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August 05, 2005

Something Stinks in Louisiana

We spent the day yesterday at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, where 5,108 men with life sentences (at least 66 years) are spending the remainder of their days. It’s a farm, really, 116,000 acres surrounded on three sides by the Mississippi Rivers, scattered with low building filled with men and surrounded by razor wire and towers with armed guards.

Life in prison has a character all its own when prisoners know their last days will be there. While time in a southern work camp is rarely easy, the experience of prisoners at Angola is really what they make of it. If they have years of good conduct, they see a lot more of the acreage and they experience remarkable freedom within the confines of the farm. Screw up and they'll spend 23 hours a day looking at the walls of 6 X 9 cell.

There’s much to say about Angola and much has, indeed, been written about this unique place. We were there to discuss the plans of the children’s ministry called Awana to connect children with their incarcerated fathers in a remarkable event on September 10 , and to get them memorizing Scripture together, even though they will spend almost all of their days apart.

But I came away with a grinding, insipid sickness about the most obvious reality of Angola, which has nothing to do with the way the fine warden and his staff run the place: 80% of the men at Angola are African-American. Yes, 80% of the men sentenced to life in the state of Louisiana are black.

I spent the day in prison seeing results, not studying causes. But as I drove the two plus hours back to New Orleans, there was the recurring thought that something here is screwed up in a big way. Something stinks, and it's coming from Louisiana.

It may be that the black culture is producing thugs. It may be that poverty is a great predictor of criminal behavior and poverty besets the black publication far more in Louisiana. It may be that the criminal justice system in the state is far more likely to arrest and convict a black man than a white man, and far more likely to sentence a black man to life in prison than a white man. And it may be all of these things.

Angola is a remarkable place with a lot of bad people and a lot of rather good ones. You can sense that God is at work in there, where the sins are grievous and well-known, where there is little hope aside from the hope God provides, and where redemption is strikingly obvious.

But something needs to be done to address the problem of this state throwing so many black bodies into a farm of bondage with too many cement walls.

Posted by Jim at August 5, 2005 06:43 PM

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