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Freedom on death row

Joanna Jepson

As a mentor and life coach in a maximum security prison, Joanna Jepson has seen men initiated and transformed into the role models they once so sorely lacked. But does society have the vision to receive the gifts they offer?


At Angola Prison in Louisiana, USA, two major execution rehearsals are taking place. Out in the recreation area,  the crucifixion scene for the upcoming 'Life of Christ' play is putting its props to the test as inmate Bobby, playing Jesus, is hauled up onto one of three life size crosses.

And a little way off, in an unremarkable single-storey building, devoid of the familiar razor wire, another group of men gathers to walk through the execution by lethal injection that is set to take place the following week.

A correctional officer of the same height and weight as the condemned man becomes stand-in as the strap-down team times how long it takes to fasten him to the gurney and find a decent vein. 'I didn't like it,' murmurs the officer later, as he tells me how four of his colleagues held him down on the death table while assistant wardens checked logistics and asked practical questions.

Death is by its nature a lonely place and for both officer and inmate the experience of being so reviled - even as actors - subdues any small talk. Yet death permeates the very foundation and existence of this place.


Named after the birthplace of its first slaves, Angola was a plantation until it became a penitentiary in 1901, and is now the largest maximum security prison in the US. Home to 5,400 murderers, rapists and armed robbers, plus 86 inmates on death row, the average sentence is 93 years. These men expect to die here.

Within living memory that death would more than likely have come at the hands of a fellow-inmate armed with a crude homemade weapon. Men would sleep two in a bunk, splitting the night into two watchman shifts, such was the likelihood of murder in this the most bloody and violent prison in the USA. All that changed with the arrival of Warden Burl Cain in 1995.

A straight-talking, Southern-drawling boy in the body of a gentle, ambling grandfather with impish eyes and easy grin, Warden Cain is a legend not only among his charges but throughout the State of Louisiana and beyond. He follows a brisk succession of wardens, none of whom could keep the place together, yet in the 17 years since his arrival Cain has combined his simple Christian faith and outlandish vision with phenomenal results. His ethos is quite simply 'moral rehabilitation'.

'Criminals are selfish people, and religion is the quickest way to rehabilitate a selfish person.' He's relaxed about what religion they are - 'I don't care!' - but here in the Deep South, the Southern Baptist Union was an obvious first place to turn for help. Government grants for prison education had been scrapped so starting a Bible Seminary in the prison was one way to fill a dangerous void. 'Without moral change you're just educating them to become smarter criminals,' he says.


The justice department thought he was crazy but the SBU said yes and soon opened the Angola Extension Centre as part of its seminary - with startling results. Within months the violence had dropped by 73 per cent. Cain was not naive about the motivations of those signing up for the four year Bible course. 'Some of them just wanted to get out of work, some of them wanted to be there because it was air-conditioned,' he says. 'But they can't sit there for four years learning about Jesus Christ without a lot of them realising they got a calling to be pastors.'

Now these pastors are being sent out to other, medium-term, jails in Louisiana and across other Southern States. And the authorities are unable to deny the positive difference these men are making, not least to the levels of violence in surrounding jails.

In the Deep South, where a particular biblical slant prevails, it can be difficult to distinguish cultural habit and rhetoric from genuine conversion. I meet some who rolled out a neat religious patter - perhaps hoping to add some shine to their parole hearing, if they are lucky enough to get one. But I see a burgeoning core of men prepared to drop the act. They seem to me to have found a meaningful existence in serving their fellow inmates, with a compassion and authenticity that goes beyond superficial religious dogma.

It's not as if most of these men grew up without a strong Christian influence: many of them were involved as children in their church communities and spoke of the strong faith of their mother or grandmother.  However, true manhood had eluded a significant number - until prison woke them up. As Richard Rohr has observed, 'institutional religion commonly avoids true enlightenment, [which] feels too much like dying… Initiation is always training in dying.' 1


Rohr, a Franciscan priest and writer, is one of the few contemporary sages who has tracked the subversive path modern man must take to discover his authentic power. In Adam's Return, he shows it leads, paradoxically, in the direction of surrender - and the realisation of five core truths:

1) Life is hard

2) You are not that important

3) Your life is not about you

4) You are not in control

5) You are going to die. 2

It is evident from my conversations with the inmates that Rohr was right when he wrote: 'We are not a healthy culture for boys or men. Surely one reason is that we are no longer a culture of elders who know how to pass on wisdom, identity, and boundaries to the next generation. Someone has to give the young male boundaries and identity. He does not get them by himself or without guidance.' 3

Many of the inmates speak of their life 'in the hood' trying to establish themselves through incoherent and manipulative behaviour, looking to their elders in crime for validation. The prevailing impression is of brazen egos battling it out for notoriety no matter the depths of foolishness this required. The men describe their former selves with the gentle sorrow of a long-suffering father aching over the wayward wretchedness of a son.


