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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.

Warden Cain has gone on record as favoring the possibility of parole for those who achieve "moral rehabilitation." Nick Trenticosta, a death-penalty attorney who currently represents 15 prisoners at Angola, says, "He knows there are individuals at Angola he believes are rehabilitated, and he believes they should be released. I think he is very frustrated by the sentencing laws in the state [and] the whole process of pardon and parole because of its political nature."

"Leadbelly in the foreground," reads a notation on this photo by folklorist Alan Lomax, who came to Angola in 1934 to record the blues great.: Photo: Library of Congress"Leadbelly in the foreground," reads a notation on this photo by folklorist Alan Lomax, who came to Angola in 1934 to record the blues great. Photo: Library of CongressAs it stands, Cain and his staff confront an aging and increasingly infirm prison population, which is why some of Angola's best-known programs deal with easing old age and death in prison. The prison even operates a hospice, founded and staffed by inmates, that houses men judged to have fewer than 18 months to live. When these men die, if no relatives come to claim the body, they can count on an inmate-crafted coffin, a decent funeral, and delivery, via horse-drawn hearse, to their final resting place at Angola's Point Lookout Cemetery.
 

Five miles into the plantation, we arrived at death row. A central control room led to a series of tiers, each marked by a locked door and color photos of the inhabitants, 83 in all. Guards patrol the tiers day and night, looking for potential suicides.

We walked past a plastic nativity scene to get to the death house, which contains the cells where inmates spend their final hours, saying goodbye to loved ones and having their last meals. In the death chamber sat a flat, padded leather gurney with "wings" where the condemned man's arms would be outstretched to receive the needle. Fontenot pointed out where Warden Cain would stand, near the man's left hand, and described how he would motion for the execution to begin.

Cain's first execution, he told the Baptist Press, was done strictly by the book. "There was a psshpssh from the machine, and then he was gone," Cain recalled. "I felt him go to hell as I held his hand. Then the thought came over me: I just killed that man. I said nothing to him about his soul. I didn't give him a chance to get right with God. What does God think of me? I decided that night I would never again put someone to death without telling him about his soul and about Jesus."

More than 200 inmates have earned degrees in Christian ministry at the “Bible college,” the only route to earning a college diploma at Angola.

By 1996, in a Diane Sawyer special about an Angola execution, Cain said that putting a prisoner to death was "so complex I can't even answer...I came here with an opinion about a lot of things. Today I don't have an opinion about hardly anything."

Attorney Nick Trenticosta says that in his view, Cain treats death-row prisoners better than wardens at most other prisons: "It is not that these guys had super privileges. But Warden Cain was somewhat responsive to not only prisoners, but to their families." Trenticosta recalls Cain demurring before one execution, "All I wanted was the keys to the big house. Not this." The lawyer offers a picture of a man torn between the duty to kill and the faith that makes him question that duty—a dilemma he seeks to resolve, perhaps, by giving prisoners the promise of a heavenly life before the state snuffs out their earthly one.
 

Chapels are all over Angola, and the main one, which seats 800, was a key stop on our tour—just as it is for visiting preachers from around the country. Gathered there waiting for us was a group of inmate preachers, who spread the good news at the five houses of worship in Angola (a sixth is under construction) and at other prisons throughout the state. On occasion, they even have the opportunity to preach in the outside world. I asked the inmates whether Warden Cain had to approve what they did; one said they answered only to "Him" and pointed skyward. For a while, we listened to a former country-western bandleader play gospel on the famed Angola organ, donated by a close associate of Billy Graham. As we began to leave, one preacher raised his hand to Cathy, smiled broadly, and said, "We did good for you."

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.

The imbalance "makes no rational sense from a prison management point of view," says the David Fathi, who heads the ACLU's National Prison Project. "But unfortunately it makes political sense for the next election." As a result, he says, "the religiously inspired programs are pretty much all there is."

According to estimates in the Christian press, some 2,000 of Angola's inmates have been born again since the arrival of Cain—who has described his own religious persuasion as "Bapticostal"—and 203 have earned B.A. degrees in Christian ministry at the "Bible college," an extension program operated by the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary that is the only route to earning a college degree at Angola.

Besides the prison seminary, Angola's major religious institution is the Louisiana Prison Chapel Foundation, which has raised at least $1.2 million to dot the prison's grounds with houses of worship. Franklin Graham, Billy's son, reportedly donated $200,000 to build one of the chapels, continuing a longstanding relationship with Angola. (Inmates crafted the coffin in which Billy Graham's wife was buried in 2007, and they are building one for Billy himself.)

Franklin Graham wrote about one of his visits to preach at the prison under the title "Freedom for the Captives." It's a phrase drawn from Luke 4:18-19, where Jesus announces that God "has sent Me to proclaim freedom to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." It's not hard to see why this would be an appealing message for men who will never again be physically free.

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. In 2009, the ACLU of Louisiana filed suit on behalf of Donald Lee Leger Jr., a practicing Catholic who had sought to take Mass while on death row. He alleged that Cain had TV screens outside his cell turned up full blast and tuned to Baptist Sunday services. Prison officials destroyed a plastic rosary sent to Leger from a nearby diocese. When Leger continued to file grievances requesting Mass, he was moved to a tier of ill-behaved inmates and finally put in the hole for 10 days. The ACLU also represented Norman Sanders (PDF), a member of a Mormon Bible study course, who was denied books from Brigham Young University and Deseret Book Direct, sources of Mormon publications. (Cain told the Christian magazine World that other religions are welcome to set up programs at Angola "as long as they're willing to pay for it. Let them all compete to catch the most fish. I'll stand on the bank and watch.")

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