, Fontenot said. It is also highly entrepreneurial, with ventures such as the Prison View Golf Course bringing in extra funds at a time of budget cuts. They were, she said, considering a pet-grooming service and an Angola-branded clothing line. As we zipped down the road, we passed a big tour bus filled with visitors.

We also passed the 10,000-seat arena where Angola's famous prison rodeos are staged each spring and fall, drawing some 70,000 people. The rodeo is famed for such events as "Convict Poker" (in which four inmates try to remain seated around a card table while being charged by a 2,000-pound bull) and "Guts and Glory" (where inmates vie to snatch a poker chip hung around the horns of an angry bull). Daniel Bergner, who spent a year at Angola researching his powerful 1998 book God of the Rodeo, observed that the crowd's reaction was "electrified, exhilarated, the thrill of watching men in terror made forgivable because the men were murderers. I'm sure some of it was racist (See that nigger move), some disappointed (that there had been no goring), and some uneasy (with that very disappointment)." Even so, he writes, "many people were not laughing, were too bewildered or stunned by what they had just seen."

Outside the arena, inmates sell arts and crafts, along with crawfish étouffée and Frito pies for the benefit of various inmate organizations: the Lifers Association, the Forgotten Voices Toastmasters group, Camp F Vets, and dozens of Christian groups. The rodeo was originally conjured up by the inmates, but it is now a centerpiece of Cain's PR operation. Bergner wrote that in Cain's first year at Angola, he entered the arena in "the closest thing he could find to a chariot"—a cart pulled by the prison's Percherons, in which he circled the ring before the opening prayer.

One thing I learned when attending the rodeo a year earlier (it was the only way to get into Angola without Fontenot's permission) is the vast difference in the way various groups of inmates live. Most of the men who work the booths are "trusties." They live in open dorms or group houses, hold the most coveted jobs, move around with some degree of ease, and in some cases even have limited contact with the public. A few trusties are trucked out to keep up the grounds at the local school, while others tend to the homes and yards of B-Line, the small town inside the prison gates that is populated by Angola's staff, many of them third- or fourth-generation corrections officers. (Angola officials have military ranks; collectively, they are sometimes still referred to by their historical name, "freemen.")

About 700 of Angola's 5,200 prisoners are trusties. Another 2,800 are "big stripes," who work in the fields and factories under armed supervision. The remaining 1,500 are confined in cellblocks—some in the general population, some in 23-hour-a-day lockdown, some in punishment units. A word from the warden can make the difference between life in a "trusty camp" with a decent job and contact visits, and life in a six-by-nine isolation cell.

A little farther on was the main prison, surrounded by layers of razor wire shining bright in the sun. "Hiya," Fontenot called out to the inmates as our entourage swept down the central walkway. "How ya doin'?" "Good morning," they responded. She put her arm affectionately around the shoulder of one man, asked another about a personal problem. She came off as part country-western princess, part girl next door, and entirely in charge.

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."

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