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Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Life at the Bottom, Part One

Daniel Bergner God of the Rodeo: The Quest for Redemption in Louisiana's Angola Prison

Louisiana's Angola State Penitentiary has long been one of America's most infamous prisons. Sprawling over 18,000 acres, Angola (once a plantation named after the African region from which its slaves were brought) is the world's largest prison. By the 1970's it, like Attica in New York state, had become a byword for the chaos of America's prison system, with epidemic levels of prisoner-on-prisoner rape, racial violence, corruption and murder. The situation got so bad that in 1975 Judge E. Gordon West mandated that Angola needed to be reformed; slowly but surely the chaos in Angola has lessened over the last thirty years.

Journalist Daniel Bergner visited Angola for the first time in September 1996 to write a magazine article about the annual Angola Rodeo, an event where prisoners risk their bodies (and in extreme cases, their lives) to participate in a range of rodeo competitions, from the orthodox to the truly bizarre, watched by an audience of hundreds who've driven in from all over the state. As dangerous as it can be, it is an event that brings the public into Angola and gives the men who participate something to work for, as well as the chance to have ordinary people see them as men, not just criminal monsters. For Bergner, the question of whether this could truly offer redemption is what brought him back to the prison to write a full-length book.

"I knew that I had to come back to Angola not only for the rodeo and not only for a magazine article, but for something much larger. Johnny Brooks's agility and preparation in the saddle shed, his floating and self-schooling; the Angolite editor saying "They lay eyes on us"; the redemptive found where it was least expected - the rodeo fit with a grand and unlikely promise Warden Cain held out: that Angola was, as he put it, "a positive prison." Its inmates would die incarcerated, yet it was a place where, under Cain's leadership, men made themselves better human beings. Society might think, They can't get out, they have nothing to lose, no reason to improve. Still, they had improvement itself, self-elevation, to gain. They had their humanity. "Our cake is good," Cain said of the penitentiary. I needed to find out if it could be true." (p. 21)

The central figure of this book, the man who inspired Bergner to transform his original article into a full book, is Warden Burl Cain, a fascinating, uniquely Southern, man. Cain is a man who believed in redemption, who wanted the men, almost all of who arrived at prison uneducated, to improve themselves, to better their lives, and, hopefully, to find faith in God.

"In an era when rehabilitation was a concept for fools, he said urgently, "This penitentiary is about changing lives." To men who had followed the most immediate needs of the self, he taught the self-abnegation of religion. Spirit over flesh. God over ego. The warden aimed not merely at warehousing inmates safely, but at rebuilding them, at redeeming them, whether in terms of his Southern Baptist belief or in religious terms more broad ("Love thy neighbor...") or simply in the sense of learning to live in some valuable way, without the impulses that lead to destroying others, to self-destruction." (p. 25)

On the prisoner side, Bergner followed the lives of five prisoners in his year at Angola; three black and three white (Angola's population is roughly three-quarters black and a quarter white), their lives in prison and the inmate organizations that play a role in their lives. Terry Hawkins, who had used an axe to kill his boss at the abattoir where he worked, who struggles with a move to greater religiosity. Danny Fabre, who had brutally choked to death an elderly neighbor, who finds a new sense of self through Forgotten Voices, the prison chapter of Toastmasters International. Johnny Brooks, who had beaten a woman to death during a robbery, who had become the linchpin of the rodeo program. Bucckey Lasseigne, who had shot dead a convenience store worker during a botched robbery, who was trying to win the overall rodeo belt to give as a present to his teenage son. Littell Harris, in for armed robbery, who spent his time reading black history, feuding with other prisoners, and engaging in low-level rebellion against the guards. And Donald Cook, who beat to death a (male) trick before dumping the body in the river, who had become a member of Angola's Toy Shop, who created handcrafted toys for underprivileged children. These men, along with Warden Cain, are the heart of the book; Bergner's attempt to see how men, in an institution where 85% are in for murder, rape, and violent robberies, can reach some redemption, even though most of them will die in prison.

Despite these small sparks of positivity, there is no doubt that life in Angola is soul-destroying, the long years ticking by slowly in humid torpor on the banks of the Mississippi. Perhaps the most poignant description of what life is like in Angola comes from Littell after his release:

""Because let me try to explain the way you feel in Angola. Can you remember the most upset, the most depressed you've ever been in your life? When a loved one died? Has your mother died? Or someone that close? Can you put yourself back into what that felt like? Well, that's the way you feel at Angola. That's the way you feel every day."" (p. 157)

This is a wonderful book, written with the immediacy of a good novel, that makes you think about the nature of forgiveness, of sin, of justice and retribution. Bergner never shies away from seeing the terrible crimes committed by the men; nor does he refuse to acknowledge their capacity for change. He also does not fail to question his early, overwhelmingly positive, impression of Warden Cain as circumstances change and he begins to learn about some of his less praiseworthy attributes. All in all, I would whole-heartedly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the human condition as well, obviously, as anyone interested in American justice.

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