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From: Nick Sigur
Subject: 'Stone killer' becomes inmate missionary
Subject: 'Stone killer' becomes inmate missionary
Thanks to Morris Talley for pointing out two articles which appeared in the Baton Rouge Advocate. Always one to one up Morris when possible. I have placed the articles in this email. It's about time the Louisiana Press begins to notice the Miracle of Hope which has been unfolding at Angola for years. Take a few minutes and read this email. Wait until you have time to really read it and be blessed.
ANGOLA — When he asked New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary to start teaching at Louisiana State Penitentiary in 1996, Warden Burl Cain had a problem to solve. He didn't think it would change the prison. He certainly didn't see it changing other prisons.
"I wasn't that smart," Cain said.
But that, Cain insists, is what has happened.
Angola, once considered America's most dangerous prison, has seen violence cut by more than half since the seminary opened in 1998. In that year, there were 870 violent incidents (defined as murder, escape, suicide, assaults on staff and assaults on inmates). In 2009, that number was 362.
While other factors — an aging population, disciplinary strategies — may play a role, Cain said the seminary program has been key tochanging the culture of a prison that houses more than 5,000 inmates, nearly all of whom have life sentences.
One of them, Ron Hicks, received a seminary degree and is the pastor of United Methodist Men, one of about 50 inmate-run churches that operate at Angola. He has been at the prison since 1991 and has seen it evolve. Prison rape and other acts of inmate-on-inmate violence are not the problems they once were, Hicks said.
"You don't see fights. You don't see all these things," he said. "You could take a walk down the hall right now. You won't hear people acting crazy, because God has come in here and healed the minds of these men, really changed their lives.
"I know people think … 'jailhouse religion.' That's not what it is. It's the real deal. God is real in this place and he's real in the hearts of men, and men are changed and are being changed. … God has changed our lives, and the evidence is there. Come and see."
Angola had inmate-led churches long before Cain arrived in 1995. That same year, Congress eliminated Pell Grant funding that had paid for inmates to receive higher education. The Rev. T.W. Terrell, then director of the area Judson Baptist Association, suggested the New Orleans Seminary might offer a degree-granting program.
"I said, 'You have lost your mind. They would never do that,' " Cain said. "He said, 'Yes they would. I believe they would.'"
The program quickly became popular — and not only with Christians. Some Muslim inmates signed up, drawn by the opportunity to get an accredited college degree. Any inmate who qualifies academically is admitted, said the Rev. John Robson, who oversees the prison seminary program. The prison has had to strengthen its GED program because of the seminary's popularity.
"It's not Sunday school," Robson said. "They learn Greek and Hebrew."
Once the seminary began producing graduates, a question arose: what to do with them? Two answers emerged. The first was to spread them among the prison population.
"We didn't put them in one spot," Cain said. "You want to let them all mix just like you do in a community. They immediately started having an impact because they'd read their Bibles and do Bible studies, and (inmates) started getting more moral."
Chaplain Robert Toney said the inmate churches are in a wide array of Christian denominations as well as other religions such as the Jewish, Islamic and Rastafarian faiths. He estimates about 2,800 of the inmates participate, with meetings taking place every day in several prison chapels and other meeting rooms.
"We don't have gangs," Robson said. "We have churches."
The churches do more than worship services and Bible studies. Ministers participate in the prison's hospice program, caring for inmates in the late stages of terminal illnesses, as well as help fellow inmates go through difficult times.
There is no shortage of such times. Separation from family members who don't or can't visit is a frequent issue. Younger offenders who have long sentences must come to grips spending life in prison. Hicks knows this from experience; he's been in prison since 1990, just over half his life.
"I couldn't even comprehend a life sentence," he said. "I was only 19. I hadn't started living. Here I am in this cell, and I began to pray. I had an experience with God when I was real young. I just cried out to God and said you're going to have to help me."
The different churches work together, Hicks said. If a minister finds an inmate with a need, the minister will work with him regardless of what church, if any, he belongs to.
"I believe this 100 percent," Hicks said. "We could take the church that's here and set it in any community in America and I'm positive that it's going to make a difference in that community."
Many outside religious organizations conduct prison ministry at Angola. But, since the seminary program has strengthened the inmate churches, Cain said he has reduced the number of outside ministry groups he lets in, and not just because the meeting schedule has gotten tight.
"Half the preachers in the Southern Baptist Convention — I talk about them because I'm Baptist — don't have the education or the full four-year seminary degree that our inmates have," Cain said. "So, you had a lot of people trying to come and minister to them that were not the biblical scholars that the inmates are. So, we passed them. That was pretty cool, wasn't it?"
'A very calming influence'
The idea came — as ideas often do — out of nowhere.
"I was in the shower … and I thought, 'What am I going to do with all these preachers? I've got a prison full of them,' " Cain said. "We'll just send missionaries to the other ones."
Although Cain oversees the largest and by far the best-known of Louisiana's penitentiaries, it houses only a small percentage of the state's inmates. If seminary-trained prisoners could have a positive influence on Angola, he reasoned, they could do the same elsewhere.
He turned first to Dixon Correctional Institution, where he had been warden before coming to Angola and whose warden then, James LeBlanc, is now DOC secretary. LeBlanc was initially skeptical the missionaries might have agendas that threatened security.
"But Burl is persuasive as he can be," LeBlanc said. "He convinced us to give it a shot. He said, 'I think you'll like what you'll find out.'
"Man, was he right. It was unbelievable."
