Guilty as Charged
What a trip to an event at one of America’s most well-known prisons taught me about God, faith, and being human.
by Erin Chewning
It seemed like the middle of nowhere—not a far stretch, considering the Louisiana State Penitentiary has its own ZIP code. Approaching slowly, we drove, and we drove, and we drove. It was as if the road leading up to the prison, nicknamed Angola, would take us clear to California, if only we’d be patient enough to let it. The vibrant landscape stretched beyond what my eyes could see, but even its serene splendor did nothing to answer my questions.
We were on our way to the famed Angola Prison Rodeo. Inmates, horses, bulls, and spectators all mixed together on the grounds of the nation’s largest maximum-security prison. Quite frankly, it seemed more than a little bizarre. Ever the skeptic, I remained uncertain as to what the day would hold.
Prison guards stood at the gate, checking the purses and bags of excited guests eager to enter the world of razor wire and guard towers. Though not typically associated with such a facility, the exuberance and anticipation were palpable. As I walked a small portion of the prison’s 18,000 acres, I observed the carnival-like atmosphere as the smell of deep-fried everything wafted past my nose. Chicken-on-a-stick, fried Snickers bars, jambalaya . . . any carnival concoction or Cajun creation I could think of was there.
Row after row of booths filled with handmade furniture, paintings, jewelry, and more—hobbycrafts, they call them—begged me to peruse their treasures. I found my toes tapping to the boisterous jazz tunes of an inmate band, and I couldn’t help but smile at the scores of families enjoying the outing. With rodeo programs and souvenir T-shirts available for purchase, everything was in place for a fun-filled day at the Angola rodeo, a nearly 50-year-old tradition.
The Angola rodeo takes place the third Saturday and Sunday in April and each Sunday in October. Crowds pack the 7,500-seat arena, preparing themselves for “the wildest show in the South.” Gates open hours before the rodeo begins, allowing plenty of time for attendees to shop at the hobbycraft fair and enjoy delicious food prepared by various inmate organizations.
I spent time walking with Susan, a prison employee, as she introduced me to inmates who were helping with the event. Each of them greeted me with a smile, a handshake, or a heartfelt “Thanks for coming!”
Time seemed to fly. Had it not been for guards patrolling the area, I might have forgotten the reality of the location.
Then Susan introduced me to George, a convicted murderer who had joined a program at Angola called Malachi Dads. The program’s chief aim is to equip Christian men to be godly fathers and break the cycle of incarceration. George had read, studied, and learned his way through the rigorous course, all the while having no children of his own. He now serves as the vice president for Angola’s chapter of Malachi Dads and finds himself asking, “God, what am I doing here [in this role]?” But our heavenly Father has been faithful to George, leading and guiding every step of the way.
His is a captivating story—one of grace, forgiveness, and redemption. Through him, God is changing the hearts of fathers behind bars. George is proof that the Lord uses unlikely people, in the most unlikely of places, to accomplish His will.
I talked with many more like him. Wayne, Peter, Danny, Gerald, Randy, and Ron shared their stories with me. These were men whose sins had been exposed for the world to see. Yet they were all followers of Jesus Christ. The sins that led to their imprisonment had been forgiven just as completely as the ones in my life, because all who believe are made clean by Christ’s blood.
Their punishment was deserved, but once these men were behind bars, society forgot they even existed. Some of them had wives and children; others had had successful careers. But each of them had a soul. These particular men had come to know and cherish Christ’s redemption on a level that I, in my church-infused world, had not. And for that, I envied them.
I was dumbfounded. Overwhelmed. In a place meant to confine men guilty of evil, there was light—brilliant, beautiful light. Assistant Warden Cathy Fontenot wasn’t kidding when she told me, “This prison is very, very unique.” She and I stood for a while beside the Percheron horses as an inmate prepared the magnificent creatures to enter the arena. “I’m always surprised,” she said. “This is a job where you just never know what to expect. You see the absolute best in people and the worst in people. And it’s life or death every day. But for the most part, you see improvement.”
