[Ppnews] Angola Prison - God's Own Warden

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Thu Jul 28 13:42:52 EDT 2011

God's Own Warden

If you ever find yourself inside Louisiana's 
Angola prison, Burl Cain will make sure you find 
Jesus­or regret ever crossing his path.

Ridgeway | <http://motherjones.com/toc/2011/07>July/August 2011 Issue

It was a chilly December morning when I got to 
the gates of 
prison [1], 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 
<http://angolamuseum.org/?q=Shop>museum with a 
gift shop [2], 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 
take the first time [3], 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 
the prison [4] 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 
permission to visit the place [5].

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 <http://angolamuseum.org/?q=History>the 
bloodiest prison in the South [6], into a model 
facility. Among born-again Christians, Cain is 
revered for delivering hundreds of incarcerated 
sinners to the Lord­running the nation's largest 
maximum-security prison, as 
evangelical publication put it [7], "with an iron 
fist and an even stronger love for Jesus." To 
secular admirers [8], 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.

What I had heard about Cain, and seen in the 
plentiful footage of him, led me to expect an 
affable guy­big gut, pale, jowly face, 
good-old-boy demeanor. Indeed, former Angola 
inmates say that prisoners who respond to Cain's 
program of 
rehabilitation [9]" through Christian redemption 
are rewarded with privileges, humane treatment, 
and personal attention. Those who displease him, 
though, can face harsh punishments. 
Rideau [10], the award-winning former 
[11] editor who is probably Angola's most famous 
ex-con, says when he first arrived at the prison, 
Cain tried to enlist him as a snitch, then sought 
to convert him. When that didn't work, Rideau 
says, his magazine became the target of 
censorship; he says Cain can be "a bully­harsh, unfair, vindictive."

"Cain was like a king, a sole ruler," Rideau 
writes in his recent memoir, 
the Place of Justice [12]. "He enjoyed being a 
dictator, and regarded himself as a benevolent 
one." When a group of middle school students 
visited Angola a few years ago, 
told them [13] that the inmates were there 
because they "didn't listen to their parents. 
They didn't listen to law enforcement. So when 
they get here, I become their daddy, and they 
will either listen to me or make their time here very hard."
Cain told some middle schoolers that when inmates 
get to Angola, “I become their daddy, and they 
will either listen to me or make their time here very hard.”

Another former prisoner, John Thompson­who spent 
14 years on death row at Angola before being 
exonerated by previously concealed evidence­told 
me that Cain runs Angola "with a Bible in one 
hand and a sword in the other." And when the 
chips are down, Thompson said, "he drops the Bible."

Who is the man who wields so much untempered 
power over so many human beings? I wanted to find 
out firsthand­but when I requested permission to 
visit the prison and interview Cain, back in 
2009, Fontenot turned me down flat. Cain, she 
said, was not happy with what I had written about 
the Angola Three, a trio of inmates who have been 
solitary longer than any other prisoners in 
America [14]. Two years and much legal wrangling 
later, I was here at Fontenot's invitation, ready 
to see the Cain miracle for myself.

Burl Cain has friends in many places­a vast 
network of contacts and supporters from Baton 
Rouge to Hollywood. There has been talk in 
Louisiana of him running for office­maybe even 
for governor. But no position could ever be so 
secure, and no authority so complete, as what he already has.

Cain, now 68, was raised in Pitkin (population 
1,965), about 90 miles due west of Angola; he 
began his career at the Louisiana Farm Bureau, 
then became assistant secretary for agribusiness 
at the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and 
Corrections, which runs a number of prison 
plantations. He became warden of the 
medium-security Dixon Correctional Institute in 
1981 and landed at Angola 14 years later. One 
official bio notes that "to escape the pressures 
of running the nation's largest adult male 
maximum security prison, Cain enjoys hunting and 
traveling around the country on his motorcycle."

Cain's brother, James David Cain, served in the 
Louisiana Legislature for more than two decades. 
Burl Cain himself was until this year the vice 
chairman of the powerful State Civil Service 
Commission, which sets pay scales for state 
workers. Corrections is big business across the 
nation, but nowhere more so than in Louisiana, 
which has 
highest incarceration rate in the world [15], 
keeping 1 in 55 adults behind bars. Angola is one 
of the largest employers in the state, with a 
staff of about 1,600 and an annual budget of more 
than $120 million; it is also a huge agricultural 
and industrial enterprise, with a network of 
customers and suppliers that depend on the warden's good graces.

