Posts tagged with: Louisiana

choiceopportunityfront1Last week, as the country was remember MLK’s dream of children being judged on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin, Attorney General Eric Holder was suing the state of Louisiana because he’s more worried, as the Wall Street Journal says, about the complexion of the schools’ student body than their manifest failure to educate.

Late last week, Justice asked a federal court to stop 34 school districts in the Pelican State from handing out private-school vouchers so kids can escape failing public schools. Mr. Holder’s lawyers claim the voucher program appears “to impede the desegregation progress” required under federal law. Justice provides little evidence to support this claim, but there couldn’t be a clearer expression of how the civil-rights establishment is locked in a 1950s time warp.

Passed in 2012, Louisiana’s state-wide program guarantees a voucher to students from families with incomes below 250% of poverty and who attend schools graded C or below. The point is to let kids escape the segregation of failed schools, and about 90% of the beneficiaries are black.

During the 2012-13 school year, about 10% of voucher recipients came from 22 districts that remain under desegregation orders from 50 or so years ago.
For example, says the complaint, in several of those 22 districts “the voucher recipients were in the racial minority at the public school they attended before receiving the voucher.” In other words, Justice is claiming that the voucher program may be illegal because minority kids made their failing public schools more white by leaving those schools to go to better private schools.

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Steven Garner

Steve Garner

Angola’s Fall rodeo is a well known and popular occurrence at the prison. Perhaps less known on the outside of the prison is the inmate led hospice program. Warden Burl Cain launched the program in 1997 to bring more dignity for the dying process of inmates. Cardboard boxes have been replaced with caskets built by prisoners and handmade quilts drape the caskets of the deceased.

Hospice is also instrumental to the kind of moral rehabilitation that has transformed the culture of violence that once plagued the prison. When I visited Angola Prison to interview Cain and tour the facilities, I also visited the hospice chapel and spoke with hospice inmate volunteers Randolph Matthieu and Steven Garner. Both men are featured in the documentary “Serving Life” narrated by actor Forest Whitaker. Garner, who has volunteered with the hospice program since its inception, plays a prominent role.

Both men, convicted of second degree murder, are serving life sentences at Angola. Matthieu told me in his interview, “If people would just come to Angola and see who we are, perception would change.” Louisiana’s harsh but popular sentencing laws leave them with little hope for release. It was evident that Garner and Matthieu put a lot of pride and dedication into the kind of care they provide to the dying inmates.

If you have a Netflix account, you can now stream “Serving Life” and it’s well worth your time. It gives you a powerful look into a program that is changing the lives of some of the most hardened criminals. Below is an extended trailer of the film.

The morticians wanted the monks shut down—or even thrown in jail—for the crime the Benedictines were committing.

Casket-making MonksUntil 2005, the monks of St. Joseph Abbey in St. Benedict, Louisiana had relied on harvesting timber for income. But when Hurricane Katrina destroyed their pine forest they had to find new sources of revenue to fund the 124-year-old abbey. For over 100 years, the monks had been making simple, handcrafted, monastic caskets so they decided to try to sell them to the public.

According to the Wall Street Journal, after a local Catholic newspaper publicized the effort in 2007, local funeral directors got the Louisiana State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors—of which eight of the nine members are funeral industry professionals—to serve the abbey with a cease-and-desist order. Louisiana law makes it a crime for anyone but a licensed parlor to sell “funeral merchandise.” Violating the statute could land the monks in jail for up to 180 days.

Since the sole purpose of the “casket cartel” law is to protect the economic interest of the funeral industry, the Institute for Justice filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of the monastery claiming the legislation restricts “the right to earn an honest living just to enrich government-licensed funeral directors.”

Yesterday, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a unanimous final decision in favor of the casket-making monk, setting up what could become a historic clash at the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court of Appeals rejected Louisiana’s argument that it was constitutional to enact a law forbidding anyone but a government-licensed funeral director from selling caskets, especially if the only purpose of the law is to make funeral directors wealthier by limiting competition. In other words, the Court didn’t buy the State’s argument that crony capitalism is constitutionally protected.

Unfortunately, this latest ruling doesn’t solve the issue. As the Institute for Justice explains,

Angola Inmates in the Auto Body Shop.

Angola Inmates in the Auto Body Shop.

