Set Free in Angola Prison

By Steve Starr   •   May 9, 2006

Angola Prison, a former slave plantation, sits on a bend in a low-lying area of the Mississippi River, just below the Mississippi state line 50 miles north of Baton Rouge. With a central prison that houses 5,100 men, and six outlying camps, it is the largest state prison in the United States and is reserved for those with life sentences. In Louisiana, a life sentence means life. Parole hearings are not allowed.

On a sunny spring Saturday in Angola, La., 2,200 prisoners and 1,000 visitors gather inside the Angola Rodeo Arena at the Louisiana State Penitentiary to hear a message of God’s redeeming love.

The prisoners, most clad in prison-issued blue and white uniforms, are seated behind an eight-foot high security fence that runs the entire length of the arena. Residents from nearby cities and parishes sit in the opposite bleachers, finding as much shade as they can under the overhanging roof.

Outside, razor-wire fences surround the arena. Guards sit on the hoods of pickup trucks with rifles cradled in their arms. Their standing orders: Without exception or hesitation, fire–once to warn, then shoot to stop; kill if necessary.

But on this day, the guards stand easy. The prisoners sway and clap in rhythm to musical artists and listen attentively as Franklin Graham shares the Good News of God’s forgiveness. At the invitation to make a commitment to Christ, more than 100 walk slowly down the arena steps, gather along a low rail and make life-changing decisions.

Angola has long been labeled the bloodiest prison in America. Collier’s Weekly headlined it “America’s Worst Prison” in 1952, after 31 prisoners slit their Achilles’ tendons to protest conditions. Until the mid 1970s, the State of Louisiana armed trustee prisoners and used them as low-cost guards in a system that invited abuse. For decades prisoners were forced to cut sugar cane and were whipped if they missed their quotas, once in the fields and again by dormitory captains when they returned at sunset. Inside Angola, a murder a month was common and escape attempts were frequent.

But when Warden Burl Cain arrived in 1995, things started to change. Cain challenged the prison chaplains to increase attendance at the prison churches, and violence has decreased every year since. In 1996 the prison recorded 346 inmate-on-inmate assaults with weapons. In 2004 there were 134.

“I can teach skills and a trade, but if I don’t have a moral component I’ve just made a smarter criminal,” Cain said. “People who are converted and love the Lord are moral people, and you don’t have problems with them being predators in your prison anymore. Not only do they love the Lord, they’re non-violent. They’re going to live out the Christian life in prison.”

Cain also opened the prison to outside ministries. Today, six evangelical churches flourish inside the prison, and some 2,000 inmates, more than a third of the population, walk with Christ. In 1995, Cain asked the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary to open an extension seminary within Angola to serve the Christian inmates. In 10 years, more than 120 inmates have earned degrees in Christian ministry.

When 80 inmates had graduated from seminary, Cain sought permission from the secretary of corrections to send the inmate preachers out as missionaries to other prisons in Louisiana. Following the model of the Baptist Mission Board, he has sent inmates out two-by-two for two years and, as a result, violence in those prisons has “slid right down,” he says.

The Angola 2006 Franklin Graham Festival was an effort to encourage inmates in their faith and to draw others to Christ. Cain, who has a life-long respect for Billy Graham’s ministry, joined with Operation Starting Line, a coalition of 33 prison ministries, to bring the Festival to the prison.

“I remember going with my mother as a boy to a Billy Graham Crusade in the 1950s,” Cain said. “And I remember going with her on the Baptist church bus to see Billy at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge in 1970. I also remember seeing my mother write a check to Billy Graham every month when I was growing up.”

The Festival audience was seated by rank. On one side sat some 1,700 Angola prisoners–dormitory prisoners in the lower rows and cellblock prisoners in the top rows with security officers. Franklin had visited Death Row inmates before the service and prayed with them cell by cell.

On the front row sat inmate pastors, all trained in the Christian Life and Witness course to be counselors at the Festival. To the side of the Angola inmates sat some 500 guest prisoners, bused in from 10 of the other prisons throughout Louisiana.

On the other side of the arena, which prisoners call the “free people side,” sat some 1,000 visitors from churches in St. Francisville and Zachary, La., and from other places throughout Louisiana and nearby Mississippi. At the far end of the free people side was another group of about 100 guest prisoners behind a wire fence, difficult to miss in their fluorescent orange jumpsuits stamped “OPP.” These were evacuees from Orleans Parish Prison, a New Orleans facility heavily damaged by Hurricane Katrina. Just after the storm, Angola had taken in some 2,000 evacuee prisoners. Inmate pastors led 200 of them to Christ.

