By Brian Blackwell, Message Staff Writer
ANGOLA – Walk into the museum just outside of the front gate at Louisiana State Penitentiary and one will notice a wall full of photos of all who have served as warden of the maximum security prison at Angola.
One of those is of Burl Cain, who has been warden of the prison 55 miles northwest of Baton Rouge since February 1995.
But what may be more significant and telling is that the longest any other of Angola’s 14 wardens served was seven years. Most wardens serve at Angola for an average of five years. Cain is the longest serving warden of any in the United States’ prisons.
The reason, Cain says, is the atmosphere inside the prison and how faith and New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary have been the key factors to not only his longevity but also removing Angola’s title of the bloodiest prison in America.
“Without the seminary we would be business as usual,” Cain said. “I wouldn’t be here as a warden because the prison staff would lose control, the staff wouldn’t be safe and we couldn’t save the taxpayer the money we have. This is what happens when God is welcomed by His people to change their land, just like in 2 Chronicles 7:14.”
When Cain arrived at the prison, its reputation was one of violence and fear. Bloodshed was common.
Cain knew something had to be done to change the prison from the inside and that hope was Jesus Christ.
He knew a changed life would result in a less-violent prison and that would change through moral rehabilitation in the years ahead.
Efforts included an extension program of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, which is a four-year program that started in 1995, two years after the prison lost its PELL grants. A former educator himself, Cain was concerned the prisoners would have no educational options.
Cain inquired from New Orleans Seminary personnel about training opportunities for the inmates who were believers, though he doubted at first the school would come to Angola. However, the seminary was ecstatic about the opportunity and soon the first class was preparing for classes on the path to an associate degree.
Since classes started at Angola, 255 inmates have graduated from the seminary’s extension program.
“The seminary faculty is the one with the vision; it wasn’t me,” Cain said. “I was just complaining. They saw the light and the opportunity, provided it and the rest is history.”
Instead of inmates committing crimes, the inmates began witnessing to other inmates, studying for a seminary test or holding a Bible study.
And the result has been thousands of inmates who have professed Christ as their Lord and Savior and an 85 percent decrease in violence at Angola. Of the 6,300 who are inmates at Angola, nearly 50 percent are thought to be Christians.
Soon, people from outside the prison walls took notice of the change at Angola.
“Other states are really realizing it was a game-changer here,” Cain said. “This was the most notorious and violent prison in the land, so therefore if it can change then the seminary is a game changer, then they need to do it too. Not to mention it’s free higher education for the taxpayers, so you’d be stupid not to take a free school.”
Among the prisons that have adopted programs similar to Angola’s include San Quentin State Prison near San Francisco, Calif., Parchman, Miss.; Darrington Unit near Houston, Texas, the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman, Miss.; Phillips State Prison in Buford, Ga., and the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women at St. Gabriel.
At San Quentin, inmates have graduated with diplomas in Christian ministry and theology through the the Contextualized Leadership Development program that is used at other centers that Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary operates nationwide to train ministers.
Don Beall, director of the CLD at Golden Gate Seminary, said many of its students have reached parol before they earn a degree. In that case, several enroll in Christian colleges and even seminaries for graduation.
“We have observed a dramatic change in the lives of inmates,” Beall said. “Transformation would be the best word.”
Michael Bonnel is one of the volunteers at the prison, spending an average of 25 hours a week there. He said the inmates are overwhelmed that professors would donate time so they can receive a free biblical education.
“Its impact on their lives is remarkable,” Bonnel explained. “I spend a great deal of time talking with the men and get the opportunity to see how the scriptures translate into changing their lives. Over the years I occasionally sit in on the classes and always discuss with them men what they are receiving that helps them live better lives.”
While San Quentin has been teaching Bible classes since 2007, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s bachelor of science program is in its fifth year.
Like Angola, most of the students participating in the seminary classes have to serve at least 10 years of their sentence, likely are not leaving prison and must complete an approved application in order to qualify for classes. Program costs are funded by private donations, costing the prison system nothing.
Once the inmates are accepted, they are shipped from one of Texas’ 100 prisons to Darrington Unit, a men’s prison located about 30 miles south of Houston, Texas. Once there, the men are grouped into a class of 40 and complete the program in four years as a group.
So far, 155 students have participated, with the first class scheduled to graduate in May 2015.
Benjamin Phillips, director of the Darrington extension program for Southwestern Seminary, said some of the inmates have experienced what he views as change for the better.
“The inmate students work very hard, help each other and study together,” Phillips said. “We have seen guys grow deep in their faith and have seen guys take off in ministry to others in the prison.
“I think God likes to show off and the pattern you see in the Bible is God uses the people you would never expect to do great things and in the least likely place to happen,” he said. “As Christians we look around society and tend to be pessimistic, but you go to a place like this and say to yourself that God can handle it,” he said. “We think what God has done at Angola is going to spark the fire that will spread to Texas and the rest of the nation.”
John Robson, director of the extension program at Angola, said the impact on the lives of prisoners has been immeasurable.
“Many have come to a relationship with Christ and many more have grown in the faith and in the ability to minister to their peers,” Robson said. “As a result the culture of the prison has changed because of the training given to the students, who have been involved in the church at Angola.
“It is the ongoing work of the church that has had such an impact at Angola and through the ongoing influence of the inmates there and in their spouses and children,” he continued. “One of the best measures to me is that those few graduates who have been released from prison have, almost without exception, become involved in meaningful ministry in the communities where they have settled.”
Cain echoed the thought.
“Other states are really realizing it was a game-changer here,” he said. “This was the most notorious and violent prison in the land, so therefore if it can change then the seminary is a game changer, then they need to do it too.”
Cain said without the support of Louisiana Baptists, none of this would be possible.
“Hats off to the Louisiana Baptists,” Cain said. “We have to finance the seminary every year to the tune of 70,000 dollars and Louisiana Baptists come through. So what you see a group of folks who love God that don’t care about being selfish and just keeping it in the Baptist community.
“It would not exist without Louisiana Baptists,” he continued. “So everybody that put money in the offering plate, at some point a few pennies of that got to the seminary and helped that seminary survive. So I encourage folks to give generously. We have to have the help with the seminary. And it makes you safer and you don’t even realize it.”