In the next issue of Religion & Liberty, we are featuring an interview with Warden Burl Cain of the Louisiana State Penitentiary. In September of 2012, I made a trip down to Angola, La. to tour the prison and interview the warden. I authored a commentary in October that touched on some of my experiences visiting the inmates and prison staff.
Cain is the longest serving warden in the history of the penitentiary, a position he has held since 1995. The prison is more commonly known as “Angola.” Cain is the most well known prison official in the country. He is the subject of the book Cain’s Redemption and has been featured in documentaries and numerous television programs.
Cain is well known for his work as reformer of prison culture and his promotion of moral rehabilitation. He serves on the board of Prison Fellowship, a ministry founded by Chuck Colson. Below is an excerpt from the forthcoming interview:
R&L: What do people outside of Angola need to know about the prison?
Warden Burl Cain: I think Angola proved a lot of things that even Scripture says that does not need proving, like II Chronicles 7:14, “If my people who are called by My name would turn their face to Me, I will heal their land.” And that’s what happened here, because this prison’s culture has changed, not because I’m a smart warden or because of the authority here. It changed solely because these inmates were praying to God to heal their land, and He did.
If you turn to a moral worldview, you’ll be okay. But if we turn away from our religious heritage and we keep separation of church and state to the point that is a wider gap than our forefathers intended, you’re going to keep having immoral acts and immoral things happen. The seminary program implemented by New Orleans Baptist Seminary has changed the prison culture.
There are 6,100 inmates here and more coming this year. This is a gigantic prison. Right now it’s only murder, rape, armed robbery and habitual felons. If your sentence is less than 50 years we don’t keep you here. We’re going to change that in the future because these people have so changed, these lifers, that know they’re going to become teachers for the short termers, so that they can make it on the street and save tax dollars by not having to hire so many teachers in literacy and vocational skills and so forth. This place has become a place of encouragement.
R&L: I was impressed with the life skills people can learn. It’s clear the educational opportunities here are pretty advanced for a state prison.
The four teachers of the generator and diesel school are today in Plaquemines Parish that experienced flooding from Hurricane Isaac. They’re working with the sheriff in the community repairing all their air boats and all their generators, and saving tremendous tax dollars.
So you have four lifers living in Plaquemines Parish, working and fixing things on the Bayou and getting those generators up and running. The largest one they worked on so far is a 250 Kilowatts, which is large enough to run a pretty small town. So that shows some of the leadership of the people here who do have the life sentence. And what’s sad is, prison should be a place for predators and not dying old men. These guys who are healed should have a mechanism to be released, or at least go before a board. Louisiana sentencing laws are too harsh. But again, victims trump. Victims are first.
R&L: You are a warden of a prison that has historically been known as one of the more violent prisons and you’ve seen that change under your watch. But how do you change the perception? And I imagine some of it has to do with talking to the media and getting your story with the Rodeo out, but how do you change that perception in terms of Angola’s reputation?
It’s amazing because I’ve been here almost 18 years, and we were all talking about it just yesterday. I’ve just about given up. I cannot change our reputation because it still makes people shudder, “Angola.” Life magazine called it the bloodiest prison in America. And we can’t shirk the reputation because the people who come here are so violent. People don’t realize how much they can change.
And that’s why we really built the Rodeo up and have so many tours in this riverboat tour. When they stop here in Baton Rouge or St. Francisville, they get in a bus and they come here, because I’m trying to get people to see that this place is not like they thought, and that people can truly change.