When I drove into Angola, La., to interview Warden Burl Cain and tour the prison grounds, I wasn’t nervous about talking with the inmates. I had already read multiple accounts calling Angola “perhaps the safest place in America.” The only thing I was a little nervous about was being an Ole Miss football partisan amidst a possible sea of LSU football fans. Even for such an egregious sin in Louisiana, at Angola, I was extended grace and hospitality. It made sense though, because above all else, Angola is a place of contradictions. People are locked away, most of them forever, but I saw and felt genuine hope and compassion. Historically, it was well known as one of the most brutal and violent prisons, but I felt much safer and at home inside the prison than I did in Baton Rouge. I met inmates who had committed horrible crimes, but had equal or more theological and biblical knowledge than I do, a seminary graduate.

I met thoughtful and reflective people who crave authenticity. You can tell a transformation had occurred and honestly the realness of many of the inmates I met was convicting for my own faith and life. Angola can’t but help change you and a big reason for that is Warden Burl Cain. I interview him in this issue of R&L. Cain is helping to encourage and foster the growth of men the rest of the world have long given up on.

There is a lot of great content in this issue. Wesley Gant contributes an essay titled “The Perfectibility Thesis — Still the Great Political Divide.” It’s an excellent overview of ideological divides and the aim and purpose of government. Dylan Pahman offers a review of Ronald J. Sider’s Just Politics: A Guide for Christian Engagement. I review Grant’s Final Victory: Ulysses S. Grant’s Heroic Last Year by Charles Bracelen Flood.

The “In the Liberal Tradition” tribute honor this issue belongs to President Calvin Coolidge. During his inaugural address today, President Obama challenged Americans to live up to the meaning of the Declaration of Independence. A great study of those meaning and ideals was offered by Coolidge on the 150th anniversary of the founding document. There is more content in this issue, and the next issue will feature an interview with Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) of Volokolamsk.

Warden Burl Cain (photo by Erin Oswalt)

Warden Burl Cain (photo by Erin Oswalt)

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:

Angola inmates in the prison auto shop. (Photo by Erin Oswalt for Acton Institute)

In mid-September I ventured down to South Louisiana to visit and tour the Louisiana State Penitentiary, more commonly known as Angola Prison. My commentary this week “Angola Prison, Moral Rehabilitation, and the Things Ahead” is based on that visit. Burl Cain, Angola’s warden, will be featured in an upcoming issue of Religion & Liberty. I will be providing more information on Angola and my time down there, but think of this commentary as an introduction of sorts to what I witnessed.

A portion of the upcoming interview with Cain will reflect upon Chuck Colson. That good things are happening at places like Angola are in a large part directly related to Colson and his legacy and work on behalf of Prison Fellowship. I’ll have a lot more to say about Angola, but when you study in-depth the history and mystique of this prison, for it to change like it has, you know God is present.

It’s hard to think of anything more onerous than preventing enterprising people from entering the market. To do so is to interfere with their ability to serve others and engage in their vocation. It keeps people poor by preventing them from improving their lives. And one of the worst barriers of this kind is a type of law known as occupational licensing.

And that’s exactly what a group of monks in Louisiana ran into in 2010 when the state government tried to prohibit them from selling handmade caskets to their fellow Louisianians. Kevin Schmiesing wrote on that issue in 2010 on the PowerBlog.

It’s the coffin business that got St. Joseph’s in trouble. By selling its pine boxes without a funeral director’s license, the monastery violates state law. So the abbey is suing the State of Louisiana in federal court.

It’s a classic case of what economists call “barriers to entry”: regulations put in place by existing businesses or professionals to limit competition and thereby drive up prices and compensation. Usually the vested interest posits some rationale concerning the public good (e.g., not just anybody should be allowed to practice medicine…), but frequently enough the reasoning is pretty thin (e.g., should you really need a license to cut hair or drive a taxi?).

The monks are represented by the libertarian public-interest group, Institute for Justice. They won their case in 2011 and appeared last month before a Federal Appeals Court. A decision won’t be out for several months.

This all started when the Benedictine monks at Saint Joseph Abbey started receiving several requests from their community to sell caskets that the monks had constructed for their own deceased members for many years. In a hard hit post-Katrina Louisiana, this seemed like a reasonable way for them to serve their community and bring in some money to the abbey. Unfortunately, they ran into occupational licensing laws, which forbid non-funeral homes from selling caskets. The Institute for Justice argued that such laws could only serve to reduce competition and drive up the prices of caskets. The BBC has a good video on their troubles with the state. (more…)