Forget those things that are behind and reach forward to those things that are ahead, Apostle Paul
Hope or despair. Redemption or retribution. Dignity or degradation. As I enter my fourth year as president of Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, these words may seem odd to be at the forefront of my thinking. While life as a college president is not easy, despair, retribution and degradation thankfully don’t describe too many moments in my life. Then again, it’s been only three years. No, these words are fixed in my mind not because of my day-to-day work, but rather because of a break from that work. Two Oglethorpe alumni who have become dear friends invited my wife, my daughter and me to join them last weekend in prison: Angola Prison, part of the Louisiana State Penitentiary System. We were the outsiders on the trip, the other 40 travelers work in the Georgia State Prison System as wardens, chaplains or nurses and were visiting to learn how their own prison communities might become reflective of the ideals of hope, redemption and dignity.
Angola is infamous, both for what it was and what it has become. It’s the place of Dead Man Walking and Monster’s Ball. For decades, Angola was America’s bloodiest prison and it remains the largest maximum-security prison in the country with 18,000 acres and over 5,200 inmates. Angola began as a former slave plantation, named for the African country from which the majority of these slaves were kidnapped. At the end of the Civil War Angola became a prison plantation run by a private company whose job was to build the levies from Baton Rouge to New Orleans. Ten percent of the prison population died every year doing that work, and these inmates were simply buried in the walls of the levy as the work went on. In the 1970s Angola was taken over by an interventionist federal judge appalled at the violence and lawlessness that prevailed and, to a degree, things got better. Today, with sentencing laws among the harshest in America, the average sentence at Angola is 88 years. Of the 5,200 inmates, 3,600 are in for life with no parole. Ninety percent of those who pass through the gates of Angola will die there. If these numbers don’t represent despair, retribution and degradation, I don’t know what does. Louisianans are tough on crime, just as we Georgians are. In Louisiana, armed robbery will get you 99 years. I will leave the justice or injustice of the sentencing laws for another time, and share the story of the men who live at Angola and the warden who largely controls their lives.
Here we were, husband, wife and 16-year-old daughter, dropped among 5,200 inmates, mostly lifers, all of whom have committed very serious offenses – murder, armed robbery, aggravated sex crimes. No one comes to Angola with less than a 40-year sentence. With some exceptions, such as the 86 men who reside on death row and virtually never see the light of day, thousands of the inmates of Angola experience some measure of freedom behind bars, and that does not change when visitors arrive. Every third weekend in April is Angola Rodeo time, the largest prison rodeo in the world. I didn’t know any prison held a rodeo, but five times a year at Angola the rodeo comes to town. This rodeo is a story in and of itself, with inmates doing the riding and roping, and there’s not a lot of opportunity to practice their skills. At the end of the day, I have to say the bulls won a decisive victory. But the important story is the rodeo weekend and accompanying craft fair of inmate art, drawing some 5,000 visitors to what was not very long ago the bloodiest prison in America.
Unless you’ve been to Angola you might chalk the rest of this story up to the tale of a do-gooder with his head in the sand, but it’s the truth so help me God. Our first night at Angola we wandered into a church at about 9:00 p.m., one of five churches now at Angola, the latest thanks to the Reverend Billy Graham. The bell on this church is nearly 100 years old and was forged in Philadelphia, my hometown and home of the Liberty Bell. The inmates love the bell and tell its story something like this: after it was created and before it had the chance to ring anywhere, it fell and killed a church member. The first time that bell ever rang was at Angola – the bell was a killer and now it’s been redeemed, and they call it a born-again bell. As we entered the church, we passed one guard quietly sitting. There were maybe 100 or so felons scattered in the church pews with an inmate preacher up front. He stopped for a moment, welcoming us to their house, to God’s house, and urged us to sit among them in prayer. So we all sat shoulder-to-shoulder among the men. The next day, we joined inmates for a meal, again sitting side by side.
Throughout our days at Angola, we passed one inmate after another just walking or selling his wares at the craft fair, and a conversation would begin. Picture this: my daughter, talking to a 40-year-old man who has spent half his life in Angola for murder, not scared, not even nervous. “It’s odd,” she said later, “It was just like talking to anyone else.” I had no doubt that she, and we, were safer there than in our own home or neighborhood. For three days, I never heard one curse word, and I can’t remember when that has ever happened. In fact I don’t recall being among so many dignified men in my entire life, how can that be? How can men who have committed such serious crimes, locked away for life, maintain any shred of dignity.
That brings me to Warden Burl Cain. The stories about and from the mouth of Warden Cain are too many to chronicle, but I think I can capture the theme behind most by the following: his job, as he sees it, is not to punish the men under his care. After three years, virtually no inmate receives a single visit in a year. His men are in jail for life. They have been punished. Society has locked them up. His job is to give them an opportunity to give back. You have to do what you can where you are, a lesson Cain learned from his father and mother. Failure, in his view, is not final. In a Christian world, there is always a chance for redemption — hope and dignity. Before Cain arrived at Angola, inmates who died were buried in cardboard boxes. Once, the box broke, and the remains of the inmate tumbled out. All men, Cain believes, deserve some measure of dignity when they die. Today, the prison carpenters build simple wooden caskets and the deceased are buried on the grounds of Angola. Ruth Graham was buried in an Angola casket, and so the Reverend Billy Graham will be.
Hope at Angola is everywhere, and it’s not the hope of one day being released, since that almost never happens. Instead I believe it’s the hope that comes with regaining one’s dignity, through taking responsibility for one’s acts, finding ways to take care of others, through God and through work. Everyone has a job at Angola. The newest inmate makes two cents an hour working the fields. A 15-minute call to his loved one costs $6. That’s 300 hours of work, or about eight weeks, for that phone call.
No story about Angola could be complete without reference to the praying men of Angola, for it’s clear that there’s God in the city of Angola. Over 2,000 inmates have been born again, like that bell that stands tall above one of the churches. The violence at Angola is almost gone. Warden Cain says it’s this simple: the thousands of men of God in his prison won’t tolerate violence.
Hope and despair. Redemption and retribution. Dignity and degradation. All exist within the walls of Angola. And I am left in awe to have discovered that within such a place of despair lies so much dignity.