While atheist billboards sprout roadside between Louisiana and Pensacola, Florida, drivers on Interstate 10 in Lafayette are confronted with one touting Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola Warden Burl Cain as a gubernatorial candidate.
This is definitely a case of different strokes for different folks. Indeed, nonbelievers should be especially careful not to wind up doing time on The Farm, which Cain runs, as one former inmate put it, “with a Bible in one hand and a sword in the other.” If push comes to shove, it will be the good book that gets dropped.
The godless coalition behind the Gulf Coast billboards seeks to assure passing nonbelievers that they are “not alone” and avers goodness is achievable without religion. Cain, on the other hand, famously believes that God is the key to “moral rehabilitation” and evidently has no patience with doubters.
The wise convict will therefore resist the temptation to engage the warden in metaphysical debate and just say amen.
It has to be admitted that Cain’s methods appear to have worked since he assumed control 20 years ago of America’s biggest maximum-security prison. Angola had long been rated America’s worst prison too, and, because most of its 6,300 inmates will never get out, running it always will bear some resemblance to sitting on a powder keg. Under Cain, Angola keeps humming along, however.
With nameless fans urging him to parlay that administrative feat into a run for governor, Cain says he is contemplating the possibility, while, of course, praying on it.
There are certain similarities between running a penitentiary and a state. Wardens and governors are both lords of all they survey, and Cain would not be overawed by his new powers. Quite the contrary; he might chafe under checks and balances. “What we have here is a failure to communicate,” he’d tell recalcitrant legislators. Imagine the frustration when he found out he couldn’t put them in solitary.
Although a career in corrections might not seem the most obvious preparation for the executive branch, there is a precedent from the Prohibition era. Henry Fuqua, appointed warden of Angola in 1916, was drafted to run for governor in 1924 when the third-place finisher in the primary was Huey Long. That was the only time Long lost an election.
Fuqua described himself as a “theoretical prohibitionist,” according to the book “Louisiana Governors — Rulers, Rascals and Reformers” by Walter Cowan and Jack McGuire. That presumably meant he did not practice what he preached, but Fuqua won the runoff over one Hewitt Bouanchaud, who suffered what was in those days the insuperable handicap of being a Catholic.
Fuqua had more going for him than his Protestant faith. He had proved an enlightened warden, abolishing the striped convict uniform and replacing professional screws with trusties. The prison farm began to earn a profit under his administration.
As governor, he followed through on a campaign promise to rein in the Klan and gave us the law that bans public masking save on Mardi Gras. He did not have time to do much more because he died after two years in office, when he was not quite 61.
Cain will be 73 before Bobby Jindal’s time is up, which would make him the oldest man elected governor in Louisiana. He also boasts far and away the largest paunch of any likely candidate. Impolite though it might otherwise be to mention that, the physical condition of a gubernatorial candidate is always a legitimate consideration.
But that is only one factor that might condemn Cain to a minor role in a campaign. He clearly knows much more about executions than he knows about the executive branch, and he could be the least politically experienced Republican candidate in the field. The views of a turnkey on such live controversies as Common Core will not carry much weight, and the savvy old pros could make mincemeat of him on the stump.
Still, he does have some entertaining notions. A federal judge has ordered air conditioning installed on death row, where temperatures have reached 192 degrees, according to a lawsuit filed on behalf of three inmates. Cain does not wish to comply, and an appeal is pending, but he doesn’t regard death row temperatures as excessive, claiming other parts of Angola are hotter.
Sounds like hell.
James Gill’s email address is email@example.com.