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Wednesday, 2 October, 2002, 10:29 GMT 11:29 UK
US prison rehabilitation through faith
Angola prison
There are 5,108 inmates in Angola prison

More and more people are being put behind bars in America.

The total now stands at over two million and compared proportionally it puts the US well above other developed countries.

Louisiana in the deep south has one of the highest prison populations in the country.

Its penitentiary, Angola, was once known as the most violent jail in America with inmates given little chance of rehabilitation.

map of Louisiana
Louisiana has one of the highest prison populations in the US
Now though the prison authorities say it has been transformed.

Angola's head warden, Burl Cain, who has been in charge since 1995, says he focuses on putting prisoners to work in the fields and instilling a sense of right and wrong through 'faith-based' initiatives.

"You should say that we are going to keep people in prison until they are not going to hurt us. And then we're going to let them go. We need to teach morality in prison. We can teach them to read and write and we make smarter criminals unless we put the morality in. That's what we do here."

New skills

But critics say very few prisoners undergo true rehabilitation at Angola.

Bob Roberts, who runs a New Orleans project to help ex-prisoners back into society, says the emphasis at Angola is misplaced.

He argues that rehabilitation means teaching inmates employable skills which would help them in the world outside.

St Augustine Church
St Augustine Church is on the prison grounds
"At Angola there's not much sense in talking about what skills can be learned, because ninety-five percent of the prisoners in Angola don't learn any skills at all. That's very true for most of the prisons in this state."

Joseph Hayes has spent a total of thirty-four years in Angola for convictions of murder and drug-dealing.

Now released and back in his home city of New Orleans, he says he received little rehabilitation during his time at the penitentiary.

Life sentences

"I came out with the same attitude I went in. No job skills. Nothing new for me but to go back to the same thing that I did when I went in.

Rehabilitation is an individual salvation

Prentice Robinson, inmate
At Angola they should try to educate them. All they do is just take them and throw them into the field. A lot of guys could not even read their names or nothing."

But other prisoners say they have benefited from the approach adopted by Warden Cain.

Prentice Robinson is serving a life sentence for rape. He has little chance of parole and has been in Angola for three decades.

Point Lookout cemetery
The cemetery at Angola is maintained by prisoners
But in the last year he has graduated with a degree in theology and become an ordained Baptist minister. He says those who fail to get involved in rehabilitation are those who don't want to learn.

"I believe rehabilitation is an individual salvation. The prison can put it there, but if that person, if their mindset is not geared towards doing the right thing, then rehabilitation is lost to them because they don't care."

The average sentence for prisoners in Angola is eighty-eight years, so life in prison is the grim reality for most of the more than five thousand inmates there.

These high numbers are accounted for partly because of America's high crime rate, but also because the country is much tougher on offenders than other western countries, particularly when it comes to the prosecution of drug-related crimes.

See also:

26 Aug 02 | Americas
15 Aug 02 | Americas
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