By Thomas H. Little, Ph.D.
Earlier this fall, I was released from the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, also known as “The Farm.” I would like to thank Cindy Mancuso and Walter Thomas of Louisiana Speaker Chuck Kleckley’s office for springing me from the joint! Of course, it was also their fault that I was in prison in the first place. They set me up – for a meeting with Warden Burl Cain and a tour of the 6,800 unit maximum security facility as I prepare for our upcoming program on judicial reform to be held in New Orleans next spring (March 3-5, 2016).
“The Farm,” now 18,000 acres strong and the largest prison facility in America, was initially established in 1869 with the purchase of 8,000 acres in the West Feliciana Parish and has had a colorful and somewhat checkered past. Despite periodic, but limited efforts to improve conditions and outcomes, throughout much of the twentieth century, the Angola Prison was considered one of the worst in the country. Indeed, when Cain took over as Warden in 1995, it had the reputation as “the bloodiest prison in the South,” averaging one serious stabbing per day. More than ninety percent of the prisoners at Angola have life sentences and can expect to die in the prison.
During Cain’s almost two-decade tenure as warden, the prison has lost its nickname, received its accreditation from the American Correctional Association, identifying the facility as a stable, safe and constitutional facility. In the early part of the century, the prison’s health care and officer training centers were also accredited by the ACA and has been recognized for numerous creative programs that have cut violence by almost 80 percent, reduced recidivism and improved reentry to society.
In order to change the culture of “bloody Angola,” Warden Cain embarked on two distinct, but interrelated strategies. First, it was clear to Cain that in order to change a person’s behavior, he needed to change that person’s heart, what he calls “moral rehabilitation.” So, working closely with community activists and faculty from a New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, Cain established a seminary within the prison where carefully screened and selected “lifers” (inmates with a life sentence) can earn a four-year seminary degree in religious studies and practice. Once completing the course, these inmates provide moral training, guidance and support to other inmates within the prison. Since Cain initiated the program in 1995, the percentage of violent offenses within the prison has been reduced by almost eighty percent from more than 1,300 incidents in 1994 to just 344 incidents in 2014. Further, these seminary graduates serve as mentors for the inmates about to be released from prison, helping them manage the anger and frustration that landed them in prison in the first place and helping them, through local religious organizations, identify support networks to help them avoid returning to prison. Regardless of his religious affiliation, every inmate in Angola is required to spend an hour every Sunday in worship or contemplation.
In addition to changing the heart, Cain also understands that you have to change the mind. In order to do that, Angola offers numerous certification programs that train inmates to be auto-mechanics, air conditioner repairmen, plumbers, chefs and farmers, among other things. Cain even initiated a prison radio station, staffed completely by inmates, sometimes called the “incarceration station.” In 2010, working with judges from across the state, Cain established an intense re-entry program where selected nonviolent offenders are given shortened sentences at Angola if they agree to complete a job skills training program. If they fail to complete the program, their full sentence is reinstated. However, if they complete the program, they will leave the prison certified in a marketable field as well as with the soft skills necessary to keep the job. Of the 66 inmates who have completed the program and been released, only 19 are known to have committed more crimes, considerably better than the general recidivism rate of more than fifty percent.
This approach to justice reinvestment and reform is only one approach that we will be exploring together next March as SLLF and the Loyola University of New Orleans Department of Criminology present Judicial Reform: Spending Wisely, Lowering Incarceration and Changing Lives. While this has become a very hot topic at the national level (President Obama addressed it recently), the reality is that the vast majority of prisoners are in state, not federal prisons, so real, meaningful, and impactful reform will come not from Washington, DC, but in Raleigh, Sacramento and Bismarck. So, watch for information about the program and plan to join us in the Big Easy!