Until 2008, the department of corrections, which 
oversees the state's prisons, was headed by 
Richard Stalder, who once worked for Cain. Today, 
its second in command is Sheryl Ranatza, who 
previously was Cain's deputy warden. She is 
married to Michael Ranatza, executive director of 
the Louisiana Sheriffs' Association. (The 
sheriffs have a direct interest in prison policy 
in Louisiana because the state effectively rents 
space in local jails­at premium rates­to house 
"overflow" inmates who can't be fit into Angola 
and other prisons.) Together, the Angola warden 
and the department of corrections have long been 
"a political powerhouse in Louisiana," says the 
Southern Center for Human Rights' Stephen Bright. 
"[They are] sitting on top of all this power. 
Governors who come along are afraid to touch them."

But Cain's reputation has reached far beyond 
Louisiana. Shortly after taking the reins at 
Angola, he gained a national audience through a 
1998 documentary about the prison, 
<http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0139193/>The Farm: 
Angola, USA [16], which won the Grand Jury Prize 
at Sundance and was nominated for an Academy 
Award. Soon Cain found himself 
[17] by an admiring Charlie Rose and 
[18], which noted his quest to "give the 5,108 
hopeless men on this former slave-breeding farm 
hope." A follow-up to The Farm 
released in 2009 [19] (PDF), with Cain as the central character.

Cain has also had an open-door policy for 
Hollywood. Parts of Dead Man Walking, Out of 
Sight, and Monster's Ball were filmed on the 
prison grounds, and more recently, William Hurt 
spent a night there to prepare for his role as an 
ex-con from Angola in The Yellow Handkerchief. As 
Fontenot proudly told me, Forest Whitaker 
recently visited to prep for narrating a two-hour 
[20] on the prison's hospice for Oprah's new 
network. Even parts of the recent Jim Carrey film 
I Love You Phillip Morris, about two men who fall 
in love in prison, were filmed at Angola. "All 
the extras we were using were lifers, real 
killers," costar 
McGregor bragged [21]. (Cain drew the line, 
to one Christian blogger [22], at allowing a gay 
sex scene to be filmed in the prison.)

With Cathy Fontenot at the wheel, talking a mile 
a minute, our SUV sped through Angola's expansive 
grounds. At 18,000 acres, the prison covers a 
tract of land larger than the island of 
Manhattan. Surrounded on three sides by the 
Mississippi River and on the fourth by 20 miles 
of scrubby, uninhabited woods, it is virtually escape-proof.

With its proximity to the river, this is prime 
agricultural land, made up of five former 
plantations and named for the country of origin 
of the slaves who once worked its fields. Today 
the prisoners, 
of whom are black [23] (PDF), still work the land 
by hand, earning between 2 and 20 cents an hour.

Angola's agribusiness operation grows cash crops 
like cotton, corn, and soybeans, as well as 
fruits and vegetables. In addition to working the 
fields, inmates tend to Angola's hundreds of beef 
cattle, its prize Percherons and quarter horses, 
and the dogs it breeds for law enforcement. (In 
addition to raising bloodhounds, the Angola 
kennels have experimented with crossing German 
shepherds and black wolves.) Prisoners also make 
license plates and vinyl mattresses and fashion toys for charity.
The prison rodeo is famed for such events as 
“Convict Poker,” in which four inmates try to 
remain seated at a card table while being charged by a 2,000-pound bull.

Fontenot crossed one levee after another, rolling 
off facts and figures and telling little stories 
about points of interest as we flew past. In 
1997, she told me, a flooding Mississippi came 
close to breaching the ramparts, but they kept 
the water out with teams of inmates sandbagging, 
Warden Cain working by their side. We passed a 
herd of horses, which at Angola are used not only 
by officers riding guard over prisoners in the 
fields, but also to pull wagons and plows, 
replacing gas-guzzling tractors. Angola is 
working very hard to go green, Fontenot said. It 
is also highly entrepreneurial, with ventures 
such as the Prison View Golf Course bringing in 
extra funds at a time of budget cuts. They were, 
she said, considering a pet-grooming service and 
an Angola-branded clothing line. As we zipped 
down the road, we passed a big tour bus filled with visitors.

