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God's Own Warden
July 26, 2011 7:29 AM   Subscribe

Burl Cain, the warden of Angola, Louisiana's largest prison, uses religion to control and subdue the prison population.
posted by reenum (47 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
Burl Cain has a really ominous, diesel name.
posted by serif at 7:31 AM on July 26, 2011 [4 favorites]


But I thought that was the point of religion? To control and subdue the population.
posted by petrilli at 7:35 AM on July 26, 2011 [34 favorites]


He also uses journalism and rodeo.
posted by box at 7:35 AM on July 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


Burl Cain has a really ominous, diesel name.

A name fit for a Sith Emperor.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 7:36 AM on July 26, 2011


I realize that prisoners do not enjoy full legal rights, but how in the hell is this legal? There's a huge power imbalance between a warden and his prisoners, and Cain seems bound and determined to forcibly convert people who are under his care.
When a group of middle school students visited Angola a few years ago, Cain told them that the inmates were there because they "didn't listen to their parents. They didn't listen to law enforcement. So when they get here, I become their daddy, and they will either listen to me or make their time here very hard."
...
Cain's first execution, he told the Baptist Press, was done strictly by the book. "There was a psshpssh from the machine, and then he was gone," Cain recalled. "I felt him go to hell as I held his hand. Then the thought came over me: I just killed that man. I said nothing to him about his soul. I didn't give him a chance to get right with God. What does God think of me? I decided that night I would never again put someone to death without telling him about his soul and about Jesus."
He's abusing his power, and should be removed from his post immediately.
posted by zarq at 7:48 AM on July 26, 2011 [24 favorites]


The religious angle seems completely irrelevant next to accusations like:
...he was implicated in a scandal involving a company that used Angola prison labor to relabel damaged or outdated cans of milk and tomato paste.
Not to mention the comments about torture.
posted by nev at 7:56 AM on July 26, 2011 [3 favorites]


Just wait till Andy Dufresne escapes and tells the world about this!
posted by jeffen at 8:04 AM on July 26, 2011 [5 favorites]


The opiate of the GenPop.
posted by inturnaround at 8:14 AM on July 26, 2011


The article is worth reading, but it should be noted that the Mother Jones reporter never got anywhere near Burl Cain himself.
posted by blucevalo at 8:14 AM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


Another great reason to seriously consider suicide before going to prison in the United States.
posted by Rockear at 8:16 AM on July 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


Ahem. Angola isn't just the largest prison in Louisiana. It's the largest in the US.

(And, yes, I went to the Prison Rodeo every summer when I was younger... ooh, arts and crafts!)
posted by The Giant Squid at 8:18 AM on July 26, 2011


He's abusing his power, and should be removed from his post immediately.


Hah. Clearly you don't know much about what prisons are actually like in the United States.
posted by stenseng at 8:21 AM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


He sounds like the warden from Shawshank Redemption. Fire his Bible-thumping ass!
posted by orange swan at 8:21 AM on July 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


He's abusing his power, and should be removed from his post immediately.


Hah. Clearly you don't know much about what prisons are actually like in the United States.
posted by stenseng at 11:21 AM on July 26 [+] [!]


1. This varies WILDLY based on the specific system.

2. This attitude is unhelpful; assuming these allegations are true, this man SHOULD be removed from his post. Acting all jaded and knowledgeable about how bad the system is doesn't really negate the fact that if it's broken it needs to be fixed. I would think that getting rid of people like this is an excellent first step.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 8:26 AM on July 26, 2011 [18 favorites]


Angola USA is a good documentary that includes footage of the inmate-led church services.
posted by infinitewindow at 8:39 AM on July 26, 2011


Just as a thought experiment:

Do you think the alacrity with which a Muslim warden of this caliber would be removed from his or her post would break the speed of sound?
posted by lydhre at 8:42 AM on July 26, 2011 [25 favorites]


Stay awhile and listen.
posted by clavdivs at 8:59 AM on July 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


Acting all jaded and knowledgeable about how bad the system is doesn't really negate the fact that if it's broken it needs to be fixed. I would think that getting rid of people like this is an excellent first step.

Actually, the first step is being able to ask someone (in an official position) to get rid of people like this. The second step is being taken seriously when asking. Unfortunately, in the US, we are so far away from step one that we are focusing finding out what is really happening and we're having trouble with that. Some people act jaded for a reason.
posted by fuq at 9:16 AM on July 26, 2011


Corrections is big business across the nation, but nowhere more so than in Louisiana, which has the highest incarceration rate in the world, keeping 1 in 55 adults behind bars.
posted by Mister Fabulous at 9:17 AM on July 26, 2011


Once again we're seeing reality that looks more like something you'd expect to see from a very blatant, very bad, bit of propaganda by liberals. I can't imagine how to make Burl Cain, and sheesh even the name seems propagandistic, more of a caricature of everything wrong with the prison system in America than he has turned himself into.

