Youth visit to infamous prison inspires faith

by: Tom Regan Updated:


More than two dozen members of a Roswell church, including many teenagers, made a pilgrimage to a notorious state prison farm nicknamed the "Alcatraz of the South."

The purpose of the trip to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola last weekend was to give mission goers the opportunity to witness the spiritual transformation of hardened criminals through devotion to their religious faith.

"In most of the cases I've seen, it has completely transformed them," St. Andrews Church member Mike Bagnulo said.

The Angola prison itself was transformed from one of the most brutal and bloody prisons in the country to a role model for incarceration. Built on a former slave plantation, it is the largest maximum security prison in America. It houses murderers, rapists and robbers, most of whom are sentenced to life. Eighty inmates sit on death row. Few inmates are paroled, and the majority will grow old and die at the facility. The prison's culture of violence among inmates and by guards began to change dramatically when a man named Burl Cain took the job of warden in 1995. A devout Christian, Cain built a Southern Baptist Bible college at the sprawling facility. Inmates can earn a bachelor's degree from a demanding four-year course that includes the study of Greek and Hebrew. So far, nearly 250 offenders have graduated. The graduates include 15 Muslims who minister to Islamic inmates. Religious services are available to Christians, Muslims, Jews and Mormons. A prison official said about 2,500 of the prison's 6,300 inmates attend services each week. 

There are two chapels inside the prison including "Our Lady of Guadalupe," the first Catholic chapel in a maximum security facility.  Completed last December, the adobe-style structure, which resembles the Alamo, was built by prisoners in 38 days. The inmates also made nearly all materials used in the construction, including pews, stained glass windows and painted murals. There also are restored statues recovered from Hurricane Katrina. During its visit, the group from St. Andrew Catholic Church attended Mass and prayed with inmates, including a former devil worshiper and murderer who now plays an active role in daily church services.

"A lot of these inmates are never going to see life outside of prison again. All the dreams of their early life are gone. It's amazing that they can find peace in the church, coming to God after all that they have done," 16 -year-old Nicholas Leach said.

Warden Cain's mission to reform the prison was to provide "moral rehabilitation" to offenders. Cursing by inmates and guards is forbidden. Inmates who violate rules are locked down, but those who stay in line live in minimum security dormitories and can earn "trustee" status that allows them freedom to do farm work and other chores outside the prison gates while getting paid. Inmates also are taught life skills and encouraged to pursue hobbies and volunteer for charitable work.

The visiting teens had the opportunity to tour several schools where inmates can gain certification as an auto mechanic, and learn about cultivating plants, woodworking and metal fabricating.  Inmates also build bicycles and wooden toys which are delivered to needy children.

"It's really different than what you would expect a prison to be," 16-year-old Matt Schantz said.

The group also was given a tour of death row, where group members spoke and in some cases prayed with inmates. Later, they visited a hospice where inmates provide care and companionship to their colleagues in their final months of life.  Deceased inmates, who are unclaimed, are provided a prison funeral and burial. A horsedrawn carriage built by inmates carries the coffin, also built by inmates, to a cemetery outside the prison gates.

"There was one inmate I talked to in the hospice unit who spoke about how great God was, despite his condition. I was impressed with all the inmates helping each other, caring for each other, all the hospice volunteers," Schantz said.

Warden Cain spoke with the Roswell church group about how he has strived to build a community inside the prison, where inmates are treated with decency and respect, and are expected to act in the same way. He said he wants offenders to be filled with faith and purpose, instead of rage and despair.

"The greatest enemy is lack of hope," Cain said.

During the visit to Angola, several inmates told the teens their life stories and described their crimes, including murder, which landed them in prison. They advised the teens to listen and obey their parents, follow their guidance, and practice their faith.  They said it is easy to be taken down the wrong road and make a mistake that can haunt them for the rest of their lives.

Gary Schantz, a deacon of St. Andrew who organized the trip and is a prison minister, said the journey to Angola touched hearts and left a lasting impression they will share with others.

"We learned about the never ending mercy, forgiveness and grace of God and Jesus Christ.  We were reminded of our blessings and witnessed in a remarkable way, how the Holy Spirit can change hearts, minds and lives. And, we carried out Christ's teachings not to forget the imprisoned," Schantz said.