We also passed the 10,000-seat arena where 
Angola's <http://www.angolarodeo.com/>famous 
prison rodeos [24] are staged each spring and 
fall, drawing some 70,000 people. The rodeo is 
famed for such events as "Convict Poker" (in 
which four inmates try to remain seated around a 
card table while being charged by a 2,000-pound 
bull) and "Guts and Glory" (where inmates vie to 
snatch a poker chip hung around the horns of an 
angry bull). Daniel Bergner, who spent a year at 
Angola researching his powerful 1998 book 
of the Rodeo [25], observed that the crowd's 
reaction was "electrified, exhilarated, the 
thrill of watching men in terror made forgivable 
because the men were murderers. I'm sure some of 
it was racist (See that nigger move), some 
disappointed (that there had been no goring), and 
some uneasy (with that very disappointment)." 
Even so, he writes, "many people were not 
laughing, were too bewildered or stunned by what they had just seen."

Outside the arena, inmates sell arts and crafts, 
along with crawfish étouffée and Frito pies for 
the benefit of various inmate organizations: the 
Lifers Association, the Forgotten Voices 
Toastmasters group, Camp F Vets, and dozens of 
Christian groups. The rodeo was originally 
conjured up by the inmates, but it is now a 
centerpiece of Cain's PR operation. Bergner wrote 
that in Cain's first year at Angola, he entered 
the arena in "the closest thing he could find to 
a chariot"­a cart pulled by the prison's 
Percherons, in which he circled the ring before the opening prayer.

One thing I learned when attending the rodeo a 
year earlier (it was the only way to get into 
Angola without Fontenot's permission) is the vast 
difference in the way various groups of inmates 
live. Most of the men who work the booths are 
"trusties." They live in open dorms or group 
houses, hold the most coveted jobs, move around 
with some degree of ease, and in some cases even 
have limited contact with the public. A few 
trusties are trucked out to keep up the grounds 
at the local school, while others tend to the 
homes and yards of B-Line, the small town inside 
the prison gates that is populated by Angola's 
staff, many of them third- or fourth-generation 
corrections officers. (Angola officials have 
military ranks; collectively, they are sometimes 
still referred to by their historical name, "freemen.")

About 700 of Angola's 5,200 prisoners are 
trusties. Another 2,800 are "big stripes," who 
work in the fields and factories under armed 
supervision. The remaining 1,500 are confined in 
cellblocks­some in the general population, some 
in 23-hour-a-day lockdown, some in punishment 
units. A word from the warden can make the 
difference between life in a "trusty camp" with a 
decent job and contact visits, and life in a six-by-nine isolation cell.

A little farther on was the main prison, 
surrounded by layers of razor wire shining bright 
in the sun. "Hiya," Fontenot called out to the 
inmates as our entourage swept down the central 
walkway. "How ya doin'?" "Good morning," they 
responded. She put her arm affectionately around 
the shoulder of one man, asked another about a 
personal problem. She came off as part 
country-western princess, part girl next door, and entirely in charge.

By most estimates, including Fontenot's, 
least 90 percent [26] of Angola's prisoners will 
die here. In Louisiana, what are effectively life 
sentences are now doled out not only for murder, 
but for anything from gang activity to bank 
robbery. The Angolite has reported that in 1977, 
just 88 men had spent more than 10 years in the 
prison. By 2000, 274 men had spent 25 years 
behind bars, and in 2009, 880 Angola inmates had 
spent 25 or more years inside. Sixty-four men had 
been locked up for more than 40 years.

Today, 3,660 men­70 percent of Angola's 
population­are serving life without parole, and 
most of the rest have sentences too long to serve 
in a lifetime. "It is not too far of a stretch to 
claim life without parole as another form of 
capital punishment," writes Lane Nelson, the 
magazine's star writer (who recently received 
clemency). "[It is] slow execution by 
incarceration. Decades of segregation can numb a 
prisoner's soul until he becomes devoid of an 
earnest desire for the joys of freedom."

