Serving Life. It’s the name of a moving documentary about a hospice program at Angola State Prison in Louisiana. The program was the brainchild of the prison warden, who saw that the super-long sentences of many Louisiana prisoners meant they got sick and died in prison. A believer in rehabilitation, he thought that giving prisoners a way to volunteer to ease the last days of their dying brothers might offer them a way to give back. It sounded like a win-win, and in fact, that’s what it’s been. It’s changing the lives of the prisoners who have volunteered and helps make the final days and weeks of the dying more comfortable.
“Prison should be a place for predators, not dying old men,” said Warden Burl Cain. I listened to him and watched as the filmmaker followed the trained volunteers through their duties, which also involved preparing the bodies of their friends for burial. To me, Cain seemed like an angel on earth, one of those people who are meant to make an impact on the lives of others. Louisiana is not known for its kindness to the incarcerated and the hospice program seemed the antithesis of what our revenge-based penal system normally does.
Of course, revenge and punishment don’t work as deterrents, as many prison professionals will tell you. But that’s a topic for another day. Let’s go back to Warden Cain.
Warden Cain seems the antithesis of a “hawk,” although he claimed in the film there was no bigger hawk than he. I saw him as more of a dove and as living proof that even in systems resistant to change, like our prisons, small pockets of light and love can exist. It was a powerful film that I highly recommend.
But does he stand up to a fuller look? Is Cain really an angel? Of course, I knew that he would have his detractors and I found them.
He’s a fundamentalist Christian who’s been accused of not supporting prisoners who practice other faiths. He’s been accused of being publicity-hungry. Of wanting compensation for cooperating with authors. Excessive compensation. The prison has no air conditioning and that’s been considered inhumane in Louisiana’s hot and humid climate. The warden’s been charged with trying to fix temperature data being collected for an investigation.
I’m sure some of that is true. Maybe all of it.
And yet, I still see him as a positive force.
Because here’s the thing:
Nobody is all good or all bad. None of us. We all have flaws. Some flaws are bigger than others. Some are played out on a bigger stage. It’s good to know these things. To be realistic. To understand that the white cloaks of angels could also be lined with some other color.
But I believe in trying to find the spark of humanity in everyone. In Cain’s case, his flaws do not detract from the valuable program he’s put in place to help the dying — and the living.
Throwing the baby out with the bathwater has never been a good thing.
Like some people I know, Warden Cain may not be someone I’d want to spend a whole lot of time with. But it doesn’t mean I don’t give him credit for the good he’s done.
If you get a chance, check out Serving Life on Netflix.
If you want to know more about Warden Cain, go “The ‘On Fire’ Attitude and Leadership of Warden Burl Cain”. Mother Jones has the story on his uber-Christianity. Info on the heat data study and charges against him at the New Orleans Times-Picayune.