As Ernest Becker writes in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Denial of Death, until men move into death and live the creative tension of being both limited and limitless, they never find their truth or power.4 Many of the inmates are living in that tension.

For just as old cultures drew men away into a liminal wilderness experience, life in Angola prison has faced them with the inevitability of their own death, and forced them to surrender their small plays for power and prestige to the reality of their limitedness.

With magnificent Mississippi swamps on three sides and the hostile Tunica hills to the north, some 18,000 acres provide the territory for this contemporary rite of passage. But with sentences of 90 years or more, there will be no re-entry into the free world. Instead, the authorities bestow trust and responsibility on those who have been proved - and a range of opportunities to serve.


If four years in Bible College does not appeal, the prison hospice offers others a different means to serve their fellow inmates. Volunteers wash the patients, change their dressings and often find themselves a buffer for the psycho-emotional eruptions of terminally ill inmates. When death draws near they work shifts to keep unbroken bedside vigil, ensuring that they do not die alone.

Late at night the volunteers may well be found stitching quilts embroidered with the patient's name and images of butterflies - the promise of freedom - as a gift to keep him warm and, eventually, to become a pall for his coffin. Mentored by experienced workers, the inmate volunteers undergo weeks of training which will expose them to fear and bravery  and the temptation to drop out. Here again the ancient way into the desert has been refashioned for a group of modern men who want to simply and boldly, as one volunteer put it, 'live out life with love'.

Shaheed, a recent graduate of the volunteer team, describes being at Angola as 'the best thing that could have happened to me. Like silver that needs to be refined and purified.' And though he will probably die here, he has given his patients the chance to live life with a different kind of freedom than the kind they were squandering back in the 'hood.


Shaheed is one of 15 men with whom I have worked as a personal coach. He and the other 14 lifers are mentors to 60 young men who have been sentenced to join Angola's pioneering Re-entry Programme. Here the crimes are mainly drug-related and recurring. Sentences range from two to eight years and it's a rigorous but hopeful existence.

Living in a large dormitory Shaheed and his fellow mentors become father-figures to their charges, available 24 hours a day, leading them at dawn in daily spiritual devotions and mantras - 'I am better than my worst mistake' - before sending them off to classes in welding, horticulture, cuisine, mechanics, or electronics.

Evenings are spent with them in a curriculum of life skills and cover everything from financial peace to literally pulling up one's trousers to give future employers a better impression. Most of the lads come in with a 4th Grade education. They leave with a General Education Certificate, a vocational qualification and, for most, the affirmation of having emerged into an authentic experience of their identity, gifts and power.


Originally invited to become a chaplain at Angola, I wrote to Warden Cain and asked instead to work as a coach with the men.  'We all live behind some kind of bars,' I wrote in my letter. 'For most of us those are emotional, spiritual and psychological … for your men they are also physical bars. Having a choice about how we're going to live - even behind prison walls - that is freedom.'

The evening I first met my group of 74 men I remembered Warden Cain's words that most of these guys had been victims of crime as well as being perpetrators. Freedom and forgiveness were a good place for me to start the conversation with them and, though I wasn't there to be part of the chaplaincy, on a basic human level everyone in the compound was grappling with what forgiveness means.

As Rohr writes, 'to forgive ourselves of everything is the deepest kind of death for the ego.' That first evening together I talked about my experience of having been a victim of crime, opening up the way for their experiences to surface too. We offered stories and varying examples of how unforgiveness reaped bitterness, resentment and diminished us in unforeseen ways.

For victims and perpetrators alike, forgiveness can be place we would rather not - or perhaps cannot - go. But the invitation remains. Many men at Angola have faced their own abyss, and been liberated in the deepest, hardest sense. 'Escaping wouldn't give me any kind of freedom,' remarks one lifer. 'Escaping would mean I'm still on the run, still trapped by the same thing that I was bound by 20 years ago.'


Yet the deeper, inner freedom of the men I meet has little chance to filter beyond the prison walls. Unlike the ancient indigenous rites of passage shared by young men across history, these inmates will not return to their tribe for the betterment, the strengthening, the stability of the community as a whole.

In contemporary USA, where political, social, and economic pressures are taking unprecedented toll particularly on young black men, it's a tragedy that the very men with the experience and story to speak credibly into that need are locked up until they die, without possibility of parole.

Statistically, children of imprisoned men are more than 70 per cent more likely to end up in prison themselves.5 But at Angola a contingent of inmate fathers has decided to try and change that statistic. The Malachi Dads is now an international programme, pioneered from Angola, to support fathers in prisons across the world.