Warden Cain has gone on record as favoring the 
possibility of parole for those who achieve 
"moral rehabilitation." Nick Trenticosta, a 
death-penalty attorney who currently represents 
15 prisoners at Angola, says, "He knows there are 
individuals at Angola he believes are 
rehabilitated, and he believes they should be 
released. I think he is very frustrated by the 
sentencing laws in the state [and] the whole 
process of pardon and parole because of its political nature."

As it stands, Cain and his staff confront an 
aging and increasingly infirm prison population, 
which is why some of Angola's best-known programs 
deal with easing old age and death in prison. The 
prison even operates 
hospice [27], founded and staffed by inmates, 
that houses men judged to have fewer than 18 
months to live. When these men die, if no 
relatives come to claim the body, they can count 
on an inmate-crafted coffin, a decent funeral, 
and delivery, via horse-drawn hearse, to their 
final resting place at Angola's Point Lookout Cemetery.

Five miles into the plantation, we arrived at 
death row. A central control room led to a series 
of tiers, each marked by a locked door and color 
photos of the inhabitants, 83 in all. Guards 
patrol the tiers day and night, looking for potential suicides.

We walked past a plastic nativity scene to get to 
the death house, which contains the cells where 
inmates spend their final hours, saying goodbye 
to loved ones and having their last meals. In the 
death chamber sat a flat, padded leather gurney 
with "wings" where the condemned man's arms would 
be outstretched to receive the needle. Fontenot 
pointed out where Warden Cain would stand, near 
the man's left hand, and described how he would 
motion for the execution to begin.

Cain's first execution, 
told the 
Press [7], was done strictly by the book. "There 
was a psshpssh from the machine, and then he was 
gone," Cain recalled. "I felt him go to hell as I 
held his hand. Then the thought came over me: I 
just killed that man. I said nothing to him about 
his soul. I didn't give him a chance to get right 
with God. What does God think of me? I decided 
that night I would never again put someone to 
death without telling him about his soul and about Jesus."
More than 200 inmates have earned degrees in 
Christian ministry at the “Bible college,” the 
only route to earning a college diploma at Angola.

By 1996, in a Diane Sawyer special about an 
Angola execution, Cain said that putting a 
prisoner to death was "so complex I can't even 
answer...I came here with an opinion about a lot 
of things. Today I don't have an opinion about hardly anything."

Attorney Nick Trenticosta says that in his view, 
Cain treats death-row prisoners better than 
wardens at most other prisons: "It is not that 
these guys had super privileges. But Warden Cain 
was somewhat responsive to not only prisoners, 
but to their families." Trenticosta recalls Cain 
demurring before one execution, "All I wanted was 
the keys to the big house. Not this." The lawyer 
offers a picture of a man torn between the duty 
to kill and the faith that makes him question 
that duty­a dilemma he seeks to resolve, perhaps, 
by giving prisoners the promise of a heavenly 
life before the state snuffs out their earthly one.

Chapels are all over Angola, and the main one, 
which seats 800, was a key stop on our tour­just 
as it is for visiting preachers from around the 
country. Gathered there waiting for us was a 
group of inmate preachers, who spread the good 
news at the five houses of worship in Angola (a 
sixth is under construction) and at other prisons 
throughout the state. On occasion, they even have 
the opportunity to preach in the outside world. I 
asked the inmates whether Warden Cain had to 
approve what they did; one said they answered 
only to "Him" and pointed skyward. For a while, 
we listened to a former country-western 
bandleader play gospel on the famed Angola organ, 
donated by a close associate of Billy Graham. As 
we began to leave, one preacher raised his hand 
to Cathy, smiled broadly, and said, "We did good for you."

It had taken me a while to figure out what 
bothered me about Cain's religious crusade at 
Angola, beyond a healthy respect for the 
separation of church and state. My grandfather, a 
Methodist minister, was an evangelist of sorts, 
so this wasn't an altogether foreign world to me. 
And I've seen a lot of good come out of 
faith-based programs­which, particularly in 
prison, fill the void created when lawmakers 
nationwide slashed funding for rehabilitation. In 
1994, for example, 
dealt a crushing blow to prison education [28] by 
making inmates ineligible for higher-education 
Pell grants. Prison college programs, which had 
proved the single most effective tool for 
reducing recidivism, disappeared almost 
overnight. In Louisiana today, 1 percent of the 
corrections budget goes to rehabilitation.

