Violence to Peace

By Jim Dailey   •   May 9, 2006

Angola Prison, the largest state maximum-security prison in the United States, has long been labeled the bloodiest prison in America. 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. 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. Shortly after the Angola 2006 Franklin Graham Festival, Decision spoke with Warden Cain to learn more about how God led him to work and minister at the prison.

Q: What results have you seen from the Franklin Graham Festival at Angola?

A: I had Easter sunrise service with the prisoners two weeks after the Festival, and there was a tremendous sense of God’s peace and calm. The Festival helped these men know that God loves them and that people care about them. They know they are not forgotten and that gives them hope. It meant the world to them that Franklin came to Angola Prison. They loved it. They paid attention, sang and clapped to the music and were very moved by Franklin’s message. They know there was no other reason for him to be here other than that he loves them and God sent him. That’s what they saw. That had a profound effect on them.

In fact, we had four Easter services instead of one. Everyone was fired up and wanted to go to church. By far more people went to church here at Angola this Easter than last Easter. There was more involvement and the prisoners were more engaged. The entire Easter weekend was phenomenal–nothing violent happened in this prison of 5,000 people through the weekend. There wasn’t one fight in the whole place. Now what city of 5,000 can say that? That is unbelievable!

Q: Your journey to becoming the warden at the country’s largest prison is intriguing. The Lord has been a part of it from the beginning, hasn’t He?

A: I was raised in a Christian home and every time the doors of the church were open, we went. It wasn’t an option. That was in Pitkin, La., the land of pine trees and poor folks. We didn’t even have a caution light in our town. The kids came from miles and miles around to our little Class B school. We didn’t have football. The only sport we had was basketball because there weren’t enough kids to play football.

I went off to Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge and graduated in 1960 with a degree in agriculture education. I drifted away from the Lord and was rebellious because my parents had made me go to church so much. When I became a warden at the Dixon Correctional Institute in Jackson, La., my mom challenged me: “I raised you right and you’ve been wayward, but you’ve got to be accountable to God. If those men have a chance to know Jesus, you are in control of their lives and you had better not fail!”

I said, “Yes ma’am!” What else was I going to say? The excitement that I thought she would have was not for the job. It was for their souls. The first meeting I had at Dixon was with the chaplains. I told them that I would divide the inmates into three groups. The chaplains would be the shepherds, and if the flock didn’t grow, I’d get new shepherds. So, I just passed on to them the role my mom gave me.

Over time, I realized that in a place of hopelessness the only hope is in God, and I became passionate that the inmates would come to know Him.

Q: So your heart for souls is really what motivates you?

A: I have no doubt that it has been the Lord who has led me. I am honored, awed and amazed at what God does. He gave this job to me. I was not that smart. He would tell me what we were going to do next, and I would just listen because I was desperate. God’s wisdom got us to where we are today. I think He had another purpose. This prison is the largest maximum-security prison in America. It is one of the most famous prisons in the whole world. It has only murderers, rapists, armed robbers and habitual felons. The average sentence is 88 years, with 3,200 people in one place serving life sentences. Ninety percent of the inmates will die here. This is a place of hopelessness, so if Angola can change, the rest of the country’s prisons can’t say, “We can’t do this.” That’s why I think God chose Angola. I think it’s time to have revival in the prisons in America. The inmates believe that. They think the revival in America will happen in the prisons.

Q: How have the seminary extension courses that started 10 years ago played a role in the moral transformation?

A: It is catching on in America that the way to change the culture in prison is to change it from within. It is so simple. When I came, we had no church at the prison. We had only evangelists who would come and go, but there was nothing to build on. The New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary started courses in 1996, and our classes graduated with caps and gowns. It was unbelievable! Now, we have several churches. We train the preachers who pastor their own churches in this prison. We have more than 100 prisoners enrolled in the classes now and more than 120 have already graduated. We’ve even sent missionaries to the other prisons in Louisiana to help replicate what the Lord has done here.

Q: Has your heart for souls changed the manner in which you oversee executions at Angola?

A: After the first execution that I supervised, I realized that I hadn’t said a word to the dying prisoner about his soul. That ground all the way to the roots of my own faith. I failed miserably. If someone is going to die, and you have ample chance to talk to them about their soul and you just sit there with your mouth closed–that’s horrible! I have to live with that the rest of my life. Thank God for forgiveness.

At my second execution, I had the opportunity to share about the thief on the cross whom Christ forgave as they were crucified. Before the execution I told the prisoner some of what I had read in Billy Graham’s book “Angels.” I told him of God’s assurance of salvation if he repented of his sins and trusted Christ as his Savior. At the time of his execution the prisoner asked me to hold his hand. From that time on, I’ve held the hand of several prisoners I’ve had to execute. They were Christians and they wanted me to hold their hand. What is so sad is that I couldn’t hold the hand of the victim. We can’t ever forget the victim of a violent crime.

Q: Do you think what is happening at Angola can be exported to other prison systems across America?

A: Even if I were an atheist warden and hated God, I would want this kind of culture in my prison because the inmates are more peaceful and there isn’t the violence. It’s something you should do because it’s the right thing and it will change people’s lives. It happened at Angola. The next thing is to get the Bible colleges in this country to step up to the plate and offer to establish these colleges in prisons. We at Angola do all this while still keeping the separation of church and state, because there are no tax dollars going to these Bible colleges. Therefore, the church community gets involved, pays the tuition, supports the Bible college and makes their country and the world safer. That’s what is going to happen. That’s what is happening.