April 16, 2012

A Story That Will Move You

Prison ministry is a major passion of mine. I invest substantial time each month in working with inmates. I have written a few times about my experiences in the hope that I can inspire you to give of your time and talents in some cause during your satisfying retirement.  In case you'd like to review those posts, i have them linked at the bottom of this post.

One of the men who I work with at Along Side Ministries is in charge of the men's ministry programs at the prisons throughout the state that are affiliated with this tremendous organization. Recently he had an experience that is so far out of anyone's comfort zone that I asked to share his report with you. I don't think it is possible to read his story of this experience without binging tears to your eyes and a conviction in your heart to help wherever and whenever you can. Be prepared to be moved:

"Many of you know that I recently spent a weekend in Louisiana State Penitentiary otherwise known as Angola Prison.  And many have asked me for a report.  I think it would be best to describe Angola in order to understand the environment and experience a little better.

So, for starters let me give you a bit of Angola history. In the 1960’s Angola was commonly referred to as the bloodiest prison in the US.  Rapes, murders and gang activity were out of control common occurrences.  Inmates worked in the cotton fields where armed Officers watched over them on horseback.  When a man died other inmates were appointed to dig a hole and his body was thrown into it; no casket or funeral.  There was no care for the dying and no concern for the brutality from other inmates or corrections officers.  Like most states in the country at that time executions were carried out by electric chair; which is basically frying someone to death.  It was a prison that men feared getting sentenced to.  

Finally the federal government stepped in and demanded reform under federal oversight.  In spite of their best efforts Louisiana struggled throughout the 70’s and 80’s to turn the prison around.  In 1995 real change began with the appointment of Burl Cain as warden.  Up to that point no warden had lasted more than 5 years.  Cain has been warden for 17 years now.  He immediately began restoring dignity to inmates.  He lives by a code of zero tolerance on abuse whether by inmates or staff.  He wanders the yards often and talks openly with inmates.  If he hears about impropriety on a yard he launches an investigation.  If a staff member is found to have abused his authority with an inmate he is fired on the spot regardless of rank or length of service. 

He built church buildings on every yard and ordered that the steeple of each church have a cross on the top and be the tallest structure on every yard.  If an inmate gets discouraged or is losing hope; no matter where he is on the yard he can always look to the church, see the cross as an anchor or hope. Today, no prison in the US houses more life-term inmates than Angola Prison.  It sits on 18,000 acres and is surrounded on 3 sides by the Mississippi River. It is like a city in itself.  It has its own zip code, post office, bank, 9-hole golf course and a housing community that houses over 400 security and support staff families.  The prison houses roughly 5,100 inmates.  86% are violent offenders, 74% are serving life sentences and 85% will die in there.  It is equipped with only 1,400 cells.  Most inmates live on open yards and are housed in dorms similar to Arizona’s minimum security yards.  Angola has a security force of 1,450 personnel, half of whom are women.

When an inmate first arrives at Angola he works “the farm” in agriculture.  Angola Prison processes about 4 million pounds of vegetables a year.  They maintain about 1,500 head of cattle and 700 horses.  Inmate cowboys oversee the livestock.  They have a rodeo every year that is open to the public. People attend from all over the country. Inmate workers are trained in breeding and cross breeding and breed their own dogs for security, tracking and tactical needs.   

Inmates can go through a 4 year accredited Bible college and get their bachelor’s degree in theology.  Some are ordained and become pastors of the many churches on each yard.  There are 9 different protestant evangelical denominations that contribute to 450 services a month.  Each church has ordained assistant pastors and deacons.  These pastors have complete pastoral responsibilities for their congregations.  It is their full time paid job on the prison yard.  The prison churches send out inmate missionaries by two’s to other prison complexes in the state.  Their full time prison job is to build the church and evangelize on the other prison complexes.  The home church they come out of in Angola sends them each $50 a month for support to live on.