The imbalance "makes no rational sense from a 
prison management point of view," says the David 
Fathi, who heads the 
National Prison Project [29]. "But unfortunately 
it makes political sense for the next election." 
As a result, he says, "the religiously inspired 
programs are pretty much all there is."

According to estimates in the Christian press, 
some 2,000 of Angola's inmates have been born 
again since the arrival of Cain­who has described 
his own religious persuasion as "Bapticostal"­and 
203 have earned B.A. degrees in Christian 
ministry at the "Bible college," an extension 
program operated by the 
<http://www.nobts.edu/>New Orleans Baptist 
Theological Seminary [30] that is the only route 
to earning a college degree at Angola.

Besides the prison seminary, Angola's major 
religious institution is the Louisiana Prison 
Chapel Foundation, which has raised at least $1.2 
million to dot the prison's grounds with houses 
of worship. Franklin Graham, Billy's son, 
reportedly donated $200,000 to build one of the 
chapels, continuing a longstanding relationship 
with Angola. 
crafted the coffin [31] in which Billy Graham's 
wife was buried in 2007, and they are building one for Billy himself.)

Franklin Graham wrote about one of his visits to 
preach at the prison under the title "Freedom for 
the Captives." It's a phrase drawn from Luke 
4:18-19, where Jesus announces that God "has sent 
Me to proclaim freedom to the captives and 
recovery of sight to the blind, to set free the 
oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's 
favor." It's not hard to see why this would be an 
appealing message for men who will never again be physically free.

But for my grandfather, personal redemption was 
inseparable from social justice. Cain's brand of 
Christianity, in contrast, serves in large part 
as an instrument of control­and the warden has 
little patience for those who don't get with his 
program, including other Christians. In 2009, the 
ACLU of Louisiana 
suit [32] on behalf of Donald Lee Leger Jr., a 
practicing Catholic who had sought to take Mass 
while on death row. He alleged that Cain had TV 
screens outside his cell turned up full blast and 
tuned to Baptist Sunday services. Prison 
officials destroyed a plastic rosary sent to 
Leger from a nearby diocese. When Leger continued 
to file grievances requesting Mass, he was moved 
to a tier of ill-behaved inmates and finally put 
in the hole for 10 days. The ACLU 
represented Norman Sanders [33] (PDF), a member 
of a Mormon Bible study course, who was denied 
books from Brigham Young University and Deseret 
Book Direct, sources of Mormon publications. 
the Christian magazine 
[34] that other religions are welcome to set up 
programs at Angola "as long as they're willing to 
pay for it. Let them all compete to catch the 
most fish. I'll stand on the bank and watch.")

An attorney representing another prisoner told me 
that the inmate had been disciplined because he 
had not bowed his head during prayer. The 
prisoner also alleged that inmates who don't 
participate in church services will have their 
privileges revoked, while those who attend will 
get "a day or two off from the field, a good 
meal, and other goodies" such as ice cream. (Some 
help themselves to further goodies: In a recent 
inmate ministers were investigated [35] for 
allegedly bribing guards to let them have sex 
with visitors who came for special banquets.)

Stan Moody, a onetime prison chaplain in Maine 
who has met with ex-Angola prisoners, believes 
that "Cain is without question a committed 
Christian" who "cares about the downtrodden and 
disadvantaged in a way that's sadly missing in 
prisons across the US." But 
<http://mostlywater.org/print/87942>he questions 
pushing religion [36] onto a "literally captive" 
audience, especially in exchange for better 
treatment. What Cain seems to be creating at 
Angola, Moody warns, is an atmosphere of "imposed 
Christian values" designed to put "notches on the old salvation belt."

With those who resist salvation, Cain takes a 
somewhat different approach­as the men known as 
Angola Three [37] found out. When they came to 
Angola in 1971 for armed robbery, Herman Wallace 
and Albert Woodfox were Black Panthers, and they 
began organizing to improve prison conditions. 
That quickly landed them on the wrong side of the 
prison administration, and in 1972 they were 
prosecuted and convicted for the murder of a 
prison guard. They have been fighting the 
conviction ever since, 
out [38] (PDF) that one of the eyewitnesses was 
legally blind, and the other was a known prison 
snitch who was rewarded for his testimony.

