Louisiana State Penitentiary, a.k.a. Angola, is America’s largest maximum-security prison, housing over 6,300 inmates in five separate complexes on 18,000 acres of a working prison farm. Cellblock and dormitory units are still called “camps,” a holdover from the time when the grounds of the prison were still a plantation, where slaves were assigned to various work camps. The plantation became known as “Angola” after the part of Africa that supplied its slaves. The name stuck. As a prison serving the jurisdiction with the world’s highest incarceration rate, Angola is a potent reminder of the connection between slavery, Jim Crow, and what people now call “the new Jim Crow.”
To be banished to Angola—even in 2017—means to experience a civic death like no other. Because of Louisiana’s draconian sentencing laws, prisoners at Angola have few options for gaining early release and little incentive to change themselves in any deep way. Today, 90 percent of those incarcerated at Angola end up dying there, and it is not uncommon for inmates to die alone, their funerals presided over by the prison’s unique inmate-minister program, with no family present. Having lost all meaningful contact with family members and friends and facing a lifetime of incarceration, many inmates report losing hope.
Some turn to one of the few resources left to prisoners at Angola: personal religious faith. Angola is the only prison in America that allows inmates to run their own churches—a practice with roots in the prison’s history as a plantation, where slaves organized their own churches. These inmates’ religious communities were expanded in the aftermath of a 1974 federal consent decree, which found that conditions at the prison “shocked the conscience of any right-thinking person.” From then on, prisoners were encouraged to turn what had been described as “inmate-led religious clubs” into active “churches.” And so they did, forming Baptist, Pentecostal, Catholic, Methodist, and other Christian worship communities—collectively referred to as the “Angola Church.” The size of these communities at Angola mirrors almost exactly the percentages of Baptists, Pentecostals, and Catholics in surrounding Louisiana. Adherents of other faiths, including a small contingent of Muslim inmates, also openly practice at the prison.
In 1994 the federal government revoked Pell Grant eligibility for convicted felons, denying college funding to millions of prisoners. Burl Cain, the warden of Angola, felt that the elimination of this resource was uniquely harmful to Angola. Educational programming was among the few incentives for good behavior available at his prison. With few other options, Cain reached out to friends connected to the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (NOBTS) to explore the possibility of providing some minimal collegiate-level course work as a gift to the prison. NOBTS administrators say they were reluctant at first. How would they pay for it? They pointed out that the guiding mission of NOBTS is to “equip local churches” with ministers, not offer degree programs for students unaffiliated with active congregations. Once they learned about Angola’s inmate-run churches, however, NOBTS decided that educating prisoners might fall within its mission after all. A prison seminary could produce graduates equipped to staff the isolated Angola Church directly.
Angola’s inmate ministers are now deployed throughout the prison—leading churches, working as hospice orderlies, visiting those on death row, delivering family-death notifications to fellow inmates, conducting inmate funerals, and counseling the bereaved. They also serve as seminary tutors and literacy coaches. Governed by a personalist ethic of what they call “relationship theology,” Angola’s inmate ministers serve the prison by focusing on interpersonal relationships. Inmate congregations “tithe” back to the prison with toiletries, shoes and clothing, small monetary gifts, and stationery. These contributions are reserved for the poorest inmates at Angola. In 2015, 38 percent of Angola’s prisoners had less than five dollars in all personal accounts.