Prison Reform From The Inside Out
By John Livingston Clark
Should death-row prisoners who have had a permanent transformation of character still be executed? Should they still be required to give their life for taking the life of another? The friends and family members of the victims would probably think so, but before you decide you might want to read the following story.
For almost 40 years, starting around 1950, the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola was considered to be the most violent state prison in the United States. Between 1988-1994 there were 1,400 violent crimes committed on the grounds of this correctional facility. In 1995 this all began to change, dramatically. That’s when Burl Cain assumed the position of the new warden. From the outside the 18,000 acre prison looks like a typical institution but if one were to walk around inside it would be anything but usual. The entire prison environment has undergone a complete transformation, including the lives of many of the inmates.
Warden Cain has gone above and beyond his duties, from doing simple things like making sure that each prisoner has socks to wear, to offering words of comfort along their side at the time of their execution. His assistant walks the aisles of death row talking to the inmates.
There is still more to this prison reform. Since 1995 Burl Cain has started a working farm, a museum, an annual rodeo competition, and of all the things that one would never expect at a prison, an accredited 4-year seminary. There are also family reunions. On July 13, 2014, 150 prisoners were reunited with family members on the grounds of the facility, complete with hugs and balloons. In attendance was Mike Huckabee.
At Angola each prisoner is considered a “soul worth saving,” says Mr. Cain. “We teach them morality through our Christian ministries and the example we try to set. We change them spiritually.” That has become evident by seeing inmates walking around with Bibles in their hands and meditating in prayer. The prison, and prisoner reform, has happened through a combination of “faith, family, and earned dignity.” Ralph Hallow of the Washington Times said in reference to the transformation at Angola, “Religion done right is the answer for all but the most hardened felons.” I would like to add that it can change even the worst.
What is “religion done right?” It is sharing the love of God to even those who other people consider the most undeserving of it. It is relating how to have a personal relationship with one’s creator that transforms a person from the inside out. This is why faith-based ministries are so effective. They don’t just deal with the symptoms, but they get to the heart of the cause through the power and grace of God. Many of the men at Angola have had spiritual heart transplants, and they are truly seeking after God. Now, how would you answer the questions at the beginning of this article?
God will be found by those who seek him. We tend to forget that God redeemed Paul – a murderer, who actually persecuted followers of Jesus. Just like an addict who must ‘hit rock bottom,’ sometimes, God allows some to hit rock bottom in order for them to turn to Him. That ‘bottom’ is not the same for everyone, sometimes it involves prison.
I think what many fail to realize is that there are some in those prisons closer than many who are out here walking around ‘free.’
I surely don’t know the answer to the question. I doubt I could condemn someone to death. I think it’s easier to say ‘yes, they deserve it’ when you know someone else is the one doing the executing. Only God knows whether He wants a death row inmate to live and testify about the grace that he’s received, or if God mercifully let him live until he decided to make a confession of faith.