Nobody criticizes us. We have no enemies,” Warden Burl Cain tells me as the servers load our plates with Big Lou’s brisket, ribs, chicken, grits-n-shrimp casserole, and baked beans. “I have the number for the head of the local ACLU on my cell phone, and she has my number on hers.”

Warden Cain clearly doesn’t spend much time Googling his name. His many critics accuse him of being dictatorial, vindictive, and cruel. His prison has been called “Abu Ghraib on the Mississippi,” where it’s said that prisoners are put in overheated solitary cells because of their political views. Others charge that Cain forces Jesus down prisoners’ gullets, and makes life hell if they don’t convert. I get the impression that Cain isn’t much fazed by the criticism he does hear. He doesn’t seem the fazable type.

Affably self-confident, stout, with a mane of white hair, the sixty-eight-year-old Cain has been warden of the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as Angola, since 1995. One of the largest maximum-security prisons in the world, Angola is today, both warden and inmates boast, the “safest place in the country.” As the New York Times reported in 2013, prison violence has declined dramatically: “In 1990, inmates assaulted staff members 280 times and one another 1,107 times. In 2012, there were 55 assaults on staff and 316 among inmates.”

Touring the prison on a sweltering late-August day with several dozen others, I wondered what made Angola different. It didn’t seem so different. Prison violence has been declining nationwide for several decades. Other prisons have re-entry programs, vocational training, and church services. Yet everyone said something made Angola unique. What is that something?

Angola is unusual in part because of the New Orleans Baptist Seminary, which began offering four-year degrees soon after Cain took over the prison. Of the two hundred-plus graduates, a number have become prisoner-pastors who mentor and minister to other inmates. Private donors have given over $1 million to build the churches that dot the sprawling 18,000-acre site. Hundreds of prisoners attend church every week, where inmates preach and lead worship. Some graduates have been moved to other prisons in the Louisiana system to serve as mentors and pastors. Angola has become a missionary-sending prison.

Other initiatives have grown out of the Seminary’s program. Several years ago, Hayward Jones joined other graduates to establish Malachi Dads, which is overseen by the international children’s ministry, Awana. Taking their cue from Malachi 4:6, Malachi Dads pledge to provide spiritual leadership for their kids. They hope to affect not only their own children, but their children’s children, down through generations.

Prison guard Richard Peabody has been working at Angola for thirty-seven years. What’s changed since Warden Cain took over? I ask him. Peabody says that prisoners are offered incentives to better themselves, and when they prove trustworthy, they take positions of responsibility within the prison—in churches, in vocational training, in prisoner-led re-entry programs, by writing for the prison magazine, or by initiating programs like Malachi Dads. Inmates described their involvement in these programs as an effort to redress the crimes they have committed.

Others emphasize Angola’s commitment to honor the prisoners’ humanity. When Cain arrived at Angola, he overhauled the way dying and dead inmates were treated. He started a hospice program in which prisoners care for dying prisoners. When prisoners die, their bodies are carried to marked graves in a Victorian hearse, drawn by two horses and driven by “Bones,” who is dressed in tux and top hat. Respecting inmates as human beings goes beyond treating them with dignity. Angola’s programs are set up on the assumption that inmates have talents and hopes that can be cultivated so they can contribute to life within the prison and even to society outside.

Other states have taken note and begun to imitate the Angola model. Texas started a seminary program at Darrington Prison in 2011, run by the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. The day we toured Angola, a group was visiting from West Virginia, where Appalachian Bible College is beginning to offer Bible courses to prisoners.

Does it work? Is there evidence that faith-based programs offer what Cain claims: lasting “moral rehabilitation”? In his study of faith-based crime-prevention and prison reform, Byron Johnson, who directs Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion (ISR), examined the recidivism rates for prisoners in Texas’s InnerChange Freedom Initiative, created by Prison Fellowship. Inmates who graduated from the program were much less likely to be re-arrested and return to prison than the matched group of non-graduates. The most successful ex-cons were those who received regular mentoring after release. We’ll know more about Angola’s program in a few years. In 2012, ISR received a $1.3 million grant for a five-year study of the effects of the programs at Darrington and Angola.

A no-nonsense Southerner like Cain doesn’t have to wait until the research is in. It’s all so simple. “You have to change the person,” he told Acton’s Religion & Liberty several years ago. “If we can get them to become moral people, then we can cure our prison problem.” But he’s a realist. In one of Cain’s recurrent refrains, he adds, “It’s like fish. You can’t catch them all, so you’ve just got to catch what you can.”

Peter J. Leithart is president of Trinity House. He is the author most recently of Gratitude: An Intellectual History. His previous articles can be found here.

Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.

Show 0 comments