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Turn to Jesus (Article)

Hope in a Maximum Security Prison
A testimony by Andy Oreffice.

It is 5:30 in the morning and we are on a bus leaving the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.
My mind is racing from what Kyle and I have experienced in the last 36 hours. Yes, we are leaving Angola, the largest maximum security prison in America with some 5,400 inmates, 95% of which will never leave this place. Angola, once the bloodiest prison in America, is now a place miraculously filled with faith, hope and love.

As much as the inmates appreciated our being there, it was our group who were the “students” and the inmates who were the “teachers.” Our act of mercy in visiting those in prison was spun on its head!

During our 36 hours in Angola, we heard formal testimonies from over a dozen inmates. Most had committed murder and were serving life sentences.  One had killed his wife.  Another had spent seven years on death row.  Still another had spent eleven years in lock down filled with rage. They were from many races and backgrounds, but they all had one thing in common.  They were now filled with a peace that only Christ can bring. They had turned their life to Christ to seek an internal freedom and thus become new men. They spoke more clearly and convincingly than those on the “outside,” and the fellowship among the faithful inmates was compelling.

At our Catholic Mass on Saturday morning, approximately 80 inmates attended.  When the time came to give the sign of peace, they did not meekly turn to their neighbor and shake hands.  Instead they toured the entire chapel, shaking every hand they could in offering the sign of peace.  I have had the privilege of attending Mass all over the world, and never have the words “let us offer one another a sign of peace” meant so much.

One Bad Decision

At a Protestant service later on Saturday morning, Kyle and I held hands in a circle and prayed and worshiped with three inmates. We hugged and exchanged stories. One of the inmates asked Kyle how old he was.  When Kyle said 15, the inmate said, “I thought so.  That’s how old I was when I committed my offense.”  He then proceeded to pray with our small group very directly and passionately that Kyle would “honor his mother and father” and appreciate the gift that he has in his father.  He prayed Kyle would know “right” from “wrong” and make good decisions.  It was a very powerful moment.  (This same inmate had given us a letter to share on our bus ride home asking for our groups’ prayers and letters, if we so desired.  I was elated to get his full name and contact information so I could keep in touch.)

So many of the inmates talked about making one “bad decision” and then ending up in Angola for the rest of their lives. If you ask the average person if there are “good” people or “bad” people in a maximum security prison, the common answer would be “bad” people.  But we learned on this mission weekend that people inside and outside these prison walls are “both.” We met some really “good” people at Angola who had made a bad decision -- a decision they would live with for the rest of their lives.

Are there “bad” people at Angola? Absolutely.  But Warden Cain knows how to deal with them.  He has implemented a moral rehabilitation program, through which, if an inmate wants to change his life and seek interior freedom, he can.  And they offer help through any style of religion a person could want. An inmate can even reach “trustee” status, living in dormitory style cells and have fairly independent jobs on the prison’s 18,000 acre farm.  But if they step out of line just once, they will be punished in lock down (not the same as solidarity confinement.)  This involves 23 hours a day in a cell. From this low point, there are stages of progression out.  A light at the end of the tunnel is always offered.  Some who are beyond rehabilitation will continue to reject help, and remain in lock down, separated from the rest.

We also saw people on death row, where it is always the 23-hour-a-day lock down.  The only way out of there is through the court system. We talked to the death row inmates. Kyle struck up a conversation with a young African-American man who had been on death row for 12 years.

And we also saw the death chamber, an experience beyond words…

Inmates Minister to Inmates

We visited the hospital and the hospice unit that Angola has created. Under Warden Cain, all prisoners are given the opportunity to die with dignity.  Amazingly, it is the inmates that make the program so special. Volunteer inmates serve hundreds of hours a month in the hospice program, outside their normal prison jobs. Many times they are ministering to their friends.

Some other remarkable things we saw were the inmates making furniture and crafts to sell at the
Angola Rodeo, which takes place every Sunday in October. It draws 15,000 people each day.  We walked among hundreds of inmates as they put the finishing touches on the thousands of items they have made for the event. They tell us it is the largest arts and crafts sale in Louisiana.

So what is my big “take away” from this weekend of visiting with and praying with inmates in this incredible place?   Before this weekend, I had never shaken a murderer’s hand, and now I have shaken hundreds.  But I experienced much more than that.

I witnessed pure faith.  In these prisoners, I saw people that had been stripped of everything, and in the silence, locked away with limited distractions, they were able to find Christ, and to help those around them find Christ.  I had to ask myself how we are able to find Him in the outside world, so full of distractions.  I resolve to persevere in my faith, staying close to Christ and bringing Him to others.

Responsibility of Fatherhood

I also witnessed the importance of fatherhood.  It was not in every testimonial I heard in the prison, but it was in the majority of them.  They had no “Dad” in their lives while growing up.  He was either not there at all, or he had left them.  The scars of this void remain with these men.  Who knows where they would be now had they had a father figure in their lives?

My role as a husband and father is my biggest responsibility, which I embrace and cherish.  This trip refocused me in a powerful way to be the best husband I can be for my wife Jamie and the very best father that I can be for my kids Kyle, Jillian, Lila and JP.  I am humbled by the task and pray for God’s strength to succeed in this role.

Finally, I pray this weekend has impacted Kyle, both as a person and on his faith journey.  It was an amazing opportunity for him.  As Father Peter told us before we left, “You can’t go to Angola and not forever be changed.” Amen.



Related links

Altius Foundation
Catholic World Mission
Helping Hands Medical Missions
St Rafael Guizar y Valencia Missionary Center

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