'Christian community squeezes through bars'

Inmates minister at once bloodiest prison
April 14, 2005

The Louisiana State Penitentiary -- once labeled the "bloodiest prison in America" -- sprawls across 18,000 acres of fertile river bottom land surrounded on three sides by the Mississippi River and on the fourth by the Tunica Hills north of Baton Rouge in Angola.

On March 1 a group of 20 prison ministry pilgrims from a dozen states came there seeking the reasons for the peace and productivity that now mark this maximum security prison.

The warden, Burl Cain, opens the gates and encourages faith-based programs to come inside. Yet it's the prison's own church inside that he says has the real impact. "We have our own inmate preachers," he said, "but we need you to come in to make it work."

His approach is revolutionary to hard-on-crime politicians and corrections officials.

"We're not going to warehouse them; we will give them power to be productive," he said. "If you treat men like animals, they become animals. The world sees you as animals. I'll bring the world in to see you."

The Diocese of Louisiana recognizes the Chapel of the Transfiguration inside which has a vestry of inmates and "outmates," (volunteers from the communities outside). It was an outgrowth of the effort Deacon Charles deGravelles started in 1988.

The 10 clergy and 10 lay prison ministers visiting that day found creativity and compassion even in the shadow of the death chamber and its black gurney. They saw inmates ministering to each other everywhere.

"This is probably the most vivid example," said the Rev. Robert Huguenin of Florida "of a Christian community that has squeezed through the bars and built a community inside of what we call the body of Christ." A former warden on Riker's Island before he became a priest, he said the inmates earn a sort of "graduated freedom inside."

Violence dropped steadily after Warden Cain arrived in 1995 and dramatically in one year from 2003-2004, from 518 incidents to 95.

Most will die there

Most of the more than 5,000 men inside -- 85-90 percent -- will die there at the end of their life sentences. Many of them are young, yet despair did not etch their faces. Instead, the inmates were busy at work learning trades and skills to take them on more skilled career paths in the place that has become their home.

"It's totally different," said Priscilla Hutton, a psychologist who ministers in three prisons in Indiana and Illinois. "It has a community feel. They feel they have some positive influence and can help others."

The visitors saw "the line," men heading to the fields guarded by armed officers on huge horses. They saw the museum, death row, the six fenced camps, chapels with steeples deliberately taller than guard towers, a treatment center, hospice, the canine training center, the horse barns, two rodeo stadiums, the golf course, rifle range and cemeteries -- all built, manned and maintained by inmates.

"It was a roller coaster ride of a day," said Mark Lindley from Maryland. "From the beautiful horses to the death chamber to a thriving college."

There is an onsite vocational technical college and a four-year Bible college -- the only one inside a prison -- and other educational programs.

The death chamber prompted the group's leader, the Rev. Jackie Means, criminal justice officer of the Episcopal Church, to renew her call for a moratorium of the death penalty. "When we execute them, we're saying there's no redemption."

There are no gangs at Angola. Instead the prison sponsors about 60 organizations or clubs. Hospice case manager and nurse Tanya Tillman wrote, "Although an incarcerated person is deprived of many of the rights of a citizen, he is still a member of a community ... A rarity in many correctional facilities."

Some of the inmates' groups restore toys and wheelchairs for the needy. They run KLSP, the radio station, and write the award-winning bi-monthly magazine, The Angolite. The inmates' arts and crafts are displayed and sold during the rodeos in April and October when the gates are open to 10,000 visitors.

Inmates volunteer at the 40-bed hospice center that has won an award for its ministry and costs the state nothing. "It's work I cannot do," said Chaplain Robert Toney. "These groups are empowered to minister. We work hand in hand together."

'True frontline ministers'

"Rehabilitation is not within a system, nor in its programs. It's within a person," said Deacon Michael Hackett, who has been ministering at Angola for nearly 15 years. "But if the programs are not there, there's no chance for rehabilitation."

"If Angola can do it, any prison can do it," said Warden Cain. "We keep getting less money. I will cut everywhere I can, but I will never cut church. It is part of our society."

Said Means, "We have to change our thinking. Obviously the old ideas don't work. Before Warden Cain arrived, Angola was not safe for visitors, staff or inmates. If all the wardens were as open to faith-based programs as he is, recidivism would be cut in half." She urged readers to share this story with those involved in corrections, especially prison wardens.

She hopes that the Angola tour will become an annual event.

"A vision of the church is in this room," the Rev. James B. Lemler, director of mission for the Episcopal Church, told the prison ministers. "You are the true frontline ministers -- a force for communicating God's love through reconciliation, restoration and renewal instead of enmity and hatred."

The long day ended with a Eucharist celebrated by Lemler with about 120 visitors, inmates and Transfiguration volunteers.

To some of the pilgrims on that journey in March the answer is simple.

The Rev. Margie Holm, Virginia death row chaplain: "When inmates are treated in a sacred way, they respond in a sacred way."

A video, "Transformation Ministries" taped at Angola will be available soon from the Episcopal Church Communications Office.

Related Topics: