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The ‘On Fire’ Attitude and Leadership of Warden Burl Cain

I recently had the opportunity to study the remarkable leadership of Burl Cain. He is the man who turned America’s bloodiest prison – Angola – into a place of hope. The picture below was taken after I was given an in depth tour.

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Angola, known as the Alcatraz of the South for years, is the Louisiana State Penitentiary. How bad did it used to be? Prisoners would go to sleep with thick phone books on their chests to try to protect from stabbing.

Decades ago, they had a building called the Red Hat with tiny cells with cement beds. Angola didn’t mess around with inmates that got out of line. Charlie Frazier, an inmate who ran with Pretty Boy Floyd as well as Bonnie and Clyde, had murdered two guards in the cane fields where the inmates work. They put him in the last cell on the left and the door and window were welded closed. He was welded in for 7 years until he became ill and died.

I toured Angola prison recently. Built on the site of a former slave plantation, the 1,800-acre penal complex is home to more than 5,000 prisoners, 90 percent of whom will die there from life sentences. There are people there that have done horrible things, yet I could not get over the peaceful atmosphere.

It comes from the leadership of warden Burl Cain (photo below). He has turned what was a horrifying place into a place that is now an example of remarkable positive change.

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After touring Angola, I bought the book Cain’s Redemption, which is about how Cain’s leadership reduced violence within Angola by 80%, and how prisons around America have been studying his methods.

Cain believes the men at Angola can rebuild their lives if they have a genuine change of heart. He calls it moral rehabilitation.

“I realized that I could teach them to read and write, could help them learn skills and a trade – but without moral rehabilitation, I would only be creating a smarter criminal,” Cain tells author Dennis Shere in the book. “Moral people are not criminals. That’s why moral rehabilitation is the only true rehabilitation.”

When I deliver my programs on positive attitude, I share the 4 Needs we have.

A purpose. Something to hope for. Someone to love. Something to believe in. When Cain arrived, he new he had to deal with hope.

“The lack of hope is our greatest enemy in here,” he said. “In our case, once they become moral, or once they become Christian, or once they become rooted in another faith, then they believe in the hereafter. Most religions believe in life after death. So if you believe in life after death, then it’s not hopeless here.”

From day one when he took over in 1995 he felt that if you wanted traditional prison results, you have traditional prison.

He has not.

When he took over the prison he was greeted with big cuts to the school funds that had helped curb the violence. A man of strong faith, Cain invited the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary to open a seminary. They did, with donations covering the cost. “The Bible college was the game changer,” said. “It changed the culture of the prison.

Now, over 2500 inmates regularly go to prison, including the man below who I met. He is serving a life sentence for murder, but has been morally rehabilitated and is of strong faith.

When new prisoners arrive at Angola now, they are met by an inmate minister, who simply tells them they can go with him for moral rehabilitation, or go with the predators. The choice is theirs.

Or as warden Cain puts it, “Have it your way.”

I learned of amazing stories of rehabilitation. John Whitlock, number 111547, was in for murder. At Angola he imeresed himself in the programs and became highly liked and respected. Years later and terminally ill, he asked that at his funeral (there are cemeteries on the grounds) that two prison horses take his casket to the grave. He wanted one to be black and the other white because he had never been one to look at a person’s race. At his funeral, all kinds of black and white inmates walked behind the horses as they carried him to his final resting place.

John had asked that one song be sung at his funeral, ‘Amazing Grace.’ He had that sung by a Native American.

Warden Cain had made these funerals so much more humane. In the old days, wardens had shabby makeshift caskets made with dead inmates often falling through the bottom and into the grave hole. Cain’s innovation was to allow the inmates to build their own coffins and hearses, and those of others. The coffin of the late Ruth Graham Bell, Billy Graham’s wife, was made there by inmate inmate Richard “Grasshopper” Liggett. It cost about $200 and is lined with mattress. Billy Graham’s has been built by inmates as well.

Cain is tough on those that do get out of line, not hesitating to revoke privileges. His approach is simple – “We don’t take things from you. You give them to us.”

Since Cain implemented all his changes serious prison violence has substantially declined over the last 15-20 years from 1,500 assaults a year to fewer than 300. The weekend prior to my Monday visit there were zero incidents. None. There is no profanity.

The prisoners are kept busy working. There are 18,000 acres of farmland. I took the picture below of inmates picking okra.

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Every year, they process more than a million pounds of tomatoes, onions, cabbage, okra, peppers, squash, beans, and strawberries. Many of them work out their 8 hours a day.

Cain has all kinds of things they can do to make their time valuable. They take old wheelchairs and fix them up, or use their parts to make new chairs, crutches and canes. Several thousand refurbished wheelchairs have been donated by the prisoners to the poor of Guatemala.

Many also make crafts that are sold to the public for the annual October Angola rodeo, which draws large crowds. Cain says the challenge many prisoners face is showing there is something about their life that is worth noting, and that by making crafts or repairing wheelchairs they are showing that they may have done awful things but they are changing.

As a leader Cain combines compassion with fiery discipline. Prisoners that get out of line are dealt with firmly, and there was the time a young guard froze out in the agriculture fields when some prisoners got into a fight and two of the three officers there got hurt in the brawl. The young guard, on horse, didn’t do much of anything.

When help arrived Cain wasn’t far behind. He lit into the young guard, taking his rifle and demanding to know why he didn’t fire warning shots. Cain fired the rifle into the ground to prove it worked, then got up in his face and said, “You’re fired. I’m taking away your gun. I want you off the prison grounds now. I don’t want to see your face again!”

The young guard just walked towards the gate.

I was truly impacted by my tour of Angola, which was once called by Life magazine ‘America’s bloodiest prison.’

–Charlie Adams is a 1985 graduate of Ole Miss and is a native of Oxford. He is also the author of 4 books on positive attitude and peak performance, including 2013′s “How to Build a Positive Attitude and KEEP the Darn Thing!!” and “Stoke the Fire Within.” His books and motivational keynotes and seminars are designed to make sure events reach their objectives and to help create winning cultures. Email him at:Charlie@stokethefirewithin.com.

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