Now, there is relatively little violence.  They boast that they are probably the safest prison in the US. There is no gang activity, no racism, and no fights.  Inmates are encouraged to join one of the many sanctioned social organizations or even form their own.  Angola is the first prison in the United States to have an inmate-staffed hospice program for terminally ill inmates; the first to have an on-site, fully accredited four-year college program; and, the first to have its own accredited fire and emergency services department.  Angola is also the only penitentiary in the United States to be issued an FCC license to operate a radio station.  Inmates publish a monthly magazine called The Angolite. 

I was with a team from Awana International that consisted of 113 men from 28 different states and Canada.  We were each assigned to a cell on the old death row.  That is where we slept Friday and Saturday nights.  We ate all our meals with inmates in the chow hall and had plenty of time for talk and fellowship.  The seminar consisted of 7 different teaching segments; 5 of which were taught by inmate pastors on the yard.  We toured the entire prison including the new death row and death chamber. 

Louisiana does not do executions very often these days.  Texas and Arizona have had far more executions in the last year. When they do, it is by lethal injection.  The days and weeks leading up to an execution is very humane.  The chaplain spends quite a bit of time with the inmate and even the warden visits with him.  It is common for an inmate with a pending execution to spend the day before with his family in an open day room with no restraints.  They eat together, spend the day together and make their peace.  They are given as much dignity as possible.  Even the warden stops by, visits with the family and often prays with them.

We heard plenty of Warden Cain’s philosophy on running a prison.  He often walks the yards and talks with inmates without giving advance notice to staff.  He tells them, “I’ll be as good as you let me be and as mean as you make me be.”  His approach to personal development and empowering of inmates to be all they can be is something I have never seen before.  And it works. It was a profound experience to spend time with men who have been locked up for 40 and 50 years.  All the men that we were with will die in prison if the current Louisiana life sentence legislation does not change.  I saw rehabilitation first hand and the power of the gospel to transform a horrible place into a place of hope. 

One breakfast I sat with an inmate who had been in Angola for 17 years.  He has a life sentence and will never get out.  At one point he was sent with a team to another prison complex that houses men who will be getting out.  Their purpose was to study reentry.  They began by interviewing hundreds of inmates who had been in prison before, were release and have returned.  They began to identify common themes and from that developed reentry classes.  Then they all, having life sentences themselves, became the teachers; teaching reentry to inmates who would get out. 

Here is just a few of the things he shared with me:  The number 1 reason men go back to prison is rejection.  They don’t fit in when they get out. They are rejected by employers, by family when things are not working out and by churches when they struggle. They developed a program to help them prepare for this.  Included in the teaching are skits and practical exercises that help them see the difficulties ahead and prepare for it. They try to deal with every possible negative situation.  Much of this is a matter of changing ones mindset.  Helping them realize that they are a burden on family or someone when they get out. They are dependent on others and that is cost them money and time.  Their presence alone in the home creates a certain amount of stress. 

The programs teach them to be an asset in practical ways such as; doing the dishes, washing clothes, cleaning the house and washing windows, taking care of the yard, etc.  Other practical things they do before getting out is to write letters to loved ones whom they have hurt, making amends.  They do one on one counseling with each man before his release."

The gentleman, Kevin,  who went through this experience, has the biggest heart for prisoners and what they must endure to rebuild their lives as anyone I have ever met. I feel privileged to be able to work with him and learn from him.

For you, if you are looking to give back it certainly doesn't have to be working with prisoners. It could be an animal shelter, or the Red Cross. It could be with a homeless shelter or battered women organization. It could be volunteering at the library, or simply picking up trash in your neighborhood. Believe me, your life will benefit in ways I can't even begin to describe.

Kevin is living proof.

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  1. You are a saint. Those are some statistics.

    1. I am not a saint. I have just been lucky enough to find a passion and the ability to use my God-given talents to become involved. If there is a saint in all this it is the warden at the prison. I'd also vote for Kevin (and his wife who accompanies him on these trips).

      Any one of us can do just as much good in a world that is crying out for us to care enough to do something for others.

