Bearing Fruit in Angola:The Prison is Unbelievably Different

The worst of the worst offenders are imprisoned at this notorious prison and most will die there, yet surprisingly it's not the place it used to be.
by Pat Nolan

Angola Prison's Warden, Burl Cain (left), talks with Prison Fellowship Ministries President Mark Earley.

Angola Prison: The name conjures up dark images of unspeakable brutality and misery depicted in the 1998 documentary The Farm. It confines men whom the press calls "the worst of the worst"-the inmates too tough for most prisons. It is the largest maximum-security prison in the United States. About 98 percent of the men will die here. Some will be executed; the rest will simply pass on of disease or old age. It seems a fitting place for the motto, "Abandon hope all ye who enter here."

Yet, when I recently visited Angola Prison in Louisiana, the men were upbeat and hopeful despite their long sentences. They told me Angola is now the most peaceful prison in the United States.

How could a place that until a few years ago seethed with anger and violence-where men slept with phone books and metal plates over their chests to avoid being stabbed while sleeping-now be called the "most peaceful prison?" How could men who will never draw a breath of air outside the confines of that prison smile and talk of hope for their future? Ashanti Witherspoon, released from Angola after twenty-seven years in custody, told me the reason: "Warden Cain." Others echoed this. Burl Cain has transformed the prison.

Mr. Cain has a ready smile and an easy manner. He seems more likely to be a pharmacist or insurance agent than a prison warden. Nevertheless, he takes his job seriously. "No one escapes from our prison here. A few try, but nobody makes it," he says. "I've got the best tracking dogs in the country, bar none." However, protecting the public doesn't mean dehumanizing the men. While the men are in Warden Cain's custody, he promises them, "Good food, good fun, good praying, and good medicine." Sounds pretty much like what Jesus provided, doesn't it?

When he told us his priorities, a Prison Fellowship volunteer remarked, "What you are talking about is treating the men with dignity."

"That's right," the warden responded. He wants them to live peaceful and productive lives. The Angola Inmate Rodeo gives the men a chance to participate in healthy competition and draws crowds from miles around. On the grounds of the prison, Warden Cain has established a culinary school and a Baptist Seminary. Graduates help provide sustenance to the bodies and souls of their fellow inmates.

The atmosphere is remarkable. One thing in particular struck me as I walked through the disciplinary unit: The men looked me in the eyes. That is not usual. When I visited Death Row in Huntsville, Texas, and the solitary confinement unit at Pelican Bay, California's SuperMax prison, most of the men averted their eyes. They stole furtive glances, as if afraid to look any "free person" in the eyes. In Warden Cain's prison, the men are under his authority, but not his domination.

There is a reason why Warden Cain is different: his faith in Jesus Christ. References to God are a natural part of his conversation. He applies his faith to his work, and he has brightened the lives of all those with whom he comes in contact. He is salt and light. "This is my Father's glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples" (John 15:8).

Angola didn't change by accident. Warden Cain consciously tries to live his Christian faith in his work. He told Chuck Colson he reads his books and relies on Chuck for insight into today's issues. That is precisely why Chuck founded BreakPoint-to equip Christians to apply their faith everyday. One of the joys of our work is seeing Christ use us to help faithful servants like Warden Cain change the world, one soul at a time through the good food, good fun, good praying, and good medicine that he provides to people the rest of the world would just as soon forget.


This article was first published in the July/August 2002 BreakPoint WorldView magazine. To subscribe, visit www.breakpoint.org or call 1-800-995-8777.

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