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One warden's way of instilling hope behind bars

The prison at Angola, La., has gone from being one of history's meanest lockups to one of the most peaceable high-security prisons in America.

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Seen from the outside, the 5,108 permanent residents of Angola, La., are murderers, kingpins, and sex offenders.

But inside the Louisiana State Penitentiary here, many of these black sheep of society lead shadow lives as artists, newspaper editors, country singers, and, five times a year, stars of a prison rodeo and arts-and-crafts fair – where convicts who've earned the right get to buck broncs and straddle bulls, as well as mingle with sell-out crowds of happy visitors, including kids.

Some 1,000 Angola inmates are the beneficiaries of Warden Burl Cain's faith-based system of earned privileges that, in the past decade, has turned Angola from one of history's meanest lockups into one of the most peaceable high-security prisons in America. It's a feat all the more remarkable, experts say, because Angola in some ways defines futility: Ninety percent of its inmates will never leave this razor-fenced bend in the Mississippi River.

"The warden puts purposes out there for prisoners to attach themselves to, and that's what you need," says Angola "lifer" Lane Nelson, the death-row correspondent for the Angolite, the prison newsmagazine.

Truth-in-sentencing and mandatory- sentencing laws that became popular in the mid-1980s have driven a population explosion in US prisons. This has created a warehousing ethos, critics say, and a series of lawsuits have focused on nonviolent and first-time offenders getting placed into dangerous high-security wings because of overcrowding.

Under this retributive system, a murder sentence that lasted 11 years starting in 1980 now lasts at least 30 years. At Angola, 51 percent of the lifers are first-time offenders.

"Most prisons always operate on hope, and when you start having sentencing reforms, you start taking away a lot of hope," says Larry Sullivan, a criminology professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

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