We had the opportunity to visit the Louisiana State Penitentiary and it was a rare, life-changing experience. It is one of the most infamous penal institutions, once called "the bloodiest prison in America" due to the number of inmate assaults. It covers about 18,000 acres and is bounded on three sides by the Mississippi River; it is known by residents as "The Farm." It has over 5,000 inmates and 85% of them will die there.
Its history is among the most gruesome in the world, with a dark past that began before the Civil War. Initiated during the period of slavery, it is named after Angola, Africa. Their museum display cases are filled with crude weapons confiscated over the centuries that still testify to the desperate cries of its traumatic past.
It is a place that offers no second chances, a place where freedom is but a distant memory. There are inmates convicted of rape now serving 100-year sentences without opportunity for parole. There are over a dozen on "death row," clinging to the vain hope of a miracle. Some have been granted pardons that have remained unsigned by the governor for nine years. We had the opportunity to spend a brief time with most of them.
We visited the Death House, where the lethal injections are administered from time to time, and where the procedures are rehearsed to avoid any missteps when the occasions require. It was sobering to be confronted with realities that can be so academic when distant.
However, the current warden in charge is Mr. Burl Cain, a born-again Christian leader who, with his remarkable team, has made it a marvel enterprise studied by observers from all over the world. While running a no-nonsense, rigorous and secure program, he has restored human dignity within the system. He stands as a remarkable example of what one person can accomplish when truly committed.
About 1,600 of the 5,000 inmates are now professing Christians. It has a 200-student Bible college within its premises, as well as its own Christian radio station.
Many of the inmates, reconciled to their fate of completing their lives within its walls, have committed themselves to make the best of their predicament and to prepare for their eternal hope. They have built their own church buildings (boasting that their steeple is higher than the surrounding towers!)
Our visit was arranged by Manny Mill, who runs Koinonia House National Ministries, a prison ministry headquartered in Wheaton, Illinois. It is one of the unique ministries focused on helping bridge the transition of a Christian leaving prison for a new start. The problems a Christian ex-con faces are real, difficult, and include many truly unique challenges. The ministry establishes and supervises transitional homes organized for this purpose in three states and hopes to establish more. Manny's remarkable insights and commitment have received the endorsement of Chuck Colson, Pat Nolan, and others who are deeply committed to this type of ministry.
We are, of course, providing our own resource materials and encouragement to this unique enterprise. KHNM's website is www.koinoniahouse.org, and they welcome your inquiries.
There is a video, The Farm: Life Inside Angola Prison, which was nominated for the Best Documentary of 1998, winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival, and named the Best Documentary of 1998 by the National Society of Film Critics, the New York Film Critics Circle, and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.
You may have seen this documentary on television. It is the heart-wrenching story of six actual inmates. It is available through A & E Home Video (http://store.aetv.com and search for "The Farm") if you wish to learn more about Angola Prison.