The staff at Angola strives to maintain the dignity and humanity of each individual, something often forgotten once a person is convicted. Everyone there is better for it. The inmates are polite and respectful to the guards and to one another, and every voice is given the opportunity to be heard. “We created a new word called askable,” Warden Burl Cain told me. “If somebody asks you a question, you’ve got to give an answer. You can’t say, I don’t have time.”
When I asked Cain about his early years supervising what was once reknowned as America's most violent penitentiary, he said, “The biggest thing that surprised me was God. I didn’t know what I was doing, and I would pray for wisdom. God never talked to me, I didn’t think—till I came here. Then I realized God did talk to me; I just wasn’t listening. People say, ‘Y’all have changed Angola.’ We didn’t do nothing. God changed Angola. And if He can change [what was once a] horrible prison with the worst inmates in the whole country with the worst sentences, He can change any prison in this country—if they’ll just turn to Him.”
This prison is a pioneer among correctional facilities, but its leaders are not revolutionaries. It’s just that they’ve tapped into basic human values and are changing lives through kindness, mutual respect, and dignity.
As I explored, I began to wonder if it wasn’t a bit odd that I felt so comfortable walking the grounds of a prison once famed as the bloodiest in America. Was it not strange that I was so at ease talking with men incarcerated for rape, murder, and armed robbery? Somehow it wasn’t—not in the slightest.
As I finally made my way into the arena and to my seat, excited voices peppered the air around me. But as I sat on the cold metal bleachers, it was all I could do to compose myself. There were thousands of men at this facility. All of them had, at one point, heard the gavel slam and the guilty verdict pronounced. But I am no better than them. Sure, my life looks good; but working for a ministry, being involved in church, and having a good marriage didn’t make me one ounce holier than the men before me. My heart was broken by my own sin and judgmental ways. I too was guilty.
After an hour of watching inmates voluntarily participate in events like wild horse racing, bareback riding, and wild cow milking, I had caught rodeo fever. I found myself swept away by the fanfare of it all, and for the remaining time gasped, cheered, and clapped for the enthusiastic participants.
With the festivities over and throngs of people exiting the arena, I decided to stop by one last booth. There I met Mark, a man with quite a knack for jewelry making. As I pored over the rows of hand-carved bracelets, marveling at their intricacies, he brought over a few from another case to show off. Each time I commented on their beauty or his talent for the trade, a boyish smile crept across his face. He expressed appreciation for my purchase, and as I said goodbye and walked away, I began to wonder. I wondered a lot that day—about the questions I couldn’t ask, about the uniqueness of the situation, and about why, oh why, I had been so wrong.
Before making the trip to Angola, I thought I loved prisoners more than most. For one thing, my uncle has been incarcerated twice, and for a time my job involved responding to letters from inmates all over the country. I assumed my heart was in the right place, that I was one of the few who believed prisoners deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. Though I was right, I had regarded these men and women as a mission field rather than as my co-laborers for the gospel. 1 Corinthians 12:21 reminds us that, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’” The church needs fellowship, service, and communion with its members behind bars, and for the first time I understood this.
The men I had the privilege of speaking with that day were my brothers in Christ—men with whom I will someday share heaven’s eternal paradise—whose sins had been washed as clean as my own. Just as He is crafting my life’s tale, “the author and perfecter of faith” (Heb. 12:2) is scripting stories of beauty and truth for His children in prison.
And someday, when Christ calls all of us home, we’ll sit at the feet of our Savior together—entirely forgiven and whole.
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A New Hope: Take a journey deep inside the walls of Louisiana State Penitentiary, the maximum security prison known as in Angola. It once had the reputation of being the most violent prison in the country. Today, it's home to a one-of-a-kind seminary that equips Christian inmates for ministry—and even mission work in other correctional facilities.
(Courtesy of North America Mission Board and onmission.com)
Photo credit: The Angolite (an inmate publication of the Louisiana State Penitentiary).