Mississippi prisons are in crisis, and the governor’s new pick to lead the state’s Department of Corrections has an answer: “good food, good praying, good playing, and good medicine.” Burl Cain announced his fourfold plan with his trademark Louisiana twang, making a direct reference to his previous work as warden at Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as “Angola.” Under Cain’s leadership, that prison went “from beatings to Bible studies,” as Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves described it when he appointed Cain.
Reeves’s hope is that Cain can do the same thing for Mississippi prisons. The state is a national leader in imprisonment rates, with a dramatic overrepresentation of people of color in its prisons. The prison system has a long history of corruption and underfunding and a record of horrific conditions. Recently, the state’s prisons have been wracked by violence. The Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman has had more than 30 deaths since late December.
The hope in Mississippi is that Cain is the answer. There are reasons for that. Cain comes highly recommended, has been widely lauded, and has a record of reforms that have made a real difference in the lives of many prisoners. But there are also reasons for concern, particularly if his appointment prevents a fuller reckoning with broader injustices in Mississippi and the nation more broadly.
During his two decades at Angola, Cain oversaw changes that were a mix of standard administrative reforms aimed at improving conditions with overtly religious programming aimed at “moral rehabilitation”—changing the hearts and minds of incarcerated people through spiritual transformation. Cain invited New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary to open a Bible college inside Angola. The religious programming at Angola, while officially open to prisoners of all faiths, has a distinctly evangelical flair. Even seemingly secular initiatives at Angola have evangelical resonances: Workers in the prison’s carpentry program built the caskets that held the bodies of Billy and Ruth Graham and, more recently, famed Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias.
When Cain explains his penal philosophy, he regularly asserts that religion makes people moral and “moral people are not criminals.” Audiences, both secular and religious, often hail him for this approach, calling it common-sense (and even “progressive”).
However, Cain still courts controversy. His new appointment is a reminder of the longer history of evangelical influence in criminal justice and the persistent tensions that exist around matters of religion and incarceration. In many ways, Cain is the product of a long history of evangelical concern about crime and punishment.
As I explore in my book God’s Law and Order, modern evangelicals have long seen personal conversion as the solution to crime and the solution to the ills of American incarceration. While some evangelicals, most notably Charles Colson, paired spiritual appeals with reformist advocacy, others focused less on material changes in prison conditions and more on saving souls. Complicating all of this work was the fact that many evangelicals, especially from the mid-1960s on, have been supporters of punitive politics. More than a few believers have advocated increasing rates of incarceration, “throwing away the key,” and prison proselytization, all at the same time.
Mississippi’s own history showcases the complexities of this religious landscape. Colson advocated for modest reforms to the prison system in Mississippi in 1982. The former political operative for Richard Nixon had been born again, served time in prison for his involvement in the Watergate scandal, and then founded the parachurch ministry Prison Fellowship. Colson brought a faith-informed message of reform to Mississippi, but he was rebuffed. His proposals were considered “soft on crime.”
The irony was that Colson was snubbed in Bible-belt Mississippi with distinctly Christian appeals to law and order. As one state senator put it as he dismissed Colson’s efforts, “The two reasons people do not commit serious crimes” are “a personal moral code based on Christian teachings and fear of swift and certain punishment as an effective deterrent to crime.” Colson gradually learned to accommodate the objections of tough-minded critics, and his long-term influence allowed conservatives to eventually take on the reformist mantle.
Besides Colson, perhaps no one has resolved the apparent tension in the conservative and evangelical belief in harsh punishment and the possibility of redemption better than Burl Cain. A star within evangelical and conservative criminal justice reform networks, Cain represents a powerful crystallization of humanitarian, punitive, and evangelistic sentiment and practice. Cain and like-minded evangelicals have praised religion’s disciplinary, crime-reducing potential and defended the divinely-ordained right of the state to incarcerate people and even take life.
Some Angola prisoners have found Cain’s moral rehabilitation initiatives personally meaningful. One recent study found that many prisoners embraced the programs’ “redemptive aspirations.” If Cain has his way, a similar reformist vision rooted in spiritual transformation will likely emerge system-wide in Mississippi. As with other conservative “right on crime” initiatives, it will allow Mississippi politicians to speak to prisoner welfare and at the same time maintain tough-on-crime personas. In this way, the original vision of Colson and his more punitive Mississippi opponents will be combined.
