NEW ORLEANS (BP)–It was just after midnight when Warden Burl Cain of Angola (La.) State Penitentiary found himself alone in the death chamber with Thomas Ward. Without a word, he lifted his hand and gave a “thumbs down” signal to the executioner.
A lethal drug dose was administered and six minutes later Ward was dead. It was Cain’s first execution.
Immediately, Cain began to regret the signal he used to initiate the execution. His uneasiness grew much deeper. He felt guilty because he never found out Ward’s spiritual condition that night or before.
That was eight years ago, only three months after he became the warden of Louisiana’s only maximum-security prison. It started a renewal in the life of Cain, a Southern Baptist layman, and a transformation in one of the nation’s toughest prisons. It also involved a step of faith on the part of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
After Ward’s death, the advice Cain’s Christian mother had given him 14 years earlier when he first became the warden of another prison echoed in his heart.
“She said, ‘God’s going to hold you accountable for those people’s souls,'” Cain recounted during a Founder’s Day address at NOBTS on Oct. 1. “She said, ‘You’re going to be responsible for what they do, how they live, how they are treated, what they eat and what they wear, but don’t forget God’s going to hold you accountable for their souls.'”
The day after the execution, the troubled Cain visited his pastor. With his pastor’s help and God’s forgiveness, he was able to move past the guilt of his first execution.
“I prayed and asked God to forgive me,” the warden said. “I said it will never be that way again. I will never lead a man in there that I don’t try to be sure his soul is saved.”
All too soon that opportunity arose. Long before the night of his second execution to oversee, Cain witnessed to Antonio James. To Cain’s surprise, James had become a Christian before he committed his crime. The convicted man had strayed away from God and ran with the wrong crowd. Ultimately, he had robbed and killed a tourist in the French Quarter of New Orleans.
During his time in prison, James renewed his relationship with God. Still, he was worried about what would happen the night of his death. How could he know that he would go to heaven? He asked Cain.
The warden took time to share the story of the “thief on the cross” who called out to Jesus. He helped James get a sense of assurance about his salvation and what would happen after he died. Cain agreed to honor the inmate’s request to hold his hand while he died.
When execution night rolled around, Cain prayed with the inmate, members of his staff, and the Secretary of the Department of Corrections. They led James into the room, strapped him to the table and began setting up the system.
They ran into a problem and during the 20 minutes it took to get James ready, the inmate willingly helped in the process. James was calm as he faced his punishment.
“I gave the signal with the nod of my head, and I held his hand,” Cain recalled. “He looked me in the eyes and said, ‘Bless you.’ I told him to get ready to see Jesus’ face. And he died.”
This execution was totally different than the first, Cain recounted. Cain knew James’ spiritual condition. He even ministered to him as he died. The two contrasting execution experiences became what Cain calls his “spiritual awakening” at Angola.
Nearly a year after Cain became warden at Angola, education at the prison had become a problem. Angola had lost its Pell Grants, and Cain could not see a solution.
A missionary from Louisiana’s Judson Baptist Association suggested that he approach New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary about offering training opportunities for the Christian inmates. Though Cain doubted NOBTS would be interested in coming to Angola, he asked anyway. To his surprise, the seminary was eager to get involved.
NOBTS began by offering an associate degree in ministry. Now in its seventh year, a bachelor’s degree is offered at the Angola extension center. NOBTS conferred 59 degrees at the third Angola graduation ceremony, held in the dining hall at the prison on May 28.
It is an unconventional way to train ministers, because few of these inmates will ever leave the state prison system, said Chuck Kelley, president of NOBTS, explaining how the inmates in this program minister for Christ.
“[Angola] prison is divided into several different camps and as our graduates finish the program they are sent to different camps,” he said. “They literally have a ‘cell church movement.’ They are starting churches at Angola.”
There are now 44 inmate ministers averaging 18,000-20,000 ministry contacts per month, the Judson Baptist Association reports.
“It is the most phenomenal ministry that has ever happened, to my knowledge, in any theological institution,” Kelley said. “It all happened because of the courage and compassion of a Baptist layman with a vision.”
Cain can hardly believe the change it has made in his prison. Eighty-five men accepted Christ through the work of the NOBTS students during the past year. Currently, he estimates that there are nearly 2,000 Christians in the prison. Without a doubt, Angola has become a different place.
“Angola is more peaceful than New Orleans … no one can believe that, but it really is true,” Cain stated. “God reigns at Angola.”
Recently, graduates of the NOBTS Angola extension have been sent to other prisons in Louisiana as missionaries. Christian inmates at Angola work hard to support these missionary inmates as they spread the gospel to other prisons.
Though some might think Cain is soft, that is not the case. Inmates under his care are held responsible for their actions. Eighty-five percent of the men who walk through the gates of Angola will never leave.
Like Jesus who ate with “sinners and tax collectors,” Cain said he knows that the inmates are not out of the reach of God’s grace, that even the hardest criminal can be saved and changed by the blood of Jesus Christ.
“We can’t look at what they did, we have to look at what they are now and what their future is,” the warden said.
He also remembers the victims. “The greatest problem the inmates have when they become Christians is how to tell their victims they are sorry. That’s our next challenge.”
Cain said that in his 22 years as a prison warden, he has seen only one way for rehabilitation — a change of heart. He regrets the fact that it takes the deaths of so many innocent victims for some to turn to God, but he is happy the men are turning to God.
“I want to express my appreciation to this seminary, the Southern Baptist Convention and the Louisiana Baptist Convention for what you have do to change people’s lives,” Cain said. “Remember, if we can change one life … if we save one, it’s worth it all.”
In a few weeks, the warden will travel to Chicago to meet with religious leaders and corrections officials from other states to tell what has happened at Angola. It is his hope and prayer that this vision will catch on at other prisons and many will be changed by the gospel.
The warden shared the story of the unlikely partnership between the seminary and Angola Prison as a part of the Founder’s Day celebration at NOBTS. The annual event marks the founding of the seminary in 1917 and highlights an important aspect of the school’s history.
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: CAIN IS ABLE.