After the murder, the two­along with a third 
inmate named Robert King­were put in solitary, 
and Woodfox and Wallace have now spent nearly 
four decades in the hole­something Cain has 
suggested has more to do with their politics than 
with their crimes (King was released in 2001 when 
his conviction in a separate prison murder was 
overturned). In 
2008 deposition [39], he said Woodfox "wants to 
demonstrate. He wants to organize. He wants to be 
defiant...He is still trying to practice Black 
Pantherism, and I still would not want him 
walking around my prison because he would 
organize the young new inmates. I would have me 
all kind of problems, more than I could stand, 
and I would have the blacks chasing after them."

Wallace's and Woodfox's lawyers have pointed out 
that the two men, now in their sixties, have had 
a near-perfect record for more than 20 years. In 
response, Cain argued that "it's not a matter of 
write-ups. It's a matter of attitude and what you 
are...Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace is locked 
in time with that Black Panther revolutionary 
actions they were doing way back when...And from 
that, there's been no rehabilitation." Wallace 
has said that Cain suggested that he and Woodfox 
could be released into the general population if 
they renounced their political views and embraced Jesus.

I asked Fontenot about the Angola Three, and she 
told me matter-of-factly that they just hadn't 
played by the rules. Anyway, Wallace and Woodfox 
had recently been shipped off to other prisons in 
the state system. I asked about solitary 
confinement. The prisoners in what Angola calls 
"closed cells" had everything they needed, she 
said. It was like having a little apartment.

The Angola three are not the only inmates who 
claim they have suffered under Cain. Back in 
1999, a group of five inmates took two guards 
hostage and killed one of them during an 
attempted prison break. Both then-Corrections 
Secretary Richard Stalder and Warden Cain came to 
the scene, and after learning of the guard's 
death, Cain, according to news reports, sent in a 
tactical team that killed one inmate and wounded 
another. Nine years later, as the state prepared 
to try five prisoners for the guard's murder, 25 
inmates who were not involved in the escape 
attempt testified to what happened next.
The prisoners in  “closed cells” had everything 
they needed, assistant warden Fontenot said. It 
was like having a little apartment.

of their pretrial statements [40] suggest that as 
prison officials tried to extract information or 
confessions, Angola became what one attorney 
described as "Abu Ghraib on the Mississippi." 
Prisoners told of being beaten with fists, 
batons, bats, sticks, and metal rods. "You've got 
these grown men crying," one said. Several 
inmates said they were thrown naked and without 
bedding into freezing solitary-confinement cells, 
denied medical care, and threatened with death if 
they refused to sign statements that had been 
prepared for them. The events prompted an FBI 
investigation, and the state of Louisiana 
eventually agreed to settle with 13 inmates who 
filed civil rights lawsuits. But there was no 
admission of guilt, and no reprimand for Warden Cain.

Even in normal times, Angola maintains a 
punishment unit known as Camp J, which combines 
extreme isolation and deprivation­prisoners 
cannot have any personal items and are fed a 
block of ground-up scraps known as "the loaf"­and 
is plagued by suicide attempts. There are "things 
that the mind can't handle," one former inmate 
told me. "I guarantee you that today, somebody tried [suicide] in Camp J."

Certain accusations against Cain go beyond his 
treatment of prisoners. Shortly after he took 
over as warden, in 1995, he was implicated in a 
scandal involving a company that used Angola 
prison labor to relabel damaged or outdated cans 
of milk and tomato paste. There were allegations 
of kickbacks, and of retaliation against a 
prisoner who wrote letters to federal health 
officials. Both Cain and Corrections Secretary 
held in contempt of court [41] (PDF) for 
withholding documents, and Cain was warned to stop harassing the whistleblower.

In another episode, the Baton Rouge Advocate 
reported that in 2007 a grand jury in Baton Rouge 
subpoenaed documents involving the prison's 
various businesses, as well as the Angola State 
Prison Museum Foundation (headed by Sheryl 
Ranatza, the Cain protégé who is now deputy 
secretary at the department of corrections) and 
the Angola Prison Rodeo, whose proceeds were once 
put into a fund for prisoner expenses such as 
funeral trips, TV, and the law library, but are 
now used to maintain the arena and build prison 
chapels. Cain is chairman of the committee that 
runs the rodeo, and he founded and sits on the 
board of the prison chapel foundation.

