Prison Warden’s Human Touch Yields Big Rewards

Total Criminal Defense has reported in recent weeks on some of the problems currently plaguing the United States’ criminal justice system. Some of the biggest of those problems – like prison crowding and recidivism – may be eased as the recently passed Second Chance Act takes effect and funnels more resources to rehabilitating offenders.

The Second Chance Act has gained support from diverse areas because it marks a shift in how the nation regards and handles criminal offenders. According to, Burl Cain, warden of Angola prison in Louisiana, has taken a similarly innovative approach to his inmates – and has seen incredible results.

Louisiana criminal defense law is strict: its “life means life” policy translates to dying in prison for those offenders who are handed a life sentence for their crimes. Because Angola reportedly houses almost entirely “lifers” (71% of its population is in for life; the remaining prisoners have an average sentence of 91 years), the prison has traditionally been a hotbed for gang activity and prisoner violence.

In the 1930s, guards apparently gave prisoners thousands of floggings; in the 1950s, a number of inmates cut their Achilles tendons to protest their brutal treatment; as late as the 1970s, gangs ruled the cells and dozens were killed in a span of three years. Once dubbed America’s bloodiest prison, Cain’s policies have evidently transformed Angola into the country’s safest.

Since becoming Angola’s warden in 1995, sources indicate that Cain has established a number of incentive programs and introduced a strong Christian flavor to the prison. Today, the facility has a reported six chapels, a Baptist Bible college that trains inmates as ministers, the nation’s only federally licensed prison radio station and an award-winning newspaper.

Perhaps one most noteworthy program Cain has started is the biannual prison rodeo, which attracts thousands of community members and features inmates competing in rodeo competitions, selling food and crafts and otherwise peacefully interacting with members of the outside world.

According to the Times, Cain views this rodeo as one of the prison’s most important events, and not only because it offers the inmates a chance to earn money, gain respect and have fun (as long as they’ve earned participation rights through good behavior). Cain apparently hopes that showcasing the inmates’ progress and innovation to the non-prison community will help sway public opinion in Louisiana toward voting to relax the “life means life” laws.

And it seems Cain is serious about his goals: his next step is to encourage families of his inmates’ victims to interact with the prisoners as well, establish relationships with them and see how far they’ve come since they committed their crimes. With victims’ families behind him, Cain evidently thinks he’ll have a better chance of convincing legislators to ease the state’s incarceration laws.

The lesson here is one that the nation seems to be learning from bursting prisons that aren’t translating to significant decreases in crime rates: treating criminals like humans is often more productive than removing them from society and stripping them of normalcy.