ANGOLA, LA.-The New York Times last week blasted the growing number of Christian programs in prisons. Imagine convicts being told that God can heal them if they "turn from their sinful past"! Who knows how evangelism could affect the lives of prisoners already burdened by life sentences?
At this maximum security Louisiana State Penitentiary along the banks of the Mississippi, prisoners and guards know. The number of weapon-wielding assaults by one inmate on another declined from 321 in 1995, the year evangelism-friendly Burl Cain became warden, to 97 last year. The number of rapes, attempted escapes, suicides, and inmate assaults on guards is also way down.
Convict Eugene Tanniehill, who came to Angola 51 years ago on a life sentence at age 20, remembers when Angola was known as "America's worst prison" and "the bloodiest prison in the South." Inmates used to sleep with magazines under their T-shirts to deflect nighttime knife attacks. Now Tanniehill says, "God is in this place" and "men have new hope."
One reason for new hope is the degree program offered in the prison by New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. More than 100 prisoners are currently enrolled. More than 400 have received associate or bachelor's degrees in Christian Ministry over the past decade. About 75 now serve as chaplains to other inmates. Their influence is obvious: Some 40 percent of the 5,100 prisoners call themselves born-again Christians.
"Jesus in jail," a Times reporter might sneer. He'd note the sign near Angola's main gate that spotlights teaching from chapter 3 of Philippians: Forget what's behind, press forth for the good that is ahead, and pray that God will reveal your faulty thinking and push you toward perfection. Obviously an unconstitutional sentiment.
Now that the Times is on the attack, it could also investigate the nefarious influence of Warden Cain, a short, stocky Southern Baptist who encourages Christian efforts and says, "Only the Lord Almighty makes a prison safer." Cain admits that he holds the hands of prisoners condemned to die as they receive lethal injections and have their last 90 seconds of consciousness. He tells of Taylor Feltus, executed on June 6, 2000, who had become a Christian and said he was sorry about his crime; Cain was able to tell him that the family of his victim had forgiven him.
Now, some exposé-weakening facts would have to be quickly noted. Sure, Christians are paying for the Bible training programs. Sure, Cain says it would be fine for Muslims or those of other religions also to set up programs, "as long as they're willing to pay for it. Let them all compete to catch the most fish. I'll stand on the bank and watch." And Cain also relays the last words of Martin Leslie, who had become a Buddhist and was executed on May 10, 2002: "Tell my lawyers they're fired."
But the story could emphasize how Christian prisoners have already gained an upsetting amount of influence. For example, prisoners run their own radio station, KSLP 91.7, the "Incarceration Station," and they use that for evangelism by broadcasting uplifting music and sermons. KSLP started in 1987 when Jimmy Swaggart gave inmates old equipment from his radio network, and expanded in 2001 when Chuck Colson and others raised $120,000 for modern radio equipment. Should such donations be allowed?
And what about the new chapels built on prison grounds through private contributions-yet Muslims, Scientologists, and atheists have not contributed to set up their mosques or meeting halls? Is that fair? Cain on Dec. 8 even showed off a chapel-with a cross on top!-just built with a $200,000 donation from Franklin Graham, who preached at the prison in April. Cain said, "If someone wants to make something of it, that's fine-it will get us a lot of publicity for the good we're doing." The gall!
Yes, nail him with the Graham connection, or find a scandal involving one of the prison industries, coffin-making. Most of the coffins are for prison use-"two funerals a month," Cain says, "that's just about the only way out of here"-but orders for prisoner-made coffins came recently from Billy and Ruth Graham: Their coffins were scheduled for pickup last week. Too bad, though, that the coffins are plain wood boxes, nothing fancy. Won't make much of an exposé. Well, we'll find something else.