The FBI also has been investigating Prison 
Enterprises, the state outfit that runs all 
farming and industrial operations in Louisiana's 
prisons, a probe that has led to several 
indictments; last October, a contractor named 
"Gene" Fletcher [42] pled guilty to defrauding 
Louisiana taxpayers of some $170,000.

In 2004, Angola Rodeo producer Dan Klein went to 
the FBI with a complaint that Burl Cain had 
forced him to contribute $1,000 to the Chapel 
Fund. Cain said at the time that Klein made the 
contribution without any pressuring, and the 
warden himself has not been named in any of the indictments.

Daniel Bergner also says he was pressured to 
pitch in for one of Cain's pet projects while 
writing his book on Angola: Though he initially 
had broad access to the prison, partway through 
his reporting Cain asked him to help pay for a 
new barn for his wife's dressage horses, which he 
said would cost about $50,000. When Bergner 
demurred, Cain made a straight pitch: In return 
for arranging a "consultancy" payment for Cain, 
Bergner would get continued access. Bergner 
refused, whereupon Cain began demanding editorial 
control over the book and finally barred Bergner 
from the prison. Bergner only got access again after going to court.

After more than a year of trying to get into 
Angola, I too turned to a lawsuit. In March 2010, 
the ACLU agreed to represent me on 
First Amendment claim [43] arguing that to keep 
government information from a reporter merely on 
the basis of what he's written is an infringement 
on press freedom. My attorneys asked for a 
listing of visitors the prison had welcomed in 
the previous year (not counting the everyday 
tourists). Without hesitation, Angola provided 
14-page list [44] that included Miss Louisiana, 
the comedian Russell Brand, the Dixie Dazzle 
Dolls (a children's beauty pageant group), 
various groups of high school and college 
students, judges, representatives from gospel 
groups and film teams, scouts looking for film 
locations, criminal justice students, a former 
member of the Colombo crime family, a French 
attorney. Members of the media included a 
journalist from Switzerland; "Neal Moore, citizen 
journalist, who was canoeing the Mississippi 
River"; and a producer getting ready to film a 
"future movie/documentary on finding happiness." 
My attorneys dispatched one more letter to Cain 
urging him to grant me a visit. There was no 
response. But a month later, as the ACLU prepared 
to file suit in federal court, Fontenot wrote to 
them, inviting me down for a tour.

In his memoir, 
Rideau [10] writes about how tightly Cain 
controls his messaging­a practice that had grim 
consequences for the Angolite, once known for its 
investigative reporting. At a time when even 
outside journalists encountered increasing 
barriers to access at prisons nationwide­it's 
almost impossible now to interview an inmate, or 
even a staffer, at many state and federal 
prisons­the Angolite staffers found their calls 
monitored and their stories censored. "The only 
information coming out of Angola," Rideau says, 
"was what Burl Cain wanted the public to know."

When I asked Fontenot about this, she shook her 
head and told me that after he started winning 
journalism prizes and drawing attention from 
outside Angola, Rideau withdrew from prison life, 
spending all his time holed up in the Angolite 
offices. His celebrity, she thought, had gone to his head.

Or perhaps Rideau got on the wrong side of Cain 
by refusing to embrace the dominant story of the 
warden as Angola's savior, a narrative neatly 
summed up by prison chaplain Robert Toney 
congressional testimony [45] in 2005: Angola "was 
once the most violent prison in America. Today, 
we are known as the safest prison in America. 
This change began with a warden that believed that change could occur."

In fact, there is considerable evidence that the 
turnaround at Angola began two decades before 
Cain became warden, in the 1970s, when a prisoner 
lawsuit forced the facility into federal 
oversight and a series of reforms began. 
to Burk Foster [46], a professor of criminal 
justice at Saginaw Valley State University in 
Michigan and the leading historian of Angola, by 
the mid-1980s Angola was already the most secure 
prison in the South. Prison violence is down 
dramatically across the country; the prison 
murder rate 
fallen more than 90 percent [47] (PDF) nationwide in the last three decades.

Yet the legend of Cain persists­and not just 
because Cain and his team (the formidable Cathy 
Fontenot included) are so skilled at PR. Cain 
does a job that no one else much wants to do, 
dealing with a group of people that no one else 
much wants to think about. Rather than face that 
reality, most of us prefer to believe in a miracle.

