It is 5:30 in the morning and we are on
a bus leaving the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.
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.
“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
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.
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
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?
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.