Several inmates shared the platform with Franklin and participated in the service. Bishop Eugene Tanniehill, 74, gave the opening prayer. Tanniehill, incarcerated for murder, became a trustee guard when he first came to Angola more than 46 years ago. One night, alone in a guard tower with a rifle, he cried out to God for forgiveness. Today he pastors Angola Nondenominational Church. Cain introduced Tanniehill as “My Bishop,” then hugged him and announced that he was trying to arrange a release for the Bishop to work at a youth counseling program in the Bronx in New York City. Tanniehill called on the Name of Jesus to bless the Festival, punctuating every part of his prayer with a solid stamp of his foot.

Ron Hicks, pastor of United Methodist Men, a prison church of about 200, shared his testimony. A graduate of Angola’s New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, he has been incarcerated for murder since he was 19. Now 36, he works in the prison hospice ward and teaches in the seminary. Although Hicks has earned the right to live in relative freedom in the trustee dormitory, he chooses instead to live with 64 men in a transition dormitory for newly arrived prisoners. He considers the dorm his mission field.

“I tell the young guys that God is going to perfect them,” Hicks says. “I quote Philippians 1:6 to them: ‘He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus'” (NIV).

While Hicks spoke, another seminary graduate was pushing wheelchair-bound inmates into the shade and bringing them water at the other end of the arena. “Leg ministry,” Donald Biermann calls it. Biermann, who prefers to be called by his yard nickname, “Carolina”–a reference to his South Carolina roots–is serving a life sentence for habitual felonies. He has been incarcerated in four prisons in three states and was once known as one of Angola’s most violent and dangerous inmates.

Five years ago Carolina signed up for a three-day, in-prison ministry retreat. “I only went for the free-world food,” he said. “I was plotting a very violent act and I figured this would be my last free-world food. To me, God was a fairy tale and anybody who believed in Him was a fairy.”

After a day at the retreat he was bored and getting anxious to leave. He became so agitated that the facilitator started to panic. And then suddenly: “With no preliminaries, no prayer, no blinding lights or trumpets, God just took the violence and bitterness right out of my heart,” Carolina said.

“I knew it was gone because I’d lived with it for 44 years. I thought I’d lost my mind … Then I heard Jesus say, ‘I love you.’ It sounded like words from speakers at a concert. In every joint of my body I felt Jesus say, ‘I love you.’ I started crying and I cried for two weeks. I hadn’t cried since I was seven years old.” Carolina turned from his sin to follow Jesus Christ.

God can save anyone, no matter what the sin, Franklin told the prisoners during his message.

“God knows about prisons,” he said. “Joseph was in prison. The Apostle Paul was in prison. Peter was in prison. God knows exactly what you are here for, but He is willing to forgive you of your sin, no matter what you may have done. We all deserve death and hell, but God sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to rescue us.”

Manasseh, king of Judah, was one of the most evil men who ever lived (2 Chronicles 33), Franklin said. “He desecrated the temple of the Lord, he practiced sorcery, he even sacrificed his sons. God punished Manasseh. The army of Assyria conquered Judah and they led Manasseh away in shackles by a hook in his nose.”

But Manasseh repented.

“The Bible says, ‘In his distress he sought the favor of the Lord his God and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers. And when he prayed to him, the Lord was moved by his entreaty and listened to his plea.’ If God can forgive Manasseh, He can forgive you,” Franklin said.

“If you call on God in this prison today, He will hear your prayer, cleanse you from sin and give you a new beginning. You can be set free from the prison of sin through faith in Jesus Christ.”

One by one, prisoners came forward at the end of the service and committed their lives to Christ. Up in the stands, the restricted cellblock prisoners were allowed to step forward a few rows. Carolina gathered his counselor materials and made his way up the steps to where they were. One inmate, edgy and forceful, demanded a packet of materials. Carolina explained that the materials were only for those accepting Christ. The inmate, getting louder, repeated his demand: “Gimme a packet.”

Carolina recognized the attitude.

“Look,” he said. “I’m not intimidated, and neither is Jesus.”

The prisoner lowered his eyes and Carolina prayed the sinner’s prayer with him.

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