Other activists, religious leaders among them, have rallied for changes of a different sort in Mississippi. Danyelle Holmes, an organizer for the Mississippi Poor People’s Campaign, has linked the prison system’s crisis to the state’s broader history of racial injustice and over-reliance on imprisonment. “Parchman is everywhere,” she told a recent online gathering of activists. “It has a deeper history. … It is time we demand an end to mass incarceration.”
At the same gathering, William Barber II noted that Parchman “was detrimental and deadly before the violence” that has troubled state officials. He linked the efforts in Mississippi to the broader struggle against the “new Jim Crow.” Barber said, “I’m reminded that Jesus said how we treat the prisoners … he said, ‘inasmuch as you treat them, you treat me.’ … We cannot be silent on this issue.”
The Mississippi Poor People’s Campaign and the Mississippi Prison Reform Coalition have criticized Cain specifically. In a statement, the groups explained that his appointment is “antithetical” to their goals. They want to “tear down the oppressive and draconian ideology that has led to Mississippi’s high mass incarceration rate and inhumane prison conditions.”
I asked Rukia Lumumba, founder of the People’s Advocacy Institute in Jackson and steering committee member of the Mississippi Prison Reform Coalition, about Cain’s appointment. She acknowledged the benefits of religious programming that Cain will likely institute but said she is nonetheless disappointed.
“This is not the transformation we need in our system,” Lumumba said. “There are too many in Mississippi prisons who are there because they are poor or black. … There are too many in our prisons who are juveniles, elderly, disabled, who need medical care, or who present no danger.”
For Lumumba, there is a better answer: “Let people out.”
Some things in Cain’s record also raise red flags. A number of lawsuits have been filed by Angola prisoners, including non-Protestants complaining of unfair treatment and incarcerated journalists who say the warden muzzled their work. Cain has denied these allegations. He has also denied the allegations of financial misconduct, which led to his resignation from Angola in 2015.
It remains to be seen what will become of Cain’s work in Mississippi. If Cain can immediately improve conditions and reduce violence in the state’s prisons, his appointment will no doubt be considered a victory for the governor. Mississippi’s many evangelicals will also find Cain a powerful long-term ally, a man who speaks their language. And prisoners may indeed find sustenance and personal transformation through the gospel because of religious programming.
But, as observers of religion and prisons have noted, Cain’s appointment risks letting Americans, in Mississippi and elsewhere, continue believing that the problems of criminal justice are exclusively problems of the heart, not of racism, economic inequality, or punitive politics. Even defenders of Angola’s religious programs who support Cain’s appointment worry that expanding faith-based programming will increase divestment in other kinds of rehabilitative programming in prisons, as governments look to cut costs and rely on private actors (like churches) for delivery of services.
Given the recent killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, we also should be deeply concerned that the concept of “moral rehabilitation” does nothing to challenge—and threatens to confirm—white Americans’ long-standing assumption that blackness is criminal, and therefore punishable (or choke-able). Creating conditions for “better praying” may offer solace to people on the inside, but what about the as-yet-unanswered prayers for an end to “law and order” politics, over-policing, drug arrests, draconian sentencing, and police brutality? Many have been praying and advocating for radical, lasting changes to these social ills, but their work stands to be eclipsed by religious programming that will not challenge injustice.
Cain’s re-emergence shows how evangelicals have accepted the existence of the prison state itself, a sad concession when there are alternatives to incarceration that are much more promising in terms of reducing crime, helping victims, and offering dignity to offenders. Prisons may be hellish, but they are not eternal. As a society we do not have to accept their presence as our fate. We should ask what other possibilities there might be for our nation. Perhaps, somehow, Mississippi may connect a gospel of individual conversion with the good news of freedom for prisoners. If that can happen, we might tell the story of a new transformation, one not only of our nation’s prisoners but of our nation itself.
Aaron Griffith is a history professor at Sattler College and the author of God’s Law and Order.
Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the publication.