ANGOLA – Clarence Frederick wore a big smile as he shepherded a group of Louisiana Baptist men through Camp C at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola on April 11.
While the Baptist men witnessed, distributed tracts and prayed with the incarcerated men, Frederick, 52, described the importance of their visit.
“The average sentence here is four years – we really have to keep the evangelistical message goin’ here,” Frederick said in his Cajun accent. Now in his 27th year of a life sentence for second degree murder, Frederick is a graduate of the New Orleans Theological Seminary pastoral studies program and leads a 70-member inmate church that meets in the camp chapel.
While many of the 6,200-plus men incarcerated in America’s largest maximum security prison are serving life sentences at its five other camps, Camp C holds about 1,100 men, previously held in Phelps Correctional Center before it closed two years ago. They will all eventually be released.
“These (Baptist) guys come in here and help us feel like we’re bridging the gap between the Christians in society and the Christians in here,” Frederick said.
“They actually reach some inmates that perhaps don’t want to talk to an inmate pastor,” Frederick said. “They are kinda like Christ incognito comin’ in here for us – it’s really great!”
More than 160 Louisiana Baptist men from 35 churches and a group of young men from Louisiana College ministered to thousands of offenders in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola on April 10-11, for the annual Louisiana Baptist Revival.
Keith Manuel, LBC‘s evangelism associate, said they recorded 52 decisions for salvation and 140 other decisions such as recommitments, prayer needs or further assistance. Inmate pastors and prison chaplains will follow-up with the men.
“The Revival is transformational in several ways,” Manuel said. “Primarily, we are there to lead people to Jesus and support the ongoing work of the churches that meet regularly at Angola. Second, it allows Louisiana Baptists to learn to be great witnesses for Jesus. The men who attend have the opportunity to share Jesus dozens of times in 24 hours.”
“I’m so thankful for the example of Cooperative Program work that exists on so many levels when Louisiana Baptists share in the work at Angola,” Manuel said. “This revival is a microcosm of how much more we can accomplish together than individually.”
The annual visit into America’s largest maximum security prison by Louisiana Baptist men is always a special time for both the Baptists and the offenders. Friendships are renewed and both the free and incarcerated men feel revived before the weekend is over.
Once known as “America’s bloodiest prison,” Angola is now a model of positive change thanks to the moral rehabilitation efforts of Warden Burl Cain. In 1995 he introduced the “Experiencing God” program, followed by the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary Extension. Five interdenominational chapels are used by more than 40 inmate churches of many denominations led by inmate pastors.
The sprawling prison covers 18,000 acres and is divided into six “camps,” each a small city enclosed with high chain-link fences topped by razor-rib and patrolled by armed guards during the day and hybrid wolf-dogs at night. More than 6,200 men are incarcerated and more than half of them are serving life sentences. Prison chaplains and inmate pastors estimate between a third to half of the men are born again Christians.
Over at Camp J, where about 300 of the 400 inmates are in 23-hours-a-day lockdown, the Baptist men went cell to cell passing out tracts and praying with the “hard cases,” as they are often described.
This was the first visit to Angola for Charles McPhee, 50, who attends Crossroads Church, in Belle Chase.
“I’ve never been in a place like this before in my life,” McPhee said. “I think everybody should try something like this at least once in their life – I mean, I’m not that comfortable talking to people in places like this but it gets easier as you go along and God is always gonna be with you and is with you all the time.”
Stephen Ross Proctor, a Camp J inmate pastor and a NOBTS grad serving life for second degree murder, said he appreciated the Baptists’ visit.
“It is a wonderful opportunity to have these men come in here and share their knowledge and the word of God with them,” Proctor said. He estimated about 100 of Camp J men were Christians. “God is here.”
Warden Shirley Coody has worked at Angola for 40 years and a warden since 2001. She described the Baptist revival as “an awesome thing.”
“The guys here need it – they need to touch people that are dedicated to God and to His ministry,” Coody said. “They are hungry for the Word. Our chaplain’s office does an awesome job but we have a small department and we have over 6,200 inmates here. It’s good for the prison but most importantly it’s good for our offenders.”
Chaplain Gary Sumrall said the annual LBC Revival “means an awful lot.
“It is just a continuation of an ongoing ministry that has been very influential for the spiritual life of this entire institution – not only once a year but we also have Baptist volunteers who are here on a regular basis,” Sumrall said. “And it keeps me in touch with my Baptist roots.”
Jerry Pipes, executive pastor of First Baptist Bossier, preached at the Friday night and Saturday afternoon services at the Main Camp Chapel services.
“Friday night was amazing – the chapel was packed and 22 men came forward to receive Christ,” Pipes said. “I was very, very impressed with the level commitment of the men – they are so faithful – they are so hungry – it was an honor to partner with them to reach their friends. I’m humbled by the experience.”
Eric Matthews, 43, an NOBTS grad and Camp C inmate pastor, is serving a life sentence for first degree murder. He got saved in 1994 in a New Orleans jail cell.
“I prayed and asked God to save me and said, if he would, I’d never turn my back on him,” Matthews said. “Thirty seconds later a man came to my cell and gave me a Gideon Bible – my first prayer was answered.”
While some folks may be cynical about jailhouse religion, “I like jailhouse religion,” Matthews said. “I’m an ex-hypocrite so I can relate. They’re looking for something but in their looking is when they meet the face of God.”
Matthews, like many of the inmates, is thankful for the Baptist men’s visits.
“Thank you for coming,” he told the men he met. “God is here. Jesus Christ is here in Angola. As much as you are bringing him you are going to meet him here – He is active and he is alive here and the men here are active in their worship.”