The 5,108 permanent residents of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, are murderers, kingpins, and sex offenders. The Christian Science Monitor says that many of these black sheep of society lead shadow lives as artists, newspaper editors, country singers, and, five times a year, stars of a prison rodeo and arts-and-crafts fair. About 1,000 inmates are the beneficiaries of Warden Burl Cain’s faith-based system of earned privileges that, has turned Angola from one of history’s meanest lockups into one of the most peaceable high-security prisons. It’s a feat all the more remarkable, experts say, because ninety percent of its inmates will never leave this razor-fenced bend in the Mississippi River.
“The warden puts purposes out there for prisoners to attach themselves to, and that’s what you need,” says Angola “lifer” Lane Nelson of the Angolite, the prison newsmagazine. “Most prisons always operate on hope, and when you start having sentencing reforms, you start taking away a lot of hope,” says Prof. Larry Sullivan of John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Angola’s system of “manufactured hope” – epitomized by its rodeo – provides a blueprint for achieving at least a balm for increasingly restive prison populations, if not always rehabilitation. “Many prison problems are just growing, so it is nice to see trends like this where correctional officials are looking at new ways of providing a safe and secure place for prisoners. That also has potential to give prisoners real opportunities to be productive,” says Jody Kent of the ACLU National Prison Project.