ALEXANDRIA, La. (BP)–Razor wire in neatly stacked rows welcomes guests and inmates alike to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Guests wait at the entrance until an unseen guard — somewhere inside the building — observes you through a closed-circuit camera.
Next, a buzzer sounds and you hear the raspy scrape of a lock turning. You enter the first section, close the gate and wait for the scenario to play out again before walking to the entrance of the locked brick building.
This is the prison’s death row.
Inside the building, there is a central control room with cellblocks feeding outward in every direction. Every leg of the cellblock has a thick, locked, steel door at its entrance. The metallic clanging of doors and cells reverberating through the halls is a constant reminder to the men of their isolation.
Apart from legal intervention, the inmates on death row are going nowhere else in this life but the graveyard. Most have lost contact with family members, even if they’ve been on death row for only a few years. It is a place of separation and judgment.
There is no air conditioning in each cellblock — only fans to circulate the humid, hot, south Louisiana swamp air. Death row is a place of constant tension and punishment for those found guilty of the most heinous of crimes.
Walking down death row, you see that some men are asleep, while others — wearing headphones — are watching televisions that are mounted on exterior hallway walls. The prisoners leave their cells for two hours a day — one hour of human interaction with the 16 or so men on their cellblock and another hour in a highly secure outdoor facility. The inmates spend the other 22 hours of the day in isolation.
Never have I been to a place where the stark difference between eternal life and eternal death is so evident. For those who have surrendered their lives to Jesus, there is joy and peace. For those who do not know Jesus, there is only the hope of an earthly judge overturning their sentence.
One of the new Christians I met was baptized in the walkway in front of his cell. As he shared about his new life in Christ, he sounded like an evangelist. The Word of God fell easily from his lips as he overflowed with the Truth so fresh and new to him. God had radically changed him, and he was desperately trying to express his love for Christ. Jesus set him free — even though the prison system will hold him captive until his execution or natural death.
The contrast of those who know Jesus and those who don’t is overwhelming. Without Jesus, there is spiritual darkness, disease and death. With Jesus, there is freedom, hope, joy and an excitement about how God will use their remaining days for His glory.
The Bible says we are all under a death sentence apart from the Christ, whether we are incarcerated or not. Jesus explained to Nicodemus why people are under this sentence (John 3:17-21). First, we are found guilty because we do not believe in Jesus. Second, we are guilty because we love the darkness; our deeds are evil. Finally, we are guilty because we hate the Light — meaning Jesus.
Jesus described the difference in the lives of those who love Him versus those who do not. Those who are evil hate the Light because Jesus will expose their deeds for what they are. The people who love Jesus run to the Light so the Father can be glorified and exposed as the one who changed the deeds of a sinner into the deeds of a saint. The change is magnificent.
Angola is home to men who are radically saved and men who are radically lost. I pray the people of God on the “outside” will reflect the transforming power of the cross with the same intensity and fervor as the people of God found inside the corridors of death row. No matter where you reside, when Jesus changes you, the contrast is dramatic.
Keith Manuel is an evangelism associate on the Louisiana Baptist Convention’s evangelism & church growth team.