By JAMES ELLIS - Tuesday, June 16, 2009
Burl Cain, 67, is warden of the tough Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as Angola. Some 90 per cent of inmates die while incarcerated, thanks to the length of their sentences. Since Cain became warden in 1995, violence among inmates is down 73 per cent.
Tell us about Angola.
If you come in the front gate, go to the left and drive all the way down to the Mississippi River, over the hills and back to the front gate, you would drive 22miles (35km). This prison is as big as Manhattan. I have 5,260 inmates and the only sentences we have are rape, murder, armed robbery and habitual ‘three strikes and you’re out’ felons. Some 3,700 of them are serving life, the average sentence for the others is 93 years. This is hardcore but since I’ve been here, violence has fallen by 73 per cent. It’s not down to me, though, it’s down to God and the Bible College we set up.
How tough was taking over?
I lived 30 miles away and I would drive past at speed as there was constant unrest, bloodshed and violence. I prayed to the good Lord to help me change it. I did not want this job: anyone who took it got fired after five years. I told them they had to pay me an enormous amount of money and they did. Then I said I would take it temporarily and they said fine. After I was here a while, I had an execution to do and I did it wrong. I did not have much concern for the man. After, I looked at him dead on the table and I said: ‘What have you done to this guy?’ It caused me a lot of grief. I talked to the preacher the next morning and I realised I could do it better, that I could still have compassion and, if it has to happen, it should be done with more dignity than I allowed that man. Then I thought about the victim of the crime he committed. If one who was released went out and committed a crime again, I would have failed and that drove me on. ‘Correction’ is to correct deviant behaviour, so if I could teach inmates to read and write and have a trade and a moral component, then someone could get out of jail and make a living.
Some 90 per cent of your inmates die in prison. Once ‘corrected’, why not let them back into society?
We probably should. Prison should be a place for predators, not dying old men. But you also still have to remember the victim, they drive the wagon. If they are afraid and believe someone is going to kill again, then that is not right. But that also means we should do a better job of inmate-victim reconciliation, which is what I’m trying to work on now.
How many executions have you presided over and does it get easier?
Six and no. Here’s the deal. It’s the law of the land and I just keep the key. If I did not do it, someone else would. You run a quagmire of confusion if you try to deal with it. You have to deal with the victims, they are here at the time of the execution and they want him dead. His family is here too and they love him and want a stay of execution. You go from one side talking to the victim’s family to talking to the inmate’s. It’s an emotional roller coaster and for your own sanity you have to remember it is the law that drives it and you follow the law.
You have been accused of sanctioning one religion over others?
I am looking for morality and you tend to find that in religion, so it doesn’t matter what religion you are so long as you are a moral person. What I want you to do is be good and not hurt someone if you do get out of jail again. I am a Christian but what someone else believes in is their business.
Your favourite prison movie – Cool Hand Luke or The Shawshank Redemption?
The warden in Cool Hand Luke reminds me of me. At one point he says: ‘We have a failure to communicate,’ and that often happens in prison. I can relate to that. We want to be good but don’t forget we are doing time as well. We spoke to Burl Cain while he was in Britain as a guest speaker of Winning Entrepreneurs. www.winentrepreneurs.com