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Louisiana State Penitentiary warden Burl Cain inside the prison chapel in Angola, La., in 2011.

What Angola's Resigning Warden Is Leaving Behind

For 20 years, Burl Cain both punished and preached.

Few prison wardens have achieved the notoriety of Louisiana’s Burl Cain, who is stepping down amidst investigations of his business dealings after 20 years at the top of Louisiana State Penitentiary, better known as Angola, the largest maximum-security prison in the most incarcerated state in the country.

During his tenure, Cain was celebrated for reducing violence and rehabilitating prisoners but also criticized for everything from running a “modern-day slave plantation,” to ordering beatings and extended stints in solitary confinement, to making unethical business deals, and threatening journalists. Wilbert Rideau, a former prisoner who edited The Angolite and faced censorship even as he won national journalism awards, says “a major part of his legacy is that you can't find out what the inmates really feel about him and what he did as warden. You have to simply take his word for everything.”

But what has received less attention is his reputation with wardens and other criminal justice officials outside the state; among conservatives who in recent years have taken on reforming prisons as a political cause, Cain has stood as a symbol of how Christianity can play a role in efforts to improve the lives of prisoners. Gregg Marcantel, head of the New Mexico prison system, said Cain “made a hell of a footprint in corrections.”

Shortly after he came to Angola in 1995, Cain invited the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary to set up a Bible college in the prison. Funded by outside donations, Angola offers four-year college degrees in ministry, including instruction in Greek and Hebrew as well as lessons in how to preach. The men are usually lifers, and the assumption is that they will become ministers to other prisoners, helping them work through the issues that led them to commit crimes.

As other states noticed the statistics Cain was trumpeting (1,387 assaults in 1990 versus 371 assaults in 2012, according to data he gave the New York Times), they started copying him. Five years ago, a couple of Texas state senators visited Angola. "During one church service I handed Warden Cain a note stating that I had never seen so many men serving life sentences with a smile on their face,” Texas state Senator John Whitmire, a democrat who has run the state senate’s criminal justice committee for years, told reporters when he returned. “The Warden replied that with a moral attitude, even if an inmate will not be set free in this world, he looks forward to being free in the next.” Whitmire pushed the Texas Dept. of Criminal Justice to create its own seminary, which this year graduated its first class of prisoner-ministers. Similar programs have made their way — directly inspired by Cain’s model — to Mississippi, Georgia, New Mexico, Michigan, and West Virginia.

These programs are not universally lauded; skeptics question whether Bible study can really be credited with reduced violence. Bill Sessa, an information officer for the California prison system, said there are too many possible influences on inmate behavior, from other, non-religious programs to the conditions they are held in. Cain also dealt with potential violence by throwing inmates in notoriously grim solitary confinement blocks. “Men have faced more decades of solitary confinement for not adhering to strict Christian codes and maintaining their political beliefs,” a filmmaker who visited Angola prisoners for years told The Atlantic in 2013. “It has been my experience working with formerly incarcerated men that many, even after they are released, continue to fear the notoriously retributive wrath of Burl Cain.” He has been accused of punishing members of other religions for failing to follow his creed; in 2009, after accusations that his staff had destroyed a Catholic death row prisoner’s rosary, he settled an ACLU lawsuit, allowing him to meet with a priest and watch mass on television.

And yet, far from Louisiana, the kinds of programs inspired by Cain’s seminary helped lay the groundwork for the embrace of criminal justice reform among Christian leaders and conservatives in recent years. Pat Nolan, a major figure in the conservative reform movement, has pointed to Cain’s Angola as a model of how offering prisoners “good food, good medicine, good fun and good praying” could make prisons safer, and said Cain helped members of the public see that prisoners “are human just like them.” As Nolan and other Christian reformers promoted criminal justice reform throughout the 2000s, they pointed to Angola as an example of how how you could pursue rehabilitation while not appearing “soft on criminals.”

“Nobody thought he was soft, that he didn’t realize some of the people in his custody had done bad things,” says Marc Levin, the director of Right on Crime, a major conservative criminal justice reform organization, who has worked with Nolan and other Christian reformers. Through Cain, “they realized that every life matters and people can find a spiritual awakening in the darkest places.”

This shift, in turn, influenced other wardens. “It does appear to me that more wardens and the Texas prison system in general have come to the realization that changing a man’s heart in a positive way is beneficial in making that person a productive member of society,” Jim Willett, the longtime warden of the Huntsville Unit in Texas, told me.

Cain’s legacy is perhaps best captured in the twice-yearly rodeo he oversaw on the grounds of Angola, where prisoners would nearly get gored by massive bulls in front of crowds of visitors, but those same prisoners would hand out Christian pamphlets and sell art and food to raise money for programs. When I attended the rodeo in 2011, Cain emerged royally from a black SUV and spoke to journalists, both American and European, in front of a spinning, brightly painted carousel. He eagerly talked up the idea that the rodeo would raise money that could be spent on rehabilitation, and that more rehabilitation would in turn make the public safer. It was an argument conservative prison reformers would echo years later.

“We’re not oppressive to [the prisoners],” Cain said at the rodeo. “They’re human beings. If they’re bad, we’re worse. If they’re good, we’re good. It’s Burger King: they can have it their way. Pretty simple.”