Burl Cain says he turned around the wild Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola after he reluctantly became its warden in 1995.
There was “blood everywhere” in the fabled penitentiary when he arrived, he told a crowd at Michigan’s Calvin College in 2010. In remarks honed for a lecture circuit that brought him to places as distant as the United Arab Emirates, Cain recounted how each of the previous wardens was so overmatched by the murders, suicides and escapes that they were fired after just a few years on the job.
Cain has repeated similar claims in a series of televised farewell speeches he’s given as he prepares to retire Jan. 1 after 21 years reigning over the state’s largest lockup — an exit he made clear he wasn’t ready to make, though he is 73. His departure follows revelations in The Advocate that he had apparently violated state correctional rules by getting involved in business deals with relatives and friends of inmates.
Cain’s stump speech, versions of which he has given in innumerable inspirational talks around the world, largely credits the long-serving warden’s aggressive promotion of spirituality inside Angola with the maximum-security prison’s transformation. But a review of the historical record and interviews with several experts on the prison make clear that Cain misrepresented the facts — and at times lied outright — in his telling of the Angola story. A couple of examples: Only one of the five wardens preceding him was fired; and the Angola Museum is not the most-visited museum in Louisiana, as he told WBRZ-TV.
But his boldest claim has to do with the prison’s bloody reputation. Counting, perhaps, on the public’s fuzzy memory, Cain has distorted the timeline of Angola’s violence, which was brought under control in the late 1970s and early 1980s, according to experts and contemporaneous accounts — more than a decade before Cain arrived.
In his talks, Cain says the place he inherited was one of unchecked mayhem. In doing so, he has helped build a legend that goes largely unquestioned in the national and international prison reform arena, where he is a celebrity.
Cain did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
America’s most famous jailer
Cain may be the nation’s most well-known personality in corrections. “His name (recognition), if you compare him to any other warden in the U.S., would be off-the-charts high,” said Marc Levin, policy director for the national criminal justice reform group Right on Crime.
Levin says what makes Cain remarkable in the criminal justice world is his professed commitment to rehabilitating inmates, including lifers, who make up the majority of Angola’s 6,300 offenders. During his two-decade tenure, Cain has overseen the expansion of vocational and quality-of-life programs. His tenure included the expansion of a hospice center for ailing offenders and a system of more humane inmate burials, with caskets carried in horse-drawn carriages and graves marked with prisoners’ names.
Angola historian Burk Foster said Cain deserves real credit for fostering a sense of community and for operating on a belief that lifers can do something meaningful with their time in prison.
Perhaps the most direct way Cain has encouraged what he calls “moral rehabilitation” is through the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary branch at Angola, which was established just after Cain arrived, offering inmates two-year associate degrees in pastoral ministries and four-year bachelor’s diplomas in theology.
“The word that jumps out at me is ‘dignity,’ even in death. I think that is the philosophy that comes through Burl,” said Patrick Nolan, director of the Center for Criminal Justice Reform at the American Conservative Union Foundation. A former California legislator, Nolan spent 26 months in federal prison in the mid-1990s for accepting an unlawful campaign contribution and has become a leading advocate for prison reform since then.
“I think most wardens ... they almost look at the inmates as ‘untermenschen,’ ” he said, using the German word for inferior people. “Not human, scum, not worthy of dignity and respect.”
Nolan said the story he’d come to believe about Cain was that he was an agronomist without a corrections background hired because officials, who couldn’t find a suitable warden for Angola, figured the prison needed someone who could run it like a farm. (Angola is nicknamed “the farm” because of its vast agricultural operation using inmate labor).
But, like much of the accepted history of Cain, Nolan’s version isn’t quite right. Cain started his corrections career in 1976 as assistant secretary for the Office of Agribusiness — the predecessor of Prison Enterprises, a state agency that monetizes products inmates make. After that, he served as warden of the medium-security Dixon Correctional Institute for 14 years before being appointed to run Angola.
Cain didn’t invent inmate enrichment. College courses for inmates and programs such as the radio station, automotive shop, newsmagazine and others existed at Angola when he arrived.
And his advancements in those areas wouldn’t have been possible if not for years of progress spearheaded by previous wardens over two decades of federal oversight starting in the mid-1970s, said Foster, the Angola historian.
The penitentiary’s brutal reputation stems not from Cain’s early years but from the late 1960s and early 1970s, when rifle-carrying inmates acted as guards, offenders orchestrated homosexual slavery and knife killings were fairly common, Foster said. Ross Maggio, who later served two stints as warden and worked as a court-appointed observer after that, said that between 1972 and 1975, there were approximately 350 “serious stabbings” at the prison and roughly 40 inmates were slain.
In 1975, U.S. Middle District Court Judge E. Gordon West wrote in an order that conditions at Angola would “shock the conscience of any right-thinking person.”
By Cain’s time in the mid-1990s, those horrors were long gone, said outgoing Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, who visited Angola regularly as a clerk from 1979 to 1981 under Frank Polozola, a former magistrate judge in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana. Polozola, after he became a federal district court judge in 1980, continued to enforce the federal oversight of the prison that started in the mid-1970s and supervised a consent decree at Angola tied to lawsuits about prison conditions from 1983 until 1998.
“(The violence) had stemmed considerably,” said Dardenne, who will serve as commissioner of administration in Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards’ administration. “By the time I was a clerk, there was still, I’m sure, acts of violence — in fact, I know there were. But it was not the kind of problem that led to the court having jurisdiction over the prison.”
Under Polozola’s watch, officials from every state prison were required to file monthly “roll up reports” — summaries of every incident at the prison, including assaults, escapes, escape attempts, suicides, suicide attempts and so on, said Keith Nordyke, the lawyer appointed by Polozola to represent inmates.
