“I had come to realize that criminals are very selfish people,” says prison Warden Burl Cain. “They take your money, your property, anything they want for themselves. They sneak around, lie, steal, kill and do whatever they want.”
Despite all that, Warden Cain says, “I truly believe these men can rebuild their lives -- lives that have been shattered by awful crimes -- if they embrace a genuine change of heart.”
Moral rehabilitation, claims Warden Cain, is the only real rehabilitation. “I can get you education. I can get you to read and write. But if I don’t change you morally, you don’t change morally; you’re still a criminal.”
Cain is not an academic theorist on prison reform: he’s the warden of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, the bloodiest and biggest maximum-security prison in the country – 18,000 acres covering an area of 28-square-miles.
Out of Angola’s 5,108 inmates, 86% are there for violent crimes. The average sentence at Angola is 88 years and 3,712 of the prisoners are serving life sentences. Ninety-three percent of convicts who go to Angola will die at Angola.
They are hard men doing hard time with little to lose and no hope to hold onto.
Life in Angola is “dying by inches,” Warden Cain says. “I knew we had to do more.” And Cain knew one thing for certain: no one is beyond God’s love, no one -- not even the inmates of Angola.
At his urging, the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary began operating a privately funded, nationally accredited four-year Bible college within Angola’s walls.
The Bible college has already had 200 inmates graduate. Many have become preachers inside the prison walls and churches -- “positive gangs” as Warden Burl Cain calls them -- have sprung up inside the facility.
Inmate violence has gone down 40 percent, and rapes, drug use and assaults on guards have also decreased.
Inmates run the prison’s radio station, JSLP at 91.7FM, the “incarceration station”, which now broadcasts Christian music and sermons 24 hours a day.
The Bible college’s graduates also operate the prison’s hospice program.
Jerome Derricks came to Angola as a convicted murderer. He is now a trained minister comforting men facing death. “They are very much aware of what I am in here for and how long I have been here. They identify with me because they look at me as one of them. They would be more receptive of me because I am in here with them than someone who has come off of the street and tried to minister to them.”
Daryl Waters is also a convicted murderer and a current student at the Bible College. He says, “I’ve been incarcerated now for almost 18 years. [Yet] I am so blessed and so thankful that, despite this life sentence I have, I am free.”
Aaron Neville sings the song “Angola Bound” which has these poignantly true lines in it:
I got lucky last summer when I got my time, Angola bound
Well my partner got a hundred, I got ninety-nine, Angola bound
The Bible college can’t change the time they will serve at Angola, but now inmates like Derricks and Waters know that they have been freed from their sins and they are Heaven-bound.