Editor’s Note: The latest issue of Mother Jones magazine includes James Ridgeway’s long article on Burl Cain, warden of the nation’s largest prison, and possibly its most notorious. The former slave plantation is known for the fact that 90 percent of its more than 5,000 prisoners will die behind bars, and also for holding two members of the “Angola 3” in solitary confinement for nearly 40 years. More recently, it has also become known for the “miracle” wrought by its controversial warden, who is said to have transformed the prison with the help of Christianity.
It took the threat of an ACLU lawsuit for James Ridgeway to gain access to Angola. The resulting article offers an alternative narrative on the miracle at Angola. The opening section of the article follows; the full article can be read on MotherJones.com.
It was a chilly December morning when I got to the gates of Angola prison, and I was nervous as I waited to be admitted. To begin with, nothing looked the way it ought to have looked. The entrance, with its little yellow gatehouse and red brick sign, could have marked the gates of one of the smaller national parks. There was a museum with a gift shop, where I perused miniature handcuffs, jars of inmate-made jelly, and mugs that read “Angola: A Gated Community” before moving on to the exhibits, which include Gruesome Gertie, the only electric chair in which a prisoner was executed twice. (It didn’t take the first time, possibly because the executioners were visibly drunk.)
Besides being cold and disoriented, I had the well-founded sense of being someplace where I wasn’t wanted. Angola welcomes a thousand or more visitors a month, including religious groups, schoolchildren, and tourists taking a side trip from their vacations in plantation country. Under ordinary circumstances, it’s possible to drive up to the gate and tour the prison in a state vehicle, accompanied by a staff guide. But for me, it had taken close to two years and the threat of an ACLU lawsuit to get permission to visit the place.
I was studying an exhibit of sawed-off shotguns when I heard someone call my name. It was Cathy Fontenot, the assistant warden in charge of PR. Smartly dressed in a tailored shirt and jeans, a suede jacket, and boots with four-inch heels, she introduced me to a smiling corrections officer (“my bodyguard”) and to Pam Laborde, the genial head spokeswoman for the Louisiana department of corrections who had come up from Baton Rouge to help escort me on my hard-won tour of Angola.
Everyone was there except the person I had come to see: Warden Burl Cain, a man with a near-mythical reputation for turning Angola, once known as the bloodiest prison in the South, into a model facility. Among born-again Christians, Cain is revered for delivering hundreds of incarcerated sinners to the Lord—running the nation’s largest maximum-security prison, as one evangelical publication put it, “with an iron fist and an even stronger love for Jesus.” To Cain’s more secular admirers, Angola demonstrates an attractive option for controlling the nation’s booming prison population at a time when the notion of rehabilitation has effectively been abandoned.