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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.

After more than a year of trying to get into Angola, I too turned to a lawsuit. In March 2010, the ACLU agreed to represent me on a First Amendment claim arguing that to keep government information from a reporter merely on the basis of what he's written is an infringement on press freedom. My attorneys asked for a listing of visitors the prison had welcomed in the previous year (not counting the everyday tourists). Without hesitation, Angola provided a 14-page list that included Miss Louisiana, the comedian Russell Brand, the Dixie Dazzle Dolls (a children's beauty pageant group), various groups of high school and college students, judges, representatives from gospel groups and film teams, scouts looking for film locations, criminal justice students, a former member of the Colombo crime family, a French attorney. Members of the media included a journalist from Switzerland; "Neal Moore, citizen journalist, who was canoeing the Mississippi River"; and a producer getting ready to film a "future movie/documentary on finding happiness." My attorneys dispatched one more letter to Cain urging him to grant me a visit. There was no response. But a month later, as the ACLU prepared to file suit in federal court, Fontenot wrote to them, inviting me down for a tour.

Aerial view of Angola prison, January 10, 1998.: USGSAerial view of Angola prison, 1998. Photo: USGSIn his memoir, Wilbert Rideau writes about how tightly Cain controls his messaging—a practice that had grim consequences for the Angolite, once known for its investigative reporting. At a time when even outside journalists encountered increasing barriers to access at prisons nationwide—it's almost impossible now to interview an inmate, or even a staffer, at many state and federal prisons—the Angolite staffers found their calls monitored and their stories censored. "The only information coming out of Angola," Rideau says, "was what Burl Cain wanted the public to know."

When I asked Fontenot about this, she shook her head and told me that after he started winning journalism prizes and drawing attention from outside Angola, Rideau withdrew from prison life, spending all his time holed up in the Angolite offices. His celebrity, she thought, had gone to his head.

Or perhaps Rideau got on the wrong side of Cain by refusing to embrace the dominant story of the warden as Angola's savior, a narrative neatly summed up by prison chaplain Robert Toney in congressional testimony in 2005: Angola "was once the most violent prison in America. Today, we are known as the safest prison in America. This change began with a warden that believed that change could occur."

In fact, there is considerable evidence that the turnaround at Angola began two decades before Cain became warden, in the 1970s, when a prisoner lawsuit forced the facility into federal oversight and a series of reforms began. According to Burk Foster, a professor of criminal justice at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan and the leading historian of Angola, by the mid-1980s Angola was already the most secure prison in the South. Prison violence is down dramatically across the country; the prison murder rate has fallen more than 90 percent (PDF) nationwide in the last three decades.

Yet the legend of Cain persists—and not just because Cain and his team (the formidable Cathy Fontenot included) are so skilled at PR. Cain does a job that no one else much wants to do, dealing with a group of people that no one else much wants to think about. Rather than face that reality, most of us prefer to believe in a miracle.
 

Aside from the high-level escort, my tour of Angola had covered pretty much what the tourists see, except for the closing lunch—Fontenot took me to the Ranch House, a sort of clubhouse where the wardens and other officials get together in a convivial atmosphere for chow prepared by inmate cooks. (It's traditional for Ranch House cooks to go on and work at the governor's mansion, but Gov. Bobby Jindal had spurned that tradition.) The house is built low, with a long porch and white board fence; we sat down to barbecue chicken, red beans and rice, and sweet potato pie, all of it quite good.

After lunch, I accompanied Fontenot to her office in the administration building. When we'd scheduled the tour, she'd promised me an interview with Cain provided he was at Angola when I visited, which she expected him to be. But when I asked, "Where's the warden?" she said matter-of-factly, "Oh, he's in Atlanta today."

On the way back over the line to the free world, I asked Fontenot whether the warden might consider talking to me on the phone. She suggested I follow up once I got home, and I did, thanking her for the tour and the fine luncheon. After several weeks and multiple inquiries—including a few questions submitted via email, at her request—I got this reply:

The warden respectfully declines to participate in this article. As he says often, its all of us at Angola that have caused the positive changes. Thanks again James. It really was a pleasure to meet you in person. Stay warm during these cold days of winter.

Much peace to you,

Cathy

When I interviewed John Thompson, the exonerated death-row inmate, about his time in Angola, he mentioned what he believes is one of the public's biggest misconceptions about prisons. Most people look at the fence around the perimeter and think its purpose is to keep prisoners from escaping. But the barrier "isn't there to keep prisoners in," Thompson said. "It's to keep the rest of you out."

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