Peace Found at Louisiana Prison

Prison Angola

Walters, 45, can expect to spend the rest of his days in the prison. He was sentenced to life without parole for a murder more than 20 years. Yet he was on a recent evening, preaching the Gospel to 200 men in a spired church in Louisiana State Penitentiary, talking salvation and joy to murderers and rapists and robbers who waved their arms to an inmate band’s Christian worship music.

“God is merciful,” intoned Mr. Walters, an assistant pastor at one of many churches scattered through this maximum-security prison, informally known as Angola. “God gives us so many benefits.”

Mr. Walters is a graduate of one of the most unusual prison programs in the country: a Southern Baptist Bible college inside this sprawling facility, offering bachelor’s degrees in a rigorous 4-year course that includes study of Greek and Hebrew as well as techniques for “sidewalk ministry” that inmates can practice in their dorms and meal lines.

There are 241 graduates so far, nearly all lifers who live and work among their peers. Dozens of graduates have even moved as missionaries to counsel or preach in other prisons.

But Burl Cain, the warden since 1995, says the impact has gone well beyond spreading religion among the inmates. He calls the Bible college central to the transformation of Angola from one of the most fearsome prisons in the country to one of the more mellow, at least for those deemed to be cooperative. Watching men quietly saunter from open dormitories to church, many with Bible in hand and dressed in T-shirts of their choice, it can hardly seem like a maximum-security facility, although multiple daily lineups for inmate counts are a reminder.

Mr. Cain has used religion and peer counseling — backed by sharp discipline for defiant behavior — to promote what he calls a “moral rehabilitation” of individuals and a sense of community among men who might easily be consumed by rage or despair.

“The greatest enemy here is lack of hope,” Mr. Cain said in an interview.

Mr. Cain has lobbied the state for more forgiving parole policies, with limited success. “But if you believe in a higher being,” he said, “you’ll realize that when you do pass, you’ll be free.”

Nearly four-fifths of the 6,300 inmates now at Angola have sentences of life or so long they are effectively so. The prison has its own nursing home and hospice.

Angola was notoriously brutal and bloody into the 1970s. Court supervision and a parade of reforming wardens improved staff training and introduced vocational and G.E.D. programs, and the stabbing rate began to plummet.

In Mr. Cain’s view, the biggest change came in 1995 when, as he took over the prison and faced drastic cuts in school funds, he invited the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary to open a seminary. To his surprise, he said, the eminent seminary agreed, covering the costs with outside donations. “The Bible college was the game changer,” said Mr. Cain, 71 “It changed the culture of the prison.”

Some other experts say the college is one of many factors, but the softening effect of religion on life here is evident. Beyond the bachelor’s degrees, the college has granted hundreds more certificates or associate degrees, producing a cadre of men who lead churches, provide informal counseling in their dorms and take on what many describe as their hardest task — informing fellow inmates when a loved one on the outside has died.

The graduates include 15 Muslims, who took the same Bible-based courses but minister to the 250 Islamic inmates. Some 2,500 inmates attend church regularly, according to Cathy Fontenot, assistant warden — mostly Protestant or Roman Catholic but also Muslim, Jewish and Mormon services. The prison population is 75 percent black, with a small number of Latinos.

The prison college has received growing outside attention. A similar collaboration with a Southern Baptist seminary has started in Texas and have been started or are under discussion in California, Georgia, Illinois, Mississippi and other states.

The data indicate a large drop in violence at Angola over the last two decades. In 1990, according to prison records, inmates assaulted staff members 280 times and one another 1,107 times. In 2012, there were 55 assaults on staff and 316 among inmates.

Mr. Walters, the seminary graduate and pastor, admitted that some inmates detested him for his religious devotion and implicit cooperation with the authorities. But he said, “If I can help other people while I’m marching to the grave here, then I’ll have lived a good life.”



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