I visited Angola State Prison in Louisiana last month and I have to say it was one of the most interesting days I’ve ever experienced. I want to write about the hospice they run there, but before I do, let me tell you about this most interesting place.
First of all, you have to know that Angola is huge. It sits on 18,000 acres of low-land, bordered on three sides by the Mississippi River, and on one side by cliffs and forests. A tour of the facility requires a vehicle and takes all day. It is also beautiful: lush grass, mighty swamp trees, and hills. But its history is evil.
After slavery was abolished in the 19th century, whites arrested blacks on trumped-up charges and housed them at Louisiana State Penitentiary (LSP). There they used the incarcerated Africans as slave labor. The prison received the name Angola because the prison owners who became wealthy from this effort preferred Africans from Angola. They felt they were bigger and stronger.
The sadness continued well into the 20th century. The state of Louisiana, not wanting to spend more then they absolutely had to on prisons, chose inmates to serve as guards. Can you imagine, inmates being guarded by rifle-toting inmates? Not surprisingly, Angola developed a reputation for violence. It was the bloodiest prison in the country, almost a killing a week.
All of this awfulness changed in 1995 when Warden Burl Cain became chief warden, a post he did not want. He immediately instituted a no-cussing policy because he knew that cussing created anger and anger led to violence. He installed a bible college. In a few years, the college graduates were requesting to start churches in the prison. Soon churches began dotting the 18,000 acres. The warden installed machine shops and engine rebuilding schools. Many of the inmates, almost all serving life-sentences, have become expert repairmen in all sorts of engines. The prison officials now send shorter-term inmates from other prisons to Angola for job training and discipleship.
After a year or so of reform, the violence rate at Angola dropped 75%. Gang activity diminished. In fact, when we asked the assembly of pastors about gang presence, they laughed and said, “We are the gang leaders.” Not territorial, violent gangs. They were talking about communities of people living and working together. Isn’t that marvelous?
A few years after he became the head warden, Burl Cain noticed that many of his inmates were suffering from terminal illnesses and dying alone. He recruited a local hospice and what got started was Angola Hospice. I toured the wonderful facility and visited with the inmate care-takers. Wonderful, Jesus-filled place. Isn’t that remarkable? Right in the most unlikely place in the world, a maximum-security prison, trained and selected inmates are providing high-level, compassionate hospice care. Isn’t it just like God to do something like that?
I encourage you to read about Angola or to watch a video about their hospice program. This link is a great place to start: http://www.npr.org/2011/10/19/141505983/serving-life-prisoners-find-humanity-in-face-of-death.