Aside from the high-level escort, my tour of 
Angola had covered pretty much what the tourists 
see, except for the closing lunch­Fontenot took 
me to the Ranch House, a sort of clubhouse where 
the wardens and other officials get together in a 
convivial atmosphere for chow prepared by inmate 
cooks. (It's traditional for Ranch House cooks to 
go on and work at the governor's mansion, but 
Gov. Bobby Jindal had spurned that tradition.) 
The house is built low, with a long porch and 
white board fence; we sat down to barbecue 
chicken, red beans and rice, and sweet potato pie, all of it quite good.

After lunch, I accompanied Fontenot to her office 
in the administration building. When we'd 
scheduled the tour, she'd promised me an 
interview with Cain provided he was at Angola 
when I visited, which she expected him to be. But 
when I asked, "Where's the warden?" she said 
matter-of-factly, "Oh, he's in Atlanta today."

On the way back over the line to the free world, 
I asked Fontenot whether the warden might 
consider talking to me on the phone. She 
suggested I follow up once I got home, and I did, 
thanking her for the tour and the fine luncheon. 
After several weeks and multiple 
inquiries­including a few questions submitted via 
email, at her request­I got this reply:

The warden respectfully declines to participate 
in this article. As he says often, its all of us 
at Angola that have caused the positive changes. 
Thanks again James. It really was a pleasure to 
meet you in person. Stay warm during these cold days of winter.

Much peace to you,


When I interviewed John Thompson, the exonerated 
death-row inmate, about his time in Angola, he 
mentioned what he believes is one of the public's 
biggest misconceptions about prisons. Most people 
look at the fence around the perimeter and think 
its purpose is to keep prisoners from escaping. 
But the barrier "isn't there to keep prisoners 
in," Thompson said. "It's to keep the rest of you out."

Source URL: 

[1] http://www.corrections.state.la.us/lsp/
[2] http://angolamuseum.org/?q=Shop
[4] http://www.corrections.state.la.us/lsp/visiting.php
[5] https://www.laaclu.org/newsArchive.php?id=398#n398
[6] http://angolamuseum.org/?q=History
[7] http://www.bpnews.net/bpnews.asp?id=27125
[9] http://www.calvin.edu/january/2010/cain.htm
[11] http://www.doc.louisiana.gov/lsp/angolite.php
[14] http://motherjones.com/politics/2009/03/36-years-solitude
[16] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0139193/
[17] http://www.charlierose.com/view/interview/4891
[18] http://www.time.com/time/reports/mississippi/angola.html
[19] http://pdf.pr.com/press-release/pr-155525.pdf
[21] http://www.menshealth.com/best-life/ewan-mcgregors-tips-full-life
[22] http://lightingtheway.blogspot.com/2009/09/more-on-angola-prison.html
[23] http://doc.louisiana.gov/LSP/docs/2010_Annual_Report.pdf
[24] http://www.angolarodeo.com/
[25] http://www.powells.com/biblio/2-9780345435538-4
[27] http://www.soros.org/initiatives/usprograms/multimedia/angola_20080912
[29] http://www.aclu.org/prisoners-rights
[30] http://www.nobts.edu/
[31] http://www.adventistreview.org/article.php?id=1223
[32] https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/119159-leger-v-louisiana-2009.html
[33] http://www.laaclu.org/PDF_documents/SandersvCain_MDLA.pdf
[34] https://www.readability.com/articles/cj2niek9?legacy_bookmarklet=1
[36] http://mostlywater.org/print/87942
[37] http://motherjones.com/special-reports/2009/03/angola-3-36-years-solitude
[38] http://www.angola3.org/uploads/Albert-Woodfox_amended_habeas_petition.pdf
[41] http://www.clearinghouse.net/chDocs/public/PC-LA-0001-0011.pdf
[42] http://www.justice.gov/usao/lam/press/press0907.html#f11
[43] https://www.laaclu.org/docketArchive.php?id=12#n12
[45] http://ftp.resource.org/gpo.gov/hearings/109h/20377.txt
[46] http://www.burkfoster.com/Angola70s.htm
[47] http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/content/pub/pdf/shsplj.pdf

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