Thursday, August 4, 2011

Is There Faith Based Slavery At Angola Prison?

The Nation's editor has a somewhat critical look at Angola State Prison and it's famous Warden Cain. See Dispatch From Angola: Faith-Based Slavery in a Louisiana Prison

Now I will be the first to say that Cain is not pure as the driven snow, though he might think he is.

Also Angola is not exactly the wonderful well timed clock with the cuckoo bird that comes out every hour perfect prison operation or society that is so promoted to the public. I know enough not too fall for that.

However Cain makes it work to a large degree though the article is right to touch on perhaps his not so transparent rule out there.

The article suffers from some imperfections in my view. Cain might be a lot of things but any implication he might seem himself as some ole plantation master of old is pretty false. I feel I know enough about him to say that.

Also who are missing in this very race based themed piece. Well the black guards, the black counselors, the black administrators etc etc. Their viewpoint , even retired ones that are out of the system, would have been nice. Do they view this as "Faith Based" slavery that is demeaning?

A few other matters before we get to the RELIGION angle:

One of Cain’s favorite anecdotes is the execution of Antonio James, a born-again Christian whose hand he held just before giving the go-ahead to end his life. As James lay on the gurney waiting for lethal drugs to enter his veins, Cain said, “Antonio, the chariot is here…you are about to see Jesus.”

It would have been apt to mention at this moment that Cain , though he be must be part of the machinery of death , is not a supporter of state execution. Now in his job he can't be a vocal opponent but he is not shy about telling you he is against it. Every little bit helps if you oppose it.

Not far from Diggs, a covered pavilion stands with a long chain link fence running alongside it. On one side of the fence is a line of prisoners; their arts and crafts are displayed on tables on the opposite side. “These are the guys that are not yet trustees,” Fontenot explains as we walk briskly past.

Becoming a trustee means better work privileges, including the right to earn 20 cents an hour for their labor, rather than the starting 2 cent rate. Like “extended lockdown,” the trustee system is rooted in a less benevolent era. First established at Parchman Farm, the notorious plantation prison in Mississippi, “trustys” were convict guards chosen to keep their fellow inmates in line. At the top were “trusty shooters” who kept watch over men working the fields.

It should be pointed out that some of these people are of course not angels. IN fact these are worse of the worse.

Call it trusties or whatever you want but I suspect every penal system has a system like the above. That is you reward good conduct by giving responsibility, privileges , and work. That also does not only serve to maintain "control" but is essential in these men finding their essential human dignity and yes giving respect to that. Also lets be blunt ! this is also a inmate safety issue that is at play.

I have a hard time looking my nose down at Warden Cain when sadly prison rape still is a running joke or punchline to most Americans. So if he is encouraging a Faith community to lessen things like that well more power too him.

The Faith angle is huge in this story and is looked at like it was something dirty. My main concern is that as to Faith is it's voluntary and it's not the personal theology of Warden Cain being imposed. I have not heard complaints from the Diocese of Baton Rouge so I have no reason think that is happening.

There is no doubt a control element here. Heck in frontier societies of FREE PEOPLE the Church played a critical role in that which was needed.

However what is missing is the freedom this gives. This men have roles in their faith community, they sanction each other and encourage each other.

In effect we are talking about a community ( in much closer quarters than most) that holds each other accountable that does not come from the authority of the ever oppressive state that is around them. That happens in families and well for many this will be their family for life.

The issue of LIFE in Prison is a touchy one. In many ways it is a mixed bag. Even in the most conservative states lots of folks once they get on a jury don't want to give death. They pretty much know that in Louisiana LIFE IS LIFE, which the defense attorney at that stage of the proceeding is reminding the jury again and again.

However I will be the first to admit this situation is getting out of hand. But what to do? I have no easy answers. Do you release folks that you can assured will have families to take care of them? What do you do with a 70 year inmate that has been in since 20? No easy answers

So while there are some great arguments that these sentences should be looked at there is little doubt in my mind this has saved many a convict.

I do think the article is right to give us clues that again Warden Cain might not be as pure as he might like us to think he is . Don't get me started on "Prison Enterprises" and how it seems many wardens just happen to have some business associated with it.

The irony here is the FAITH issue the author explores sort of takes away from all these other issues. I have no doubt that Cain is sincere. I have no doubt he is a serious Christian that see a Christian Faith giving these men a Freedom that no cell can contain. Still though these wardens become like Feudal Lords at times and more transparency would be good.

But as to the other complaints. Warden Cain is not the Louisiana State legislature and I think in all honesty he has made the best of a bad situation into something good for many of the men there.

**NOTE I should note I have major problems with the solitary imprisonment case mentioned there. However the unspoken Gospel on how that shall be handled evermore run higher above Cain's head.

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