A tiny village of hereditary wardens called "freemen" where prisoners who are good get to be personal servants? Really?

Even ignoring the religious angle completely, and wow is the religious angle vile and blatantly anti-American, the whole thing seems so obscenely corrupt and wrong I can't even imagine how it's possible for anyone to see it as normal or right.

@lydhre: I'm betting any Muslim warden (assuming such a thing were possible) who tried forcing his religion on inmates would probably wind up assassinated or lynched by Tea Party types in less than a week.
posted by sotonohito at 9:30 AM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


2. This attitude is unhelpful; assuming these allegations are true, this man SHOULD be removed from his post. Acting all jaded and knowledgeable about how bad the system is doesn't really negate the fact that if it's broken it needs to be fixed. I would think that getting rid of people like this is an excellent first step.

Fair point. I humbly retract my earlier snark.
posted by stenseng at 9:31 AM on July 26, 2011 [3 favorites]


This prison used to be absolutely terrible. The worst. Murders daily. Then Burl Cain came. Things are better now. Before you think about "tearing down" the Bible college, the Catholic parish on the grounds, etc., please consider why those "walls" were built.
posted by resurrexit at 9:35 AM on July 26, 2011


According to the article, things were improving at Angola long before Burl Cain. I think at least one answer to your question is "profit."
posted by stenseng at 9:47 AM on July 26, 2011 [3 favorites]


@resurrexit: "please consider why those "walls" were built."

They were built in an attempt to coerce prisoners to join a religion. Therefore, yeah, full power to the bulldozers and a lifetime ban from ever holding any government power for the would be theocrats who built them seems appropriate.

As for the prison and it's prior problems? Stop putting obscene numbers of people in prison forever and we won't have those problems. 1 in 55 people in Louisiana is in prison. That's the problem. The problem isn't that those prisoners need to be forced to be Christian, the problem is that far too many are being put in prison.
posted by sotonohito at 9:50 AM on July 26, 2011 [6 favorites]


Fair point. I humbly retract my earlier snark.
posted by stenseng at 12:31 PM on July 26 [+] [!]


Aw, thanks! You said that really gracefully and now I wish I'd been a little less sarcastic.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 9:53 AM on July 26, 2011 [3 favorites]


This prison used to be absolutely terrible. The worst. Murders daily. Then Burl Cain came. Things are better now. Before you think about "tearing down" the Bible college, the Catholic parish on the grounds, etc., please consider why those "walls" were built.

So, resurrexit, if torture and state-enforced religion reduce crimes, they are acceptable?

Pro tip: no one is suggesting that the reasonable alternative to state-enforced religion is to release all prisoners immediately into the population.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:54 AM on July 26, 2011


"What we have hee-yah....is a failyah... to venerate!"
posted by CynicalKnight at 10:02 AM on July 26, 2011


@ Mrs. Pterodactyl - no worries. I've had enough experience inside prisons in a professional capacity to know what awful, dehumanizing places they are - even the best and most enlightened of them. Our prison industrial complex is a goddamned sin and crime far greater than anything most of these folks have done (drugs drugs drugs.)

I hate it, I'm against it, and I shouldn't be flip about it. Further, if you've never been inside a prison, just visiting or no, you have no. idea. how palpable the sense of your loss of freedom is for the time you're in. I can't imagine that experience without the relief of knowing I'd be out of there again within a few hours.
posted by stenseng at 10:23 AM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


Wow. Earlier today I'd looked at the Foreign Policy magazine slideshow on Norway's most secure prison and... the contrast is jaw-dropping. You have to deal with some tired jokes from FP's caption-writers, but the humanist outlook of the prison is incredible. (And poignantly appropriate for the shooter Breivik who may well find himself there.)

Inmates share common kitchens and living rooms. Some common areas are designated as places where both inmates and guards can meet and mingle – or, you know, just hang out.

Guards don't carry guns and are encouraged to be outgoing and friendly toward the inmates – they eat together and play sports in mixed teams to create a sense of family, according to officials.

By comparison, this story about Angola is making me feel sick to my stomach.
posted by fraula at 10:44 AM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


"I felt him go to hell as I held his hand. Then the thought came over me: I just killed that man. I said nothing to him about his soul. I didn't give him a chance to get right with God. What does God think of me? I decided that night I would never again put someone to death without telling him about his soul and about Jesus."

