Capitalizing on his notoriety and success from decades as Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola's warden, Burl Cain has started a nonprofit aimed at implementing more seminary colleges in prisons across the globe, a mission that's sent him jet-setting around the nation and world.
Cain founded the Global Prison Seminaries Foundation not long after retiring in 2016, a departure that came amid questions about his business dealings as Angola's warden.
The nonprofit foundation's purpose is to continue to promote Cain's philosophy that the "moral rehabilitation" of offenders through accredited seminary colleges can reduce violence inside even the worst prisons, mirroring what he considers his most significant achievement at Angola.
Burl Cain says he turned around the wild Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola after he reluctantly became its warden in 1995.
"We think the revival for the country will come from the prison," Cain said. "These guys are getting out of prison, and if we change them in prison to be moral people, they go back to the community as moral people."
In 1995, Cain brought the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary into Angola, giving inmates at Louisiana's maximum security prison the opportunity to earn a bachelor's degree and then teach fellow inmates. The program still operates at Angola, where dozens of inmates have obtained degrees and are in a position to teach courses and spread the gospel.
Cain credits implementation of the seminary with improving the environment at Angola, increasing safety for prisoners and encouraging moral behavior.
"Corrections means correct deviant behavior," Cain said. "I took that really serious. ... If I can get morality in the prison, I can change it. So to do that, I founded the seminary."
For years, Cain touted his philosophy from within the gates of Angola, hosting evangelicals, corrections officials and tourists from around the world.
But with his ties now severed to the prison, he has dedicated his time to try replicating that system elsewhere. In the last two years, Cain has traveled from Michigan to New Mexico, Brazil and the Dominican Republic to counsel and advise other corrections leaders to follow in his footsteps.
"Seminaries and moral rehabilitation can occur anywhere," Cain said. "So we didn’t hold ourselves back to just here. It depends on whatever door ever opens."
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Cain said there are three key components he and members of his team — which includes former Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women Warden Kristi Miller — look for when starting a new prison seminary program.
They need a department of corrections willing to make systemic changes, the former Angola warden said, as wall as an interested and accredited seminary college and private, sustainable funding.
Cain said he did not spend public money on Angola's seminary college and that must remain part of the struture because of the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state. He sees it as another positive that "there’s no tax dollars in any of these programs."
Cain said his model targets long-term prisoners for the seminary training so that, upon completion, officials can then use them as teachers, mentors and leaders in that prison or in other state facilities.
"We want him to stay in prison long enough to give it back," Cain said. "It’s more bang for the donor’s buck.”
He said he recommends graduated inmates enter new facilities in groups of four, which he described as the appropriate team size to best change the culture together.
"We're investing in that inmate and equipping them with skills to use in their environment," said Miller. "But the second level is then they're able to minister to their peers in a way free people can't."
Calvin Sutphin, the president of Catalyst Ministries, which runs a seminary in the maximum security Mount Olive Correctional Complex in West Virginia, said he was able to start the seminary there with Cain's guidance. Though their relationship began while Cain was still working at Angola, Sutphin said, Cain continues to answer questions and share expertise and will still visit to check on how they are doing.
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"Burl's been like a mentor for me here in West Virginia," Sutphin said. "He's been a resource for whatever question may have popped up."
Sutphin said they have tailored the program to their state, pivoting from Cain's model slightly, as the vast majority of their prisoners, unlike Angola, already have release dates. At Angola, almost all of the prisoners are serving life sentences. Sutphin said West Virginia has adjusted the program to provide some shorter-term courses for its offenders, besides just the four-year seminary.
Cain said they have found success in many states, including West Virginia and Michigan, and he is hopeful other states he's spent time in, such as Illinois and New Mexico, will launch their seminaries soon.
Still, not every place Cain has visited has been able to adopt his programming.
He pulled out of a facility in Brazil because it could not secure local funding, and Cain said he didn't believe it would be sustainable to rely on funding sources from outside the South American country.
As was the case with his prior work, Cain said he has secured private donations that pay the salaries of both him and Miller, as well as a secretary's salary, and their travel fees. He said the nonprofit will sometimes pay for experts to join them on trips. He declined to identify contributors to his foundation but said the nonprofit's board approves all spending.
While Cain is cognizant he left Angola amid controversy over his business dealings, he points out he was never convicted of any wrongdoing.
“I’ve changed nothing," Cain said. "I’m still me, doing exactly what I did at Angola."
And that alone is how Cain has continued what he calls his newest mission.
“Everybody knows me in the country, everybody knows about the seminary, and everybody knows about Angola," Cain said.
University of North Florida criminology and criminal justice professor Michael Hallett, who studied Angola for three years under Cain's leadership and published a book called "The Angola Prison Seminary," has no doubt Cain's notoriety can sell his process. But he questions whether he will be able to replicate the success he had at Angola elsewhere.
"I think what he’s doing is noble, but I don’t think he’s going to succeed because states around the country are very reluctant to allow inmates to run their own churches," Hallett said, noting that in Texas, it's actually against the law. "It's unlikely to succeed because most states are not like Angola; Angola is a totally unique prison — sadly."
Even before Cain took over as warden at Angola, Hallett said, there was already a long tradition of inmate-run churches there, going back at least 100 years. That presented a solid foundation for the seminary that's almost unheard of elsewhere, he said.
Hallett said his his research found that violence at Angola had been declining for years under Cain prior to the implementation of the seminary.
Hallett also said he has concerns about the expansion of more faith-based programming in prisons, calling it "a form of prison privatization," which simply allows states to continue to not provide adequate funding for prisons.
Cain said he supports nondenominational worship and is willing to work with any religious denomination interested in working with prison. However, his nonprofit's website lists their mission "to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ through a proven method of prison reform called the Prison Seminary Model."
Billy McConnell, the managing director of LaSalle Corrections, which runs private prisons in northern Louisiana and Texas, said Cain's mission of providing more programming for offenders is always a positive, though he noted it does mean more work for the prison's staff.
"I feel like anything you can do to try to increase the inmates' knowledge of God’s purpose in their life ... it's helpful," McConnell said.
Miller, who said she jumped at the opportunity to work with Cain spreading the prison seminary model, said she believes this nonprofit will be her "greatest work."
"I love it. Investing in the inmates, leaving a lasting legacy ... to know that families are going to healed, lives are going to be changed," Miller said. "It's an investment that will far outlive me."