A Startling Program Behind Prison Walls
THE place: Louisiana’s State Penitentiary at Angola, the second-largest state prison in the United States, with some 4,000 inmates. The time: Saturday evening, October 5, 1974. The occasion: Prison officials called it “Jehovah’s Witnesses Baptismal Assembly.”
Eight prisoners, who had impressed prison officials by remarkable changes in their lives, were to be baptized this evening. Friends and relatives from both inside and outside the prison had been invited to attend.
Those arriving from outside created an unusual sight. All together, 337 met at the prison gates. They were a neatly dressed crowd of men, women and children, both blacks and whites. Some had come from as far as 700 miles away.
As their names were checked off a list, they were admitted through the gates. Buses took them about two miles back into the huge prison complex. Getting off, they entered through steel gates into a large auditorium.
The Assembly and Wholesome Association
Inside, the realization of being in prison quickly faded. The ninety-five inmates present were dressed principally in blue denims, with either a sweat or sport shirt, rather than in gray prison garb. They all mingled freely, enjoying getting acquainted.
Several parents had brought their infants. When one woman was asked why she had, she said: “I didn’t think of there being any danger. I figured I would be with my brothers and sisters, and that this would be like other Christian assemblies.” And it was!
The program began at 6:30 p.m. with song and prayer. Then a thirty-minute talk explaining the Scriptural meaning of baptism was given by an elder from the nearby New Roads, Louisiana, Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Water baptism, he showed, is a visible symbol that one has dedicated his life to serve Almighty God.
At the conclusion of his talk, the speaker asked the eight baptismal candidates sitting in the front row to stand. He then asked them two questions, one regarding whether they had repented of their sins and changed their course of life, and the other as to whether they had dedicated themselves unreservedly to God to do his will.
The men answered in unison, “Yes,” to each question. Then, after a brief prayer, they turned and walked to the baptismal tank that had been set up about twenty feet from the speaker’s platform. As each one, in turn, climbed into the tank and was immersed, the crowd applauded. Some had tears of joy streaming down their faces because these men were related to them, and they had seen them completely change their lives to conform to Bible standards.
The prisoners had set up tables to serve ham sandwiches and other refreshments and, following the program, everyone relaxed and enjoyed getting acquainted. One family, twenty-one in all, had driven all the way from Wichita, Kansas! The mother was especially happy since her twelfth child had accepted God’s truth here in prison and was finally united with the others in serving Jehovah God!
“We feel like a whole family now,” she exclaimed. “This has been a family reunion for us, even though it is in a prison. Donald’s letters have encouraged us all, and all of us have been writing him to keep him encouraged.”
On looking around, it was hard for one to conceive that many of these men had been dangerous criminals. Some are serving thirty-year, fifty-year and even life sentences for their crimes. But already over a dozen have been baptized, including the eight this evening. Also, a number of others are pursuing a course of Bible study and are talking to other inmates about what they learn.
How New Witness Inmates Felt
One of those just baptized, who is now serving the eighth year of a fifty-year sentence, said: “The Bible truths I have learned have given me inner peace and happiness. And to feel the great love that Jehovah’s witnesses throughout the Louisiana territory have shown to me is a great honor. It is just beautiful.”
Another of the newly baptized inmates later exclaimed: “I never experienced such great joy as being among that mass of Jehovah’s witnesses. The smiles on their faces, the happiness, the joy that they projected upon us—it was a great thrill. Now that I am one of Jehovah’s witnesses I don’t believe there is anything that could break me away from the Bible truths I have learned.”
It was not easy for these men to change their lives to conform to God’s righteous requirements. Some had violent dispositions or other bad personality traits that needed correcting. Particularly has it been a big problem for some to break free from their addiction to tobacco. Yet an inmate who is in for armed robbery and attempted murder noted: “I had Jehovah, and I constantly prayed to Him and broke that habit.” He was one of the eight baptized.
Others of the inmates are taking steps to qualify for baptism. One of them, serving a life sentence for murder, said: “I have always wanted to know the truth of God’s Word, and coming in contact with Jehovah’s witnesses and seeing the warm love that they show for one another gave me the strong idea that this is the place to find it.”
Reaction of Other Inmates
Some prisoners at the assembly were not Jehovah’s witnesses, nor had they been studying the Bible with the Witnesses. What did they think of what they saw?
One, already confined for fourteen years on a murder charge, wrote a letter about his impressions. Published in the Baton Rouge News Leader, it says in part:
“Like most of my fellow inmates, I’m not religious, a skeptic at best. Life has been too hard, too cruel, and I’ve seen too much hypocrisy to buy anything else. But despite my deeply engrained skepticism, something happened recently that got to me, so much so that I’m moved to say something about it. . . .
“Members of the Jehovah Witness faith here in Angola wanted to hold a baptismal service for eight new members. They sent out invitations to fellow Witnesses in the free world and some . . . , from as far away as Kansas, responded, coming here for what had to be the most impressive demonstration of religious togetherness I’ve seen in my entire life. Prisoners in the Louisiana State Penitentiary had never seen anything like this before.
“There was plenty preaching and reading from the Bible, the majority of which I didn’t hear or understand, didn’t really pay any attention to because it held no meaning for me. I’ve heard too many empty promises and meaningless sermons in my life to be impressed by words. Only the amount of sincerity a person shows through his behavior counts with me. And it’s hard to fool me; I’ve lived and fought in the jungle too long. But these people reached me, reached past that shield of skepticism I live behind. They were sincere.
“I don’t know what they believe in, and it didn’t matter to me, just as my being an alleged criminal and not a Witness didn’t matter to them. They made me feel cared about, important, and that means a lot to someone who has been rejected, an outcast, most of his life. It was enough to ignite a yearning to be one with them . . .
“I can’t escape the nagging thought, created by the feelings ignited in me by my encounter with those Jehovah Witnesses the other night, that were there more people like them, there would be less people like us.”—October 20, 1974.
Reaction of Prison Officials
Not only the inmates, but prison supervisors, too, were pleased by the excellent rapport the visiting Witnesses had with the prisoners. One of the prison sponsors of the assembly, Lawrence Watts, expressed admiration as he watched the crowd. “The people are so mannerly, so kind and so attentive to instructions,” he exclaimed. “The conduct is beautiful—the moral aspect, the social element—it’s just beautiful.”
Prison Warden C. Murray Henderson also was greatly pleased. “I definitely think these functions help prisoners,” he noted afterward. “We need people to work with prisoners, people who have a wholesome influence.” And, emphasizing that he felt Jehovah’s witnesses exert this influence in the prison, he added: “Recently I heard a Roman Catholic man in New Orleans say that if he owned a large chain of stores he would only hire Jehovah’s witnesses to operate the cash registers.”
Also expressing her approval of the Angola Bible study program of Jehovah’s witnesses, Elayn Hunt, the head of the State Department of Corrections, said: “I’m firmly convinced that any inmate whose time is spent in something positive like study of the Scriptures certainly is not going to have time on his hands to be involved in some negative endeavor. This can be a very positive force operating to assist a prison administrator.”
How did this spiritual program get started in Angola Prison? Is it limited only to Angola? What does it tell us about rehabilitating criminals?