Some people would choose that time to speak out against the death penalty, seeing a person die by their own hand. Or you could just preach to those on death row. Sure, that could also work to bring you some peace.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:53 AM on July 26, 2011


stenseng: "Fair point. I humbly retract my earlier snark."

Thank you.
posted by zarq at 10:55 AM on July 26, 2011


resurrexit: "This prison used to be absolutely terrible. The worst. Murders daily. Then Burl Cain came. Things are better now. Before you think about "tearing down" the Bible college, the Catholic parish on the grounds, etc., please consider why those "walls" were built."

This is what the article says: Page 5.
In fact, there is considerable evidence that the turnaround at Angola began two decades before Cain became warden, in the 1970s, when a prisoner lawsuit forced the facility into federal oversight and a series of reforms began. According to Burk Foster, a professor of criminal justice at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan and the leading historian of Angola, by the mid-1980s Angola was already the most secure prison in the South. Prison violence is down dramatically across the country; the prison murder rate has fallen more than 90 percent (PDF) nationwide in the last three decades.

Yet the legend of Cain persists—and not just because Cain and his team (the formidable Cathy Fontenot included) are so skilled at PR. Cain does a job that no one else much wants to do, dealing with a group of people that no one else much wants to think about. Rather than face that reality, most of us prefer to believe in a miracle.

posted by zarq at 11:01 AM on July 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


I've represented people in Angola. Favoring inmates based on whether they practice the warden's particular strain of Christianity is not at the top of the list of problems at Angola or at many prisons. Favoritism based on race or religion is pretty endemic. The "trusty" system operates at every prison I'm familiar with. To some extent, this article just gives a little window on what prison in the United States really is like.

I had a juvenile on death row at Angola and he was told he couldn't have any books or work on his GED at his own expense during his 11-year stay because he "came there to die, not to read." (He was eventually released after the Supreme Court outlawed the death penalty against juvenile offenders.) We had problems getting access to our clients to effectively represent them due to unconstitutional restrictions. Other clients (not at Angola) have more pressing problems like not getting killed because gangs effectively rule the prison, which is run by for-profit corporations looking to cut corners.

This is not to say that Burl Cain isn't misguided, just that what the article is talking about represents the tip of the iceberg at Angola and elsewhere.
posted by *s at 11:08 AM on July 26, 2011 [16 favorites]


...jars of inmate-made jelly...

No thanks, I brought lunch from home.
posted by Splunge at 11:10 AM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


"There was a psshpssh from the machine, and then he was gone," Cain recalled. "I felt him go to hell as I held his hand. Then the thought came over me: I just killed that man. I said nothing to him about his soul. I didn't give him a chance to get right with God. What does God think of me?

Actually, He's probably pretty pissed that you just killed a dude.

Seriously. What kind of crazypants interpretation of Christianity says that it's okay to kill people as long as you evangelize them first?

Also. 1 in 55 adults in Louisiana are incarcerated? I don't even.....

...and they participate in gladiatorial matches for the public....

Seriously. Are we the bad guys?

On the other hand, there are occasional glimmers of things that Cain seems to do right. But there's a whole lot of wrong alongside it. The author of this article is being far too charitable.
posted by schmod at 11:24 AM on July 26, 2011


Inmates share common kitchens and living rooms. Some common areas are designated as places where both inmates and guards can meet and mingle – or, you know, just hang out.

Guards don't carry guns and are encouraged to be outgoing and friendly toward the inmates – they eat together and play sports in mixed teams to create a sense of family, according to officials.


If you're up for reading an entire book on this subject, Harsh Justice by James Q. Whitman is pretty good. A big part of his argument is that in Europe, through the early part of the 20th century, they had a two tiered justice system with high class offenders being imprisoned in very nice prisons (fortress prisons like Landsberg in Germany.) The result was that when they abolished the distinction between upper and lower class prisoners, they had a model for a more humane prison.

Oh, and as an aside, I would be shocked to learn that any prison guards in the United States carry guns, except ones in guard towers or patrolling the outside of the prison. Carrying guns in the prison(AKA arming inmates) is a bad idea.

posted by Bulgaroktonos at 11:34 AM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


Seriously. What kind of crazypants interpretation of Christianity says that it's okay to kill people as long as you evangelize them first?


