Strengthen hope in inmates
Burl Cain’s leadership practices call for respect and humane treatment of offenders
By Joe Serio
In the eight years I lived in the Soviet Union and later Russia, I frequently heard the phrase, “Hope Dies Last.” Maybe it’s a common anthem of long-suffering people in prison-like conditions. People in these circumstances need to comfort themselves any way possible as they struggle to make it to the end of their sentences, or, in the case of many Russians, their lives.
I thought about Russia and the universal nature of hope during the comments of legendary warden and corrections icon, Burl Cain, as he addressed the North American Association of Wardens and Superintendents (NAAWS) conference in Baton Rouge this week.
At the historic Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, Warden Cain’s philosophy rests in large part on hope, even at a prison where 93 percent of the inmates will never see the light of day. Cain’s philosophical side, though, is closely tied to his practical side: The need for order and calm is paramount in the prison setting.
Considering both the philosophical and practical elements, Cain endeavors to create a win-win situation for all concerned.
Cain credits the creation of a branch of the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary inside the walls of Angola with bringing a stronger inmate spiritual life through Bible study. The school provides the possibility of attaining college degrees. Successful inmates can be transferred to other prisons in Louisiana to help strengthen religious programming under the guidance of facility chaplains.
Some inmates in Angola have become preachers and have their own churches within the prison. Positive gangs, as Cain calls them, have sprung up inside the facility. Cain believes that “cursing is one step from fighting,” and that a stronger spiritual environment tends to curb cursing. “If you’re not cursing,” says the warden, “you’re two steps from fighting.”
The hospice care program is another feature of Angola that strives to transform attitudes. Inmates are put in the position of caring for other human beings as they approach their last breaths. After bathing, cleaning, and caring for the dying, the participant inmates develop the hope that the same will be done for them when their time comes.
After the Bible College, the hospice care program is the best program in the prison. “It teaches your inmates to be moral and teaches them how to give back,” says the warden.
During his career, Warden Cain came to realize that inmates – like the rest of us – want to be treated fairly and with respect. The creation of an honor dorm had the effect of labeling inmates who didn’t live in the honor dorm as “dishonorable.” He did away with the idea. The faith-based dorm met the same fate. Instead, Cain says, “we created a faith-based prison.”
These programs are merely illustrations of an extensive management philosophy that calls for respect and humane treatment of offenders in an effort both to strengthen hope and spirituality in inmates and maintain a safe prison environment. During his talk, Warden Cain provided advice to the audience of wardens about leadership in a context of providing hope, strengthening spirituality, and maintaining security. Some of his cornerstone leadership beliefs include:
- Be ready to do what you promise.
- Stay away from “I” and instead talk about “we” or “us.” They’ll follow you if you’re worthy.
- Show honest, sincere appreciation; be sensitive to others’ feelings.
- The idea of enemies in your life is garbage in your life. Anger can distract you and make you unproductive.
- Always say yes more than you say no.
- Don’t lie to inmates.
- Hire people smarter than you.
- Manage by walking around. Get out there and see for yourself.