A Prison Without Walls

ANGOLA, LOUISIANA

I had no idea there was no perimeter wall at Angola as I canoed along the natural barrier that surrounds three sides of Louisiana State Penitentiary – the Mississippi River. The sun had broken thru the morning mist as I made my way upstream from my camp the previous night on Shreves Bar Island, about one and a half miles downstream. The short upstream trip was work but at long last I reached the prison’s ferry landing. I had read online that this was a ferry for prison guards only, and as such, I had hoped to catch a ride into the prison. The ferry was not operating and I was later told that due to high water, they were using a “crew boat” for foot passengers only, but that this only took place during a shift change.

I was preparing to make the trek up to Angola on foot when I met my first convict “trusty”, Charles Martin. Mr. Martin had driven up in a truck while I was pulling my canoe out of the water and had busied himself working on the ferry structure moored into the banks of the river. When asked how far it was to the gate of the prison, Mr. Martin turned towards the road from where he had just come and replied, “What gate?”

Angola has transformed itself from what Collier’s Magazine once called “the most dangerous prison in America” into what observers are now calling the safest. According to Warden Burl Cain, this about face has taken place with two words: “morality” and “communication”.

The communication in the prison, afforded by Warden Burl Cain, gives the men a sense of freedom, a sense of hope. It is a psychological barrier that has been taken down – and the men are truly appreciative. From my interview with the warden, I was led to a meeting with the radio station, newspaper, and television station, before being brought to the prison’s hospice, into a room where Richard Vinet was on vigil, awaiting his death. Mr. Vinet, age 54, whose liver is failing, has been at Angola since 1984 and is officially now “on vigil” which means he was not expected to last the next 24 hours. As I spoke with Mr. Vinet about his love for the radio station and the chance he had had to request his favorite songs, a USA Today photographer snapped photos. When asked what it was that he wanted most to say, Mr. Vinet pointed towards his nurse, as well as one of Angola’s vice-wardens, Cathy Fontenot, stating, “I want to thank these two women here.” According to Ms. Fontenot, “No inmate here dies alone, a stroke of compassion which tends to lead the prisoners here in hospice to the realization of the gravity of their past actions.” When asked for specifics, Ms. Fontenot quoted a late prisoner who had spent time here in hospice as saying, “I realized the last person I was with when they died was my victim,” going on to say, “I’m truly sorry.”

Warden Burl Cain takes a similar approach when it comes to the men on death row, a people he refers to as “his children”, taking the trouble to hold their hand as they are executed by lethal injection. In so doing, Mr. Cain, who will have worked with these inmates on getting as right as possible with their maker, is able to “communicate” in a wholly different fashion. There is nothing fake or pretentious about Warden Cain. The man commands respect thru his presence alone – when he enters a building. Among multiple people I spoke with, both outside and inside Angola, the idea of Burl Cain as a good and honest guy was unanimous.

Approximately 86% of the 5,000 inmates at Angola are never going home – a sentence of “life” that in the State of Louisiana actually means it. The strategy of Mr. Cain is simply to let these men he has custody over have the chance to better their lives, to communicate, to be men.

As the sun began to set, I asked to be taken out to the prison’s old cemetery, a place where 1/3 of all those who die here will be buried, having no family or friends to take their remains away. I found a bronze marker set up for the “Unknown Buried Here” with the dedication: “Remember not my name nor my sins nor guilt nor shame; only that I was a man.”

In the end it was two inmates who pushed me and my canoe back out into the Mighty Mississippi. The sun had gone down, and the Mississippi was shiny black, reflecting the lights of the crew boat. I was not afraid. I knew exactly where my island lay, having approached the night before under similar circumstances. There comes a time on this river when you become one with your craft, where the danger of a seriously dangerous river is outweighed by a sense of calm, of a cocoon that envelopes you and lets you know you’re going to be alright. It could very well be due to the fact that I was only a visitor, but I felt this same safety – this same calm feeling the entire day at Angola – my very first day in a maximum security prison. My canoe with my gear in it had been loaded on a truck, and together we heaved it out and into the water. It was a strange feeling to step in and glide away. The convicts whose names I had forgotten to ask waved and wished me Godspeed. The sliver of a moon had broken thru the clouds for a moment and as the current took me, I waved back, feeling a certain camaraderie with the prisoners and their warden, but thankful to be free.

Thanks for making this story possible:

Vice-warden Cathy Fontenot.

My guide for the day was Major Joli Darbonne.

Interviewed for this story on video at the “Ranch House” – Warden Burl Cain.

KLSP (Louisiana State Penitentiary) — a 100-watt radio station that operates at 91.7 on the FM dial from inside the prison to approximately 6,000 potential listeners including inmates and penitentiary staff. The station is operated by inmates and carries some satellite programming. Inside the walls of Angola, KLSP is called the “Incarceration Station” and “The Station that Kicks Behind the Bricks.” Interviewed for this story is KLSP disk jockey Keith Alexander. Mr. Alexander is 44 years old and has been incarcerated at Angola for 21 1/2 years.

LSP TV Station 21 is a one-room television station that serves Angola State Penitentiary. Interviewed for this story: Matthew Morgan, sports editor; and Shawn Vaughn, editor.

The Angolites interviewed for this story are: Lane Nelson, managing editor, age 55, incarcerated at Angola for 28 1/2 years of a life sentence for murder; Kerry Myers, editor, age 53, incarcerated at Angola for 19 years of a life sentence for murder; and Klye Hebert, age 44, incarcerated at Angola for 9 years of a life sentence for attempted murder.

In the hallway of Maximum Security Cell Block D are: Marlo Green and Devon Morris.

Interviewed at Angola’s Hospice: Richard Vinet, age 54, incarcerated at Angola for 25 years.

5 Comments

Filed under Community Project, Mississippi River Town, On CNN, On the Mississippi

5 responses to “A Prison Without Walls

  1. Asst Warden Perry Stagg

    Great article Neal. I think you really captured the spirit of Angola as well as that of our Warden. He is a truly amazing man who has orchestrated a miraculous transformation of our prison. It’s obvious that you were surprised by the demeanor of the inmates you came into contact with. It’s really something when men are treated like men and find it within themselves to act accordingly. Good luck in all that you do. Stay in touch.

    Perry

  2. Cindy

    Neal, this is your best work yet. I know that your mission has been to canoe the Mississippi River and report on positive stories, but who would think that you could find such an inspirational, positive story at the largest state prison in America?! Thank you for helping to tell this story of the positive culture created and fostered by Warden Cain and his staff. When so many supermax prisons are in the big business of warehousing Americans in unprecedented numbers, and offering little to no hope, this story begs the question: Why can’t other prison wardens see Angola as a model? I hope this story is viewed and read by the nation. And I hope that Warden Cain’s approach will be emulated by other wardens. Thank you for this amazing story.

  3. Wynette

    What a great story by a fabulous writer. You bring their stories into our lives and we are forever changed by what we read. Thanks Neal.
    W

    • flashriversafari

      Many thanks, everyone… this story was most definitely a highlight of the entire trip and as such I wanted to highlight it in a respectful and positive way. With the help of a lot of folks at Angola, I feel like a very worthwhile story was here accomplished. Am in high hopes that other prisons around the globe can learn from Warden Cain’s extraordinary example.

  4. Adam

    This is such a great piece! I think that our country would benefit enormously if more leaders in the correctional field adopted this approach to rehabilitating people. Great work, Neal, Warden Cain & Angola staff! Keep up the good work! If there’s hope in Angola, there’s hope anywhere!

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