  2. Thanks for the inspiring story Bob. I have often heard of the brutality that went on at Angola. It is very heartening to see that it has been eliminated by a caring warden. I am convinced that there are millions of Kevins out there if they would just take the first step. Like you say, giving of yourself in this manner is very addictive and as you certainly know there is a tremendous need...

    1. The power of that one man to turn around a literal hell on earth is inspiring. What is actually most disturbing about this whole narrative is the attitude of the society that allowed the conditions in the first place. Inmates are human beings that made mistakes. But, they are still deserving of the respect and dignity that all human beings are.

      Unfortunately, too many of us want to brand them as permanently damaged goods that we'd like locked up and the key thrown away. Rehabilitation isn't the goal, permanent punishment is. That approach is counterproductive on every level imaginable.

    2. Bob, I'm sure you have your stories too but I wanted to relay one of mine to you. A couple of years ago I encountered James. He, like so many before him, needed some help in his life and ended up at Backstreet Missions where I volunteer. James was covered with prison tattoos on his arms and up the side of his neck. He probably weighed 250 lbs and was a bear of a person. James decided that he was on the wrong track in life and wanted to turn things around. He came to the mission for help. The first job all of the newbies at the mission get is in the kitchen washing pots and pans. At first James didn't talk much but after a while he opened up and told me some of his life stories. He indeed had a very rough life up to that point.
      I worked with James for about a month and as I was leaving the kitchen just before Christmas I wished everyone a Merry one and was heading for the door. But suddenly a dark shadow covered me. It was James. He came running at me and picked me up with a bear hug and wished me a Merry Christmas. He thanked me for being a friend. That was the last time I saw him but I will never forget that incident. It meant so much to me.
      So many come and go through the mission and we hardly ever see them again. I just hope that James found some more friends in his life. As you say he was just a big guy who made some wrong choices in life but I'm sure some would have been very happy to just lock him away somewhere. I will never forget him.

    3. Thanks for sharing, RJ. That is the kind of experience that keep volunteers going back.

  3. Just goes to show that when communities/societies are built on faith, respect for one another, fair treatment and rules they flourish. Wouldn't it be wonderful if governments could lead with these same principles.

    I have been a volunteer with Habitat for Humanity for the past year and a half of my retirement. I chose that organization because it provides a hand up, not a hand out to families who qualify for Habitat's "no interest loan" homes. Each family must also contribute a minimum of 300 "sweat equity" hours toward the construction of their home. They also attend classes to learn how to be good neighbors and responsible homeowners.

    It's no surprise that these inmates started behaving differently when they were treated like human beings.

    Of all the things in the world we covet most, I think it must be respect. Genuine, well earned respect.

    Great post. Got me thinkin' today...

    1. My wife and I helped build a few house with HforH and found it a very worthwhile experience. The fact that these folks aren't just given the home is important.

      Good for you, Malcom. Using your retirement time and talents in this way is exactly what will turn our world around, one caring person at a time.

  4. What an inspiring and encouraging story. But how sad that we as a society generate the need to keep such a large segment of our society imprisoned. At least programs like this will reduce that percentage by keeping more people from returning to prison.

    1. The U.S. has the largest percentage of its population incarcerated of any developed nation in the world. We also happen to have 47% of the population owning guns and the highest rate by percentage of death by firearm of any nation. Somehow people aren't seeing the connection.

      Inmates are released into a system that prevents them from living in most housing, getting a job, and qualifying for food stamps or medical care. Why is anyone surprised these people go back inside. For some of them it is the only place where they can get food, medical care, and a roof over the heads. We are failing these people.

  5. What a remarkable story! I had no idea that such sweeping prison reform was taking place in a prison in the US. It reminds me of the video: "Doing Time, Doing Vipassana" which illustrates major change that has taken place in prisons in India where Vipassana meditation is taught. This is pretty incredible stuff! Thank you for sharing this.

    1. What is doubly shocking is that the conditions existed the way they did until the 60's. This sounds more like something from the 1700's or 1800's. The transformation has been remarkable due in large part to one man and his belief in the dignity of human beings...all human beings.