So this is what it’s like, I thought to myself. I was lying on the thin mattress of a metal-framed bunk. Concrete block walls surrounded me on 3 sides, and thick steel bars completed the enclosure of my 6-foot by 9-foot prison cell.
As I laid there, I couldn’t help but wonder how many men had been locked in this death-row cage before me, and…how many of them were executed. Although humbling—and a bit unnerving—my brief incarceration at what some call the “Angola Hilton” was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.
Angola prison sits on what used to be 4 slave plantations from the 1800s, plantations that were notorious for their brutality prior to emancipation after the Civil War. The name “Angola” came from the African country that provided the most profitable slaves. The plantations were joined in 1880 to form a prison, and because it is bordered on three sides by the Mississippi River, Angola also became known as “Alcatraz of the South.” By the time the site officially became a state prison in 1901, its reputation as a place of suffering and hardship was already well established.
In the decades following, Angola earned the reputation as the “bloodiest prison in the South,” an infamy solidified during the 1960s and ’70s when an average of 12 inmates died from stabbings each year. Sexual slavery and beatings were also commonplace.
But Angola, with its history of violence and bloodshed, has proven to be no match for the grace of God.
The culture at Angola began to change in 1995 when Burl Cain, a new warden who believed in “moral rehabilitation,” invited a major Christian seminary in Louisiana to provide educational opportunities for inmates. Graduates of the seminary obtained real degrees, and they were permitted to start churches in various cell blocks. The Holy Spirit invaded, and the culture of brutality gradually gave way to one of peace and brotherly love. Truly, the prison experienced amazing revival. Corrections representatives have since been visiting from all over the world to see the miraculous changes for themselves.
I slept 2 nights in that old death-row cell block at Angola with 83 other volunteers (who were assigned cells of their own) as part of what was called the Malachi Dads Conference. Malachi Dads was birthed in 2005 when several men whose hearts had been transformed by God’s grace asked Awana children’s ministry for help. Even though they were still incarcerated, they wanted to reconcile with their children and become good fathers.
One of our speakers at the conference was Ron Olivier, an Angola inmate and seminary graduate, and one of the founders and original graduates of the Malachi Dads program.
Ron grew up in a very violent New Orleans neighborhood where most of his friends died before the age of 18. He joined a gang, and while still a minor, was convicted of a second-degree, gang-related 1993 murder. Ron received a life sentence. He met Jesus at Angola, however, and his life has been radically transformed. Ron graduated from the seminary, and now works as a teacher/evangelist on the inside. He knows he will never leave Angola alive.
Many thoughts filled my mind as I walked out of Angola a free man. One thought was how incredibly blessed I was to see dozens of former criminals—some convicted of very violent crimes—on their faces before God. I saw clearly that, although those men were locked behind prison walls, they were free citizens of the kingdom of God!
That conference inspired me, and with help from contributions to our Prison Ministry & Rehab Fund, I’ve since helped to start the first Malachi Dads ministry in the largest maximum-security prison in Texas. We are witnessing inmates become men of God and making a pledge to be lifelong fathers to their children. I’ll also be traveling to Kenya soon to launch Malachi Dads in two prisons there.
Men and women who have been humbled by their own lives of sin and now sit inside prisons in the US and around the world are some of those whom Jesus calls the “least of these” (Matt. 25:36). And because Heaven’s Family seeks to love Jesus by serving them, the Prison Ministry & Rehab Fund reaches out to prisoners in the U.S. and abroad.