That was Church Canon Law from the time of Constantine till the present day.
posted by ocschwar at 11:51 AM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


Sounds like good ol' Thought Reform.
posted by P.o.B. at 12:08 PM on July 26, 2011


resurrexit, did you read the part where he denied a Catholic inmate access to Mass?

Cain's brand of Christianity, in contrast, serves in large part as an instrument of control—and the warden has little patience for those who don't get with his program, including other Christians. In 2009, the ACLU of Louisiana filed suit [32] on behalf of Donald Lee Leger Jr., a practicing Catholic who had sought to take Mass while on death row. He alleged that Cain had TV screens outside his cell turned up full blast and tuned to Baptist Sunday services. Prison officials destroyed a plastic rosary sent to Leger from a nearby diocese. When Leger continued to file grievances requesting Mass, he was moved to a tier of ill-behaved inmates and finally put in the hole for 10 days.
posted by katemonster at 1:01 PM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


I did, I even read the linked complaint (used to be a law clerk in Louisiana, so reading inmates' complaints takes me back--even though this one wasn't in pencil or filled with alien stories). The guy's on death row, so he's not going anywhere except those little cages where they have flat basketballs for one hour a day. Non-death row Catholics there don't have a problem--might have been that this guy was a jerk, or something. Maybe they thought he'd hang himself with his Rosary? I can't say.

And look, to everyone, I wasn't defending Burl Cain or his methods. It's just that Angola, as *s noted above, has so many other problems. And if some poor bastard's about to get stabbed, would you rob him of the last-second defense of 'Please, Leroy, 'member what we lernt in Bible study 'bout killin'!'?

For my part, I would not, and I hesitate to jump all over the Warden just because Mother Jones, that disinterested observer of the evangelical Christian version of the supernatural, implies, based on the allegations of prisoners, those neutral assayers of all things correctional, that he's a Very Bad Man.
posted by resurrexit at 2:44 PM on July 26, 2011


The Christianity angle was a non-starter, my rage and my sorrow welled up from the throw-away statistics:

Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the world.
1 in 55 adults are behind bars.
Three-quarters of the prisoner population is black.
At least 90 percent of Angola's prisoners will die there.
In Louisiana 1 percent of the corrections budget goes to rehabilitation.

I believe that if you were to strip away all the money making ventures: the crops, the rodeo, the animal husbandry, the toy and coffin manufacturing, and the state had the whole financial burden of feeding and housing the prisoners, there would be more of an incentive to rehabilitate and to shorten the ever-lengthening prison sentences.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 3:24 PM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


On the one hand, prison farms in the South seem horrible. They turn prisoners into money-makers which removes any incentive to reduce the prison population, and they look a lot like slave plantations. On the other hand, I once had a bag of prison farm grits from the South Carolina prison that were absolutely the best grits I've ever tasted. I think, on balance, the farm should be eliminated, but, damn, those were some outstanding grits.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 4:16 PM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


Reading that article has made me quite nauseous. Not the christianity angle, just the awful facts of a big prison farm run by a tin-pot little dictator. This is basically slavery. And blatant corruption. It's just extraordinary that this is considered OK, this is normalised, simply because they're prisoners.

And life sentence for bank robbery, WTF?

Gladiatorial sport (the rodeo)?

Evil stuff.
posted by wilful at 4:54 PM on July 26, 2011


I was really disappointed with the moronic Foreign Policy article. Where's the debate as to effectiveness and total net societal cost of the Norwegian prison versus the US style approach. A life cycle analysis would be interesting I think.

Oh, and I ♥ Norway!
posted by wilful at 5:13 PM on July 26, 2011


*s, I'm interesting in learning a little more about this, if you don't mind sharing: The "trusty" system operates at every prison I'm familiar with.

My grandfather worked to help end this system at Parchman and other Mississippi prisons, and I was under the impression that it was abolished in all US prisons in 1972 with Gates v. Collier. That's not correct? The trusty system is supremely abusive and learning that it is still in place is surprising and upsetting.
posted by Houstonian at 5:15 AM on July 27, 2011


Although the trusty system has been formally abolished, it continues in a less formal and systematic way. I practice in Texas, which still had the trusty system long after Collier, and there are still pretty rampant issues in that respect. The inmates are not permitted to administer physical punishment to other inmates, but the regulation of prisons continues to be a serious problem in Texas and elsewhere, even after the trusty system was held unconstitutional. The ACLU probably has more information about prison abuse and the de facto trusty system post-Collier. They've done some good work in this area.
posted by *s at 7:10 AM on July 27, 2011


Dispatch From Angola: Faith-Based Slavery in a Louisiana Prison
posted by homunculus at 12:01 PM on August 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


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