It begins with a letter of apology from dad to his children, an apology for abandoning them by choosing crime over their responsibility to be there for them. Supporting each other, the Malachi Dads meet together weekly to share reflections from their spiritual and personal journals, and to encourage along the thorny path towards reconciliation with their estranged families.

The culmination of their efforts is Returning Hearts: one day a year on which all their children are invited to the prison for a fun day. A whole day for them to spend with their dads in prison eating pizza and ice-creams, playing games, having photos taken, beginning conversations, beginning relationship… and then the dismal grief as they say goodbye. The Returning Hearts day is as close as these dads and their kids will get to a healthy, functioning bond. Yet having turned their lives around through accountability, group work and commitment to serve, these are no longer the murderers, rapists and armed robbers who came into Angola. They should be back in free society, allowed to be the wise fathers, husbands, leaders and mentors that so many have become.

While the church in the USA laments the dearth of men, and the African-American community talks about crisis of commitment in husbands and fathers, there exists a short-sightedness in the vision of political leaders. They seem satisfied to watch Warden Cain's methods bear fruit but not to let the seeds of transformation return to the streets and communities where fear, shame and power-struggles allow entrenched patterns of violence to revolve.

I sit in on a visit by a New Orleans judge who wants to talk to the mentors about the kinds of offenders he needs to be sending to them to benefit from the Re-Entry Programme. This is perhaps the closest I see to the outside authorities recognising the vital power that these men possess in steering and inspiring vulnerable young men towards a truly integrated life.


On the face of it, the UK prison system seems a little more enlightened. The government's recent publication, Transforming Rehabilitation: A Strategy for Reform, proposes that twelve months statutory rehab for anyone leaving custody is necessary to allow a good foundation to be built.

However, this may lead to longer tariffs being handed down so that offenders can benefit from this new system. Critics claim it may even gather up some for whom a community sentence would have been more appropriate. And if contracts for prison management fall to private companies like Serco and G4S, can we be sure that humane rehabilitation will not fall victim to profiteering?

Politicians on both side of the pond can easily become hostage to a conservative public's appetite for long sentences, all done under the slogan of ensuring public safety. And there's no doubt that in the case of some inmates, the risks do indeed remain high. Many men refuse to take responsibility for their crimes. There were places in Angola where inmates were held in a cell behind a cell to keep them from throwing faeces as we walked past.

Yet this does not negate the vast evidence documenting the effectiveness of prison education and the purpose that it generates. I can't help feeling that ministers of justice might be inspired to shape creative and alternative proposals here in the UK if they could encounter some of the mentors I have met in Angola.

Society loses out when it writes off the rehabilitation former offenders can bring to the culture that engenders crime to begin with. Men and women in the West are increasingly noting the need for male mentors and elders. The capacity for truthfulness, and courageous surrender required of such leaders is not going to be plumbed from your average achievement-driven curriculum vitae.


Of course, amidst all I have encountered in Angola, it is the Death Row situation that is hardest to resolve. These men have killed deliberately, their victims often children or elderly, the methods sickening - even so, I have been shocked at my gut reaction that they deserved to die for their crimes. But revenge does not ultimately console.

In fact, one of the biggest problems is that Death Row is rarely the end of the line - more often a sort of limbo which puts inner change on hold. The political energy provoked by numerous appeals enables the men to enjoy a welcome degree of distraction provided by media, lawyers and supporters alike. It is telling that where a Death Row sentence is reduced to 'life' the inmate - no longer special - has to be put on suicide watch as he joins the rest of the lifers in the main prison camp.

In fact, by the time I leave Angola, that is the situation for the condemned man whose execution was being rehearsed when I arrived. He has won his appeal against death - for the time being.

The other execution prefigured on that first night goes ahead with gusto. Bobby takes to the stage - and the cross - to play Jesus in the Life of Christ play, and it's clear that there is nobody more suited to the part. He and his fellow actors are somehow iconic, their lines and scenes rehearsed by their very lives. They bring moving poignancy and life to the familiarity of the gospel story, perhaps because they have entered into a dimension of resurrection that eludes most of us.

In the midst of all its complicity with death, Angola prison has become for me a beacon. I have worked with the men for a month in person, five months by video link until my baby arrived - and I plan to return in due course. I will never forget those men who, having owned their crimes, are transforming the hopelessness of a life sentence into unsung fullness of life.



1  Rohr, R From Wild Man to Wise Man (St Anthony Messenger Press, 2005) p35

2  Rohr, R Adam's Return (Crossroad Publishing, 2004), pp32-33

3  ibid, see also

4  Becker, E. The Denial of Death, (Souvenir Press, 1973)

5  Texas Department of Criminal Justice, 2008