Angola officials in 2013 told The New York Times that in 1990, there had been 280 assaults by inmates against staff members and 1,107 inmate-on-inmate assaults. By 2012, they said, those numbers had dropped to 55 assaults on staff and 316 between inmates.
But juxtaposing data from 1990, which fell during the strict reporting requirements of the consent decree, with numbers from 2012, when Angola was long free from federal oversight, likely produced a false comparison, said Nordyke, who now represents inmates in parole hearings and contracts with the Department of Public Safety and Corrections and LSU.
John Whitley, who served as Angola’s warden from 1990 to 1995, said one example of the shift in reporting requirements can be seen in the number of escapes. During his time, if an inmate tried to run but didn’t make it off Angola’s 18,000 acres, it was still counted as an escape, he said. Many, if not most, escapees never succeeded in getting off the prison’s grounds.
Cain acknowledged in a 1999 Advocate article that, sometime after he arrived, he changed the definition of escapes “for reporting purposes.” That year, the first escape from death row occurred when four inmates sawed open a steel cage over the course of weeks, prompting an outcry and calls for an investigation into how Angola’s security dipped so low since the improvements of the consent decree.
“For somebody to cut their way out of death row, I can’t for the life of me see how that would go unnoticed,” said former state Sen. Donald Cravins, D-Lafayette, at the time.
According to Cain, “because the men did not get off the 18,000 acres of prison property,” the incident was not an “escape” but an “escape attempt,” as he told The Advocate in 1999. Later that year, a group of inmates took four officers hostage and murdered a guard, Capt. David Knapps.
At the time, Cain was living 34 miles away from Angola — unlike all previous wardens, who were required to stay in a designated house on prison grounds to keep close tabs on security issues. Cain declared the residence too decrepit to live in and refused to move in; after about a decade as Angola’s warden, he had a new house built for himself on the grounds.
Department of Public Safety and Corrections spokeswoman Pam Laborde said escapes are defined as a breach of the last security barrier at a facility, but the policy now allows for inmates who hop two fences without making it off the 18,000 acres to be counted as escapees (some of Angola’s boundaries have no fence). The agency doesn’t keep statistics on escape attempts, she said. Definitions and regulations on violence at state prisons continually change, she said, adding that how the department categorized something 20 years ago may be different from how it’s done today.
Laborde provided statistics Wednesday showing that inmate-on-inmate assaults with weapons at Angola dropped from 321 in 1995 to 123 in 2005 to 95 last year. Visitors at Angola found with drug contraband spiked from four in 1995, when Cain arrived, to 68 in 2000. Last year, that number fell to six.
Those familiar with the place take issue with Cain’s contention that he took over a prison in disarray.
“I don’t perceive Angola to have been a violent place in my early ’90s experience,” Nordyke said. “Whitley gave me free access to Angola — I mean 24 hours a day — during my period as class counsel. And I can’t imagine a head warden doing that if he thought I was going to go down to a dormitory and get stabbed.”
Experts say the turning point in security came under Maggio, who famously survived an escape and murder attempt by two inmates who kidnapped him and his mother on Angola’s grounds when he was warden. In that 1982 event, Maggio crashed the pickup he was forced to drive, hopped out and fired a gun snatched from a nearby guard, killing one offender. The other inmate was shot and injured by another corrections officer.
Maggio, who served as warden from 1976 to 1978 and again from 1981 to 1984, added a total of about 1,000 guards by the time he left pursuant to federal orders, he said.
Maggio said he also put more inmates to work, observing that when violence was at its peak, too many offenders were allowed to idle. His average inmate was about 26 years old then, he said. Today, the average inmate in the Department of Public Safety and Corrections is 36, and among lifers, 45.
The graying of the prison may be a big factor in its relative peacefulness.
“As guys mature, they age out of crime,” said Nordyke, citing research he’s helped conduct at LSU showing the average age for those who commit new crimes plummets after 40.
Older inmates in prison are granted moral authority by younger offenders, Nordyke said. “With the longer-term inmates, the increased age, they’re just not gonna tolerate a bunch of youngsters running around being stupid,” he said.
Maggio was nicknamed “Boss Ross” for his no-nonsense style, one shared by other wardens, including Frank Blackburn and Whitley. It was under Whitley that Angola got its first accreditation by the American Correctional Association, in 1993.
“If it had been the bloodiest prison in the nation, it wouldn’t have been accredited,” Maggio said.
The only warden to be fired among the five before Cain was Hilton Butler, who was left the agency in 1989 after he slackened security protocols and was found to be operating a cockfighting ring at Angola using inmate labor. Butler’s history is also more complicated than a straightforward firing, as he initially resigned, changed his mind about that resignation and then was fired. After an appeal of his firing to the state Civil Service Commission, the agency concluded because Butler initially resigned, he voluntarily left his position.
Whitley and Maggio were both later appointed by Polozola to help aid in the federal court supervision of the prison.
Cain’s next steps
Cain acknowledged reports by The Advocate about his side business dealings prompted his resignation, just before the newspaper published a longer account of his entrepreneurial past — a history that has attracted law enforcement investigations for a large portion of his time at Angola.
Cain says that pattern proves he’s honest. “Everybody in the world investigated us,” he told WBRZ-TV, and no one ever filed charges against him — thus he never engaged in any wrongdoing.
This month, the state Inspector General’s Office and State Police announced a new criminal probe involving Cain tied to payroll records. They have not said what allegations they are exploring.
Meanwhile, an internal review by the Corrections Department into Cain’s real estate deals with family and friends of inmates has been completed, but agency officials told The Advocate it is not a public document and they have declined to provide the newspaper a copy.
Follow Maya Lau on Twitter, @mayalau.
Editor’s note: This article was edited after publication to clarify the circumstances surrounding the termination of Hilton Butler.