Having the missionaries — all of whom volunteer to be there — provided a resource when a chaplain was unavailable, LeBlanc said. They soon earned enough trust to receive special ID badges that let them move throughout the prison.
"They were well-trained, professional," LeBlanc said. "You could tell in the atmosphere of the prison where they were practicing. We saw a big difference in inmate-on-inmate assaults, inmate-on-staff assaults, just on disciplinary activity."
The B.B. Rayburn Correctional Center in Angie has 11 graduates of the seminary at Angola, seven serving as the chaplain's orderlies and four working as tutors in Rayburn's educational program. As with Angola, they are scattered throughout all sections of the prison except the maximum security cellblock, which they visit regularly, Rayburn Warden Robert Tanner said.
Like Angola, Rayburn is a less violent place since their arrival, Tanner said. From 2003 through 2009, total assaults decreased by 40.4 percent, inmate-on-inmate assaults decreased by 37.8 percent and inmate-on-staff assaults decreased by 71.2, Tanner said.
"We think it's had a very positive impact on our operations," Tanner said. "They're a very calming influence on the population."
Cain and LeBlanc hope the impact will extend beyond the prisons. Most Angola inmates will die there, but statewide, about 15,000 offenders are released each year, Assistant Warden Cathy Fontenot said. True success will be reflected by former inmates touched by the program not committing crime after being released, Cain said.
It is too early to tell if this is happening. Hicks is confident.
"There's no question about it. If a person gets born again and gives his heart to Christ and gets nourished in the word and gets discipled, the chance of him committing a crime again is very slim," he said. "By sending those missionaries into those institutions, it's meeting a great need."
With roughly half of the offenders under Department of Corrections supervision serving their sentences in parish jails, the idea of inmate missionaries going there has been discussed, Fontenot said.
"We have talked unofficially with sheriffs about the possibility, but … that sheriff would have to be very comfortable that the population he supervises would not think that they're threatened in any way," Fontenot said.
Robson hopes it happens, saying inmate missionaries could influence the inmates most likely to return to freedom.
"Nobody can confront an inmate like another inmate," Robson said. "The streets of Louisiana can be changed, and these are the men who can do it with God's help."
That, Cain said, has been an ingredient in the program from the start.
"None of us can claim credit, and I love it, because I want to claim credit but I can't claim credit," he said. "I didn't do it. It was an accident. That makes you think there truly is divine intervention."
'Stone killer' becomes inmate missionary
ANGOLA — Ten years ago, Donald "Carolina" Biermann was "Angola at its worst," Louisiana State Penitentiary Warden Burl Cain said.
"A stone killer," Cain said. "He would fight you. He was mean. He was a cellblock man."
Now, Cain calls Biermann a success story.
Biermann recently returned to Angola from Forcht-Wade Correctional Center in Keithville. He had spent 18 months there as part of the inmate missionary program for graduates of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary's studies.
While there, he led Bible studies and gently tended the most basic needs of dying men in the prison hospice program.
"If you ever told me at any time in my life that I'd have washed a naked man, we'd have had some real serious problems," said Biermann, 53, serving a life sentence for second-degree murder. "I can tell you that God will bring you to that point where you desire to do that so they don't feel shame and humiliation in their dying hour, that they can die with dignity."
Biermann's journey to that point includes being imprisoned in three states. Figuring he'd never be paroled, Biermann decided to make the best of prison life.
But he couldn't. The inner rage that led him into prison wouldn't let him alone.
"That hate still stays inside of you and manifests itself in everything you do," he said. "At the very moment I met Christ, it was on my mind that weekend to hurt somebody seriously. That's how full of that rage I was, not because of anything they did to me.
"The only two emotions I knew up until I met Jesus was hate and indifference. There was no middle ground."
Nine years ago, Biermann put his faith in Jesus Christ, and began to cry. And cry. And cry for two weeks. He said it was the first time he'd cried since he was 7 years old.
"Even the nonbelievers said, 'God has got him,' " he said. "I fought with God because I didn't believe in him, but I couldn't deny what was happening inside of me. I didn't have that hate anymore. I couldn't hate. I started looking at people as human beings for the first time in my life. They weren't objects of my hate. They weren't potential victims."
What they became was objects of ministry. Biermann completed NOBTS' seminary training and volunteered to accept a transfer to Forcht-Wade, which had far less in the way of spiritual programs than Angola. Biermann said he started a 15-week course defending Christian doctrines and spoke about his faith to anyone who would listen. Many would not, especially at the start.
"Even the inmate population did not receive me very well at first," he said. "There is a lot of distrust in this environment no matter where you go. It's difficult to have people come to you and tell you they have a problem."
The highlight of his ministry there, Biermann said, was tending to hospice patients. He recalls sitting with one man dying of esophageal cancer whose pain was so great that he'd yell and curse. Biermann convinced him to say "Help me, Jesus" when the pain was bad.
"I sat on the side of his bed and he just held my hand, and he mouthed to me, 'You're a good man,' " Biermann said. "I watched this man die with a peaceful countenance, and it's probably one of the most awesome times I have truly felt God's forgiveness in my life."
"It is so important that people understand the importance of inmates being able to minister to other inmates. We can love each other. There is a lot of callous indifference in this environment, and it's hard for a man to leave this world not feeling that love, and they need that love of Christ. That's probably one of the greatest things God has done in here."
Biermann left Forcht-Wade after it was reclassified as a facility for drug offenders. Although most of his friends are at Angola, he is willing to be an inmate missionary again.
"I'll go anywhere … they feel that I will be useful," he said. "For me, it's just another opportunity."