The Mark of Cain

Angola, La. — The New York Times last week blasted the growing number of Christian programs in prisons. Imagine convicts being told that God can heal them if they "turn from their sinful past"! Who knows how evangelism could affect the lives of prisoners already burdened by life sentences?

At this maximum-security Louisiana State Penitentiary, 5,100 prisoners and their guards know. The number of weapon-wielding assaults by one inmate on another declined from 321 in 1995, the year evangelism-friendly Burl Cain became warden, to 97 last year. The number of rapes, attempted escapes, suicides and inmate assaults on guards is also way down.

Convict Eugene Tanniehill, who came to Angola 51 years ago on a life sentence at age 20, remembers when it was known as "America’s worst prison" and "the bloodiest prison in the South." Inmates used to sleep with magazines under their T-shirts to deflect nighttime knife attacks. Now Tanniehill says, "God is in this place" and "men have new hope."

One reason for new hope is the degree program offered in the prison by New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. More than 100 prisoners are currently enrolled. More than 400 have received associate or bachelor’s degrees in Christian ministry over the past decade. About 75 now serve as chaplains to other inmates. Their influence is obvious: Two out of five prisoners call themselves born-again Christians.

Yes, the Times should investigate the nefarious influence of Warden Cain, a short, stocky Southern Baptist who encourages Christian efforts and says, "Only the Lord Almighty makes a prison safer." Cain admits that he holds the hands of prisoners condemned to die as they receive lethal injections and have their last 90 seconds of consciousness. He tells of Feltus Taylor, executed on June 6, 2000, who had become a Christian and said he was sorry about his crime; Cain was able to tell him that the family of his victim had forgiven him.

The Times might feel obliged to mention some scandal-weakening facts. Sure, Christians are paying for the Bible training programs. Sure, Cain says it would be fine for Muslims or those of other religions also to set up programs, "as long as they’re willing to pay for it. Let them all compete to catch the most fish. I’ll stand on the bank and watch." And Cain also relays the last words of Leslie Martin, who had become a Buddhist and was executed on May 10, 2002: "Tell my lawyers they’re fired."

But the story could emphasize how Christian prisoners have already gained an upsetting amount of influence. For example, prisoners run their own radio station, KLSP, 91.7, the "Incarceration Station," and use it for evangelism by broadcasting uplifting music and sermons. KLSP expanded in 2001 when Chuck Colson and others raised $120,000 for modern radio equipment. Should such donations be allowed?

And what about the new chapels built on prison grounds through private contributions, including a $200,000 donation from Franklin Graham? Muslims, Scientologists and atheists have not contributed to set up their mosques or meeting halls, so shouldn’t the government fund ones for them? The Graham-funded chapel even has a cross on top, and Cain said, "If someone wants to make something of it, that’s fine — it will get us a lot of publicity for the good we’re doing." The gall!

Yes, nail Cain with the Graham connection, or find a scandal involving one of the prison industries, coffin-making. Most of the coffins are for prison use — "two funerals a month," Cain says, "that’s just about the only way out of here" — but orders for prisoner-made coffins came recently from Billy and Ruth Graham: Their coffins were scheduled for pickup last week. Too bad, though, that the coffins are plain wooden boxes, nothing fancy. Doesn’t seem scandalous enough. Well, we’ll find something else.