A Successful Rehabilitation Program
THE plane landed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on Thursday night. My friend met me, and we drove to his home in the nearby town of New Roads. That evening we talked at length about what was going on in Angola prison.
My friend is one of a group of six Christian men who conduct a regular in-prison program of instruction. On a rotation basis, one of them goes every week to conduct meetings with the prisoners. On the average, about forty inmates attend.
“Actually, the program was initiated from within,” my friend explained. Early in 1973 two prisoners, who were reading literature of Jehovah’s Witnesses, wrote a letter asking that someone visit them. In the meantime, these prisoners talked to other inmates and interested them in the things that they were learning.
It was in October 1973 that the first meeting was held in the prison, with eighteen inmates present. In time, meetings were conducted every Wednesday and Sunday. The number of inmates attending kept increasing until, on occasion, up to sixty and more were coming. What was it that caused such widespread interest?
The Program of Instruction
My friend explained that the meetings were, and still are, conducted in basically the same way that they are in any Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses. On Sundays there is an hour Bible talk, usually given by a guest from a nearby congregation. This is followed by a Bible study based on an article in a recent issue of the Watchtower magazine.
On Wednesday nights there is the Theocratic School, a course of Bible instruction designed to increase a student’s Bible knowledge, as well as to improve his speaking abilities. Also, a Service Meeting features discussions on how best to talk about the Bible’s message with fellow prisoners in Angola.
It amazed me to learn how active these inmates are in telling others about their newfound Christian faith. In some months they have conducted weekly Bible studies with more than fifty fellow inmates. And just last year, within the prison, they distributed nearly 5,000 copies of The Watchtower, Awake! and bound books that explain God’s purposes.
The enthusiasm of those first inmates was passed on to those with whom they conducted studies, and this has contributed to the success of the program.
Meeting the Requirements
The meetings are held in a room of the prison’s Education Building, which, I was told, is much like a school classroom. But, to attend, a prisoner’s name must be put on a ‘call out’ sheet. That permits him to leave his place of confinement in the huge prison complex and to meet at this central location with the group with which he is on ‘call out.’
I was surprised to learn that the Witnesses exercise control over who attends their in-prison meetings. Not just anyone can come, and there are reasons. Commonly, inmates will join some group in hopes that by so doing they will be helped to get out of prison sooner. So, how do Jehovah’s Witnesses determine if an inmate is sincere, and so qualifies to attend?
First, a personal Bible study is conducted with him. Only if he shows genuine interest is he put on ‘call out.’ But if he misses more than four meetings in a month, without a good reason, such as illness, prison authorities are notified and his name is dropped from the ‘call out’ sheet. Then he can attend meetings again only by proving his genuine interest over a period of time.
I was aware of the early success of this program, having learned about it in the report on the district assemblies that appeared in the October 15, 1974, issue of The Watchtower. It said:
“A touching scene occurred at the Baton Rouge, Louisiana, assembly. Bible studies for months had been conducted by Jehovah’s witnesses with inmates of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Many of these men progressed in Bible knowledge, and astounded prison officials with their radical change in conduct. Thus permission was granted for eight of them to be taken to Baton Rouge for the assembly. It was a heartwarming moment when these men, with their ankle chains and handcuffs, stepped from the cars and were led inside to take seats with the others to be baptized that day.”
Now, mind you, to be baptized as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses a person must meet high Scriptural qualifications. And individuals are screened to make sure that they qualify. A person must be able to answer at least eighty basic Bible questions, including, for example, the following:
“What is the kingdom of God?” “What is God’s purpose for the earth?” “What is the only Scriptural basis for divorce that frees one to remarry?” “Why must lying be avoided?” “What is the Christian view of drunkenness?” “What does the Bible say about fornication, adultery, sexual relations with another person of the same sex, and other loose conduct? May a person who is engaging in such practices be baptized?”
The answer to that last question is, No. But as you’re aware, even those not behind prison walls commonly engage in such wrongs, and consider that to be all right. But these eight inmates had adopted a superior standard of morality, and were living up to it. Soon there were others.
By early fall of 1974, eight more inmates qualified for baptism. My friend told me: “We thought how nice it would be to have a baptism inside the prison, with visitors from the outside.” The possibility was pursued, and the prison authorities, so impressed by the results of the instruction program, granted permission. On October 5, 1974, this special assembly was held. Note the Awake! description:
“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.”
I had read this report in Awake!, and it greatly interested me. But I had heard little about further results of the rehabilitation program. So, as we settled down after dinner, I was an attentive listener while my host filled me in.
“That October assembly gave our program real impetus,” my friend explained. “The nearly hundred inmates present were really impressed by the love and warmth shown by the hundreds of visitors.”
As a result, many of these inmates applied themselves to Bible study and made excellent progress. “Soon,” my friend continued, “a number more made the necessary changes in their lives that qualified them for baptism. Therefore, plans were made for another assembly, an even larger one. Again the prison authorities approved, this time making available the prison’s Rodeo Stadium. So, early Saturday morning, April 26, 1975, hundreds of carloads of Witnesses converged on Angola.”
This time cars were driven right into the prison. At the inspection gate the only question asked was: “Do you have any guns?” Then off the cars drove, right into the rodeo grounds. All together, there were 2,602 visitors! The highlight of the meeting was the baptism of twelve more inmates, including a convicted murderer from death row, who was brought over in chains to be baptized. He had been studying for a year with the Witnesses right there on death row.
Prison officials were pleased with how well this one-day assembly was conducted, as well as its fine effect on the prisoners. So, they welcomed the plans for another one-day assembly in the fall. This time, on Saturday, November 29, 1975, 3,200 visitors were present! And eight more inmates were baptized.
“Saturday will be our next special in-prison assembly,” my friend was saying. “We’re very glad that you could come down for it.”
I was now more anxious than ever to visit the prison. It was amazing—thirty-six inmates baptized already and six more to be baptized Saturday! The next day, Friday, my friend was going to take me to Angola to get acquainted and to interview some of the officials.
Seeing It for Myself
Leaving after lunch, we drove for about an hour and a half through a swamp area and crossed the Mississippi River on a ferry. Then, going over some rolling hills, we finally arrived at the prison’s main gate. Obviously, the guards were acquainted with my companion, briefly exchanging pleasantries with him. We were then waved through into the prison.
As we drove toward the Rodeo Stadium, the area reminded me of a large plantation. There was a newly constructed wooden fence along most of the two sides of the road. Here were fields that had been under cultivation. The prisoners, I learned, raise much of their own food. Finally, we arrived at the maximum security area. After driving through a number of gates, we entered the Rodeo Stadium from the back.
A stage was under construction at one end of the grounds. There were a number of inmate Witnesses who were putting the finishing touches on the stage, which included painting and carpeting the floor. It was a pleasure to meet them. The fourteen men were warm, friendly and outgoing. I learned that they had been given special permission by the authorities to get the place ready for the assembly the following day.
Ervin St. Amand, an inmate who has taken a lead in the prison instruction program, had made arrangements for us to have interviews with prison officials. So, we left to keep our appointments. It seemed odd to me that Ervin could not ride with us, but that was a prison regulation, with which we gladly complied. He moved rapidly along in spite of his artificial leg (he had lost his real one in an escape attempt years earlier) and met us up ahead.
After parking the car, we passed other prisoners. I could not help noticing the difference between these and the ones that we had just left. Some were lying listlessly on the ground, while others were just staring into space. They seemed resigned to their fate, with not much hope for the future. What a contrast!
Praise from Officials
Arriving at the administration building, we were ushered into the office of Major Richard A. Wall (since promoted to Lieutenant Colonel). An outgoing person, he was obviously pleased with our instruction program. He has spent many years in the prison system, being familiar with the ineffectiveness of so many efforts at rehabilitation. Yet, he couldn’t say enough good things about the value of our program.
I was familiar with the past history of Ervin—he had been a real troublemaker, and mean! So I asked Wall point-blank: “Do you trust this man?”
“I trust St. Amand implicitly,” he shot back. And he added: “I like your organization because you watch out for your own people. If one starts to go wrong, you try to help him. But if he persists in a wrong course, you put him out of your organization. We can trust you people to do what you say.”
It was apparent that the Witness inmates had made a lasting impression on this official. But we had to move on.
Our next stop was the prison laundry, where I was introduced to Lawrence Watts, supervisor of the laundry. He had agreed to sponsor our in-prison program back in 1973. He told me: “The good example of the inmates you people have helped has been a little contagious. I think that, as a result, the overall conduct of the prisoners has improved. I know it has!”
He made clear to us that he appreciated what we were accomplishing in Angola. After a very pleasant chat, we left and drove back to the rodeo grounds to say good-bye to the prisoners. We told them that we would see them the next day, and headed for home.
The next morning was cold. We arrived at the Rodeo Stadium at 7:30, two hours before the program was to begin. I wanted to get acquainted with the six men who were to be baptized. As I talked with them, I was impressed by their sincerity and appreciation for God’s Word.
Quickly the time passed, and the program began. At 10:00 a.m. I spoke on the theme “God’s Will, or Self-Will, Which?” This was followed by the baptismal talk, after which the men were baptized in a tank set up near the stage in sight of the 1,970 visitors. There was a burst of applause as each inmate came up out of the water. I will never forget the face of one man, dripping with water and with a big smile that easily told you, “This is the happiest day of my life!”
After the baptism there was a two-hour intermission. The New Roads Congregation had arranged for food for all, available at a nominal price. Volunteers from the audience helped to serve it. The prisoners weren’t permitted to eat with those from the outside; they were served in an area close to the stage.
I had free access to the inside grounds where the prisoners gathered, and enjoyed talking with some who were getting interested in the work of Jehovah’s Witnesses. One told me: “You people don’t need to preach the tenets of your religion. All you have to do is befriend a person and in due time you win him over because of your conduct and friendliness.”
The two hours passed quickly, and it was time for the resumption of the program. The public talk was entitled “God’s Kingdom, a Living Reality.” Afterward, there was a summary of the Watchtower lesson, presented by baptized inmates. And what a splendid job they did!
By 4:00 p.m. it was time for the concluding song and prayer. A friend of mine, who has been a Witness for many years, expressed the sentiments of many of us when she said: “We felt a warmth and love there to a greater degree than at any assembly we have ever attended.”
The Angolite, a prisoner publication of the Louisiana State Penitentiary, observed: “This was the fourth such assembly the Witnesses have held in Angola, and more are planned for the future, as the Witnesses continue their efforts to reach the hearts of more and more prisoners. Theirs represents the biggest and most consistent effort by any religious group toward trying to persuade and help the prisoners here to pursue self-improvement and more meaningful lives.”—November-December 1976.
A Unique Program?
To say the least, I was deeply impressed by what I saw and experienced. When I got back to New York, I began checking leads and writing letters to see what I could find out about similar prison programs. And I can tell you that what is going on in Angola is unique only in its size and its greater success. I’ll cite just a few examples:
Every Wednesday an elder of Jehovah’s Witnesses visits the Chillicothe Correctional Institution in Ohio. He conducts a Bible study that is attended, on the average, by eight to fourteen inmates. Two have been baptized, and two more are contemplating baptism.
Four weekly meetings are conducted by Jehovah’s Witnesses at the London Correctional Institution in Ohio, where there are 1,700 inmates. These meetings have been held for nearly two years now, and three inmates have been baptized. Another inmate, ready for baptism, was released the first of the year.
A very successful program is operating in the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility, Lucasville, Ohio. It began in the fall of 1972. The average meeting attendance has been around twenty-two, with thirty-three attending a recent special meeting. In April 1975 and March 1976 seven inmates were baptized in a watering trough purchased for the special occasions.
A fine program began in late 1973 in the Maryland State Prison. Soon there were many Bible studies with inmates and, in time, elders of Jehovah’s Witnesses were conducting regular meetings. Thus far, eight men have been baptized (using the prison hospital tