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Senior Correspondent

Prison ministry is a major passion of mine. I invest substantial time each month in working with inmates. I have written a few times about my experiences in the hope that I can inspire you to give of your time and talents in some cause during your satisfying retirement. In case you'd like to review those posts, i have them linked at the bottom of this post.

One of the men who I work with at Along Side Ministries is in charge of the men's ministry programs at the prisons throughout the state that are affiliated with this tremendous organization. Recently he had an experience that is so far out of anyone's comfort zone that I asked to share his report with you. I don't think it is possible to read his story of experience without binging tears to your eyes and a conviction in your heart to help wherever and whenever you can. Be prepared to be moved:

"Many of you know that I recently spent a weekend in Louisiana State Penitentiary otherwise known as Angola Prison. And many have asked me for a report. I think it would be best to describe Angola in order to understand the environment and experience a little better.

So, for starters let me give you a bit of Angola history. In the 1960s Angola was commonly referred to as the bloodiest prison in the U.S. Rapes, murders and gang activity were out of control common occurrences. Inmates worked in the cotton fields where armed officers watched over them on horseback. When a man died, other inmates were appointed to dig a hole, and his body was thrown into it; no casket or funeral. There was no care for the dying and no concern for the brutality from other inmates or corrections officers. Like most states in the country at that time, executions were carried out by electric chair; which is basically frying someone to death. It was a prison that men feared getting sentenced to. 

Finally the federal government stepped in and demanded reform under federal oversight. In spite of their best efforts Louisiana struggled throughout the '70s and '80s to turn the prison around. In 1995 real change began with the appointment of Burl Cain as warden. Up to that point no warden had lasted more than five years. Cain has been warden for 17 years now. He immediately began restoring dignity to inmates. He lives by a code of zero tolerance on abuse whether by inmates or staff. He wanders the yards often and talks openly with inmates. If he hears about impropriety on a yard, he launches an investigation. If a staff member is found to have abused his authority with an inmate, he is fired on the spot regardless of rank or length of service.

He built church buildings on every yard and ordered that the steeple of each church have a cross on the top and be the tallest structure on every yard. If an inmate gets discouraged or is losing hope; no matter where he is on the yard he can always look to the church, see the cross as an anchor or hope. Today, no prison in the U.S. houses more life-term inmates than Angola Prison. It sits on 18,000 acres and is surrounded on three sides by the Mississippi River. It is like a city in itself. It has its own zip code, post office, bank, 9-hole golf course and a housing community that houses over 400 security and support staff families. The prison houses roughly 5,100 inmates. 86 percent are violent offenders, 74 percent are serving life sentences and 85 percent will die in there. It is equipped with only 1,400 cells. Most inmates live on open yards and are housed in dorms similar to Arizona’s minimum security yards. Angola has a security force of 1,450 personnel, half of whom are women.

When an inmate first arrives at Angola. he works “the farm” in agriculture. Angola Prison processes about 4 million pounds of vegetables a year. They maintain about 1,500 head of cattle and 700 horses. Inmate cowboys oversee the livestock. They have a rodeo every year that is open to the public. People attend from all over the country. Inmate workers are trained in breeding and cross-breeding and breed their own dogs for security, tracking and tactical needs.  

Inmates can go through an accredited Bible college and get their bachelor’s degree in theology. Some are ordained and become pastors of the many churches on each yard. There are nine different protestant evangelical denominations that contribute to 450 services a month. Each church has ordained assistant pastors and deacons. These pastors have complete pastoral responsibilities for their congregations. It is their full-time paid job on the prison yard. The prison churches send out inmate missionaries by twos to other prison complexes in the state. Their full-time prison job is to build the church and evangelize on the other prison complexes. The home church they come out of in Angola sends them each $50 a month for support to live on.

Now, there is relatively little violence. They boast that they are probably the safest prison in the U.S. There is no gang activity, no racism and no fights. Inmates are encouraged to join one of the many sanctioned social organizations or even form their own. Angola is the first prison in the United States to have an inmate-staffed hospice program for terminally ill inmates; the first to have a fully accredited four-year college program; and, the first to have its own accredited fire and emergency services department. Angola is also the only penitentiary in the United States to be issued an FCC license to operate a radio station. Inmates publish a monthly magazine called The Angolite.

I was with a team from Awana International that consisted of 113 men from 28 different states and Canada. We were each assigned to a cell on the old death row. That is where we slept Friday and Saturday nights. We ate all our meals with inmates in the chow hall and had plenty of time for talk and fellowship. The seminar consisted of seven different teaching segments; five of which were taught by inmate pastors on the yard. We toured the entire prison including the new death row and death chamber.

Louisiana does not do executions very often these days. Texas and Arizona have had far more executions in the last year. When they do, it is by lethal injection. The days and weeks leading up to an execution is very humane. The chaplain spends quite a bit of time with the inmate, and the warden visits with him. It is common for an inmate with a pending execution to spend the day before with his family in an open day room with no restraints. They eat together, spend the day together and make their peace. They are given as much dignity as possible. Even the warden stops by, visits with the family and often prays with them.

We heard plenty of Warden Cain’s philosophy on running a prison. He often walks the yards and talks with inmates without giving advance notice to staff. He tells them, “I’ll be as good as you let me be and as mean as you make me be.” His approach to personal development and empowering of inmates to be all they can be is something I have never seen before. And it works. It was a profound experience to spend time with men who have been locked up for 40 and 50 years. All the men that we were with will die in prison if the current Louisiana life sentence legislation does not change. I saw rehabilitation firsthand and the power of the gospel to transform a horrible place into a place of hope.

One breakfast I sat with an inmate who had been in Angola for 17 years. He has a life sentence and will never get out. At one point he was sent with a team to another prison complex that houses men who will be getting out. Their purpose was to study reentry. They began by interviewing hundreds of inmates who had been in prison before, were release and have returned. They began to identify common themes and from that developed reentry classes. Then they all, having life sentences themselves, became the teachers; teaching reentry to inmates who would get out.

Here is just a few of the things he shared with me: The main reason men go back to prison is rejection. They don’t fit in when they get out. They are rejected by employers, by family when things are not working out and by churches when they struggle. They developed a program to help them prepare for this. Included in the teaching are skits and practical exercises that help them see the difficulties ahead and prepare for it. They try to deal with every possible negative situation. Much of this is a matter of changing mindset, helping them realize that they are a burden on family or someone when they get out. They are dependent on others, and that costs them money and time. Their presence alone in the home creates a certain amount of stress.

The programs teach them to be an asset in practical ways such as; doing the dishes, washing clothes, cleaning the house and washing windows, taking care of the yard, etc. Other practical things they do before getting out is to write letters to loved ones whom they have hurt, making amends. They do one on one counseling with each man before his release."

The gentleman, Kevin, who went through this experience, has the biggest heart for prisoners and what they must endure to rebuild their lives as anyone I have ever met. I feel privileged to be able to work with him and learn from him.

For you, if you are looking to give back, it certainly doesn't have to be working with prisoners. It could be an animal shelter, or the Red Cross. It could be with a homeless shelter or battered women organization. It could be volunteering at the library, or simply picking up trash in your neighborhood. Believe me, your life will benefit in ways I can't even begin to describe.

Kevin is living proof.

Related posts: Still Pushing Against the Box, Prison Ministry: Taking the Next Step

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