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Angola Prison Entrance

When the ACLU approves of a Baptist Bible college in a state penitentiary, you know there is something extraordinary going on.

An article in The   New York Times, Bible College Helps Some at Louisiana Prison Find Peace ,” chronicles the remarkable story of the Louisiana State Penitentiary, more commonly known as Angola. The largest maximum security prison in the U.S., Angola has a horrible history, but since the arrival of Warden Burl Cain in 1995, it has become a model of prison reform.

Cain’s tenure as warden came on the heels of The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act passed in 1994, which made prisoners ineligible for Pell Grants and devastated education within the penal system. Cain invited New Orleans Baptist Seminary to open a Bible college within the prison walls. Since then, the privately-funded seminary extension has awarded fully-accredited bachelor’s degrees to over two hundred inmates, and associate degrees or certificates to hundreds more.

Of course, sending inmates to Bible college raised more than a few eyebrows. According to the article in the Times :

The American Civil Liberties Union has watched for signs that the seminary or the prison has crossed constitutional lines by using state money or coercion to promote religion. In the past, the group has sued Angola to force the removal of a biblical citation at the entrance and to give a Muslim graduate of the seminary access to materials from the Nation of Islam, the American Muslim group that is more entrenched in northern prisons.

Still, the seminary appears to be legal because it is paid for privately, is voluntary and admits non-Christians, said Marjorie R. Esman, the executive director of the A.C.L.U. in Louisiana.

“I think that what Burl Cain calls moral rehabilitation is, in his mind, religious doctrine, but a lot of good has come of it,” Ms. Esman said. “I think it’s unfortunate that the only college available is a Christian one, but the fact that a college is there at all is important.”

Fifteen Muslims have graduated from the program (following the same Bible curriculum) and now minister to Muslim inmates.

Eighty percent of the prisoners at Angola are serving life sentences. In Louisiana, a sentence of life without parole means just that. The men who earn these degrees will never be using them on the outside.  But that makes their ministry training no less purposeful as Cain has allowed graduates to serve as ministers to their peers. Some even request transfers to serve as missionaries in other prisons. Daryl Walters, one of the seminary graduates with a life sentence says, “If I can help other people while I’m marching to the grave here, then I’ll have lived a good life.” The church behind the walls is alive and well.

Other aspects of Warden Cain’s work have been covered more extensively in the following articles:

Breaking Into Prison ( Christianity Today , 2004)

Spinning Hope on Incarceration Station ( New York Times , 2006)

Louisiana Prison Gives Inmates Chance to Earn Ministry Degree ( USA Today , 2010)

Making Ministers of Inmates ( Leadership Journal , 2011)

Angola Prison, Moral Rehabilitation, and the Things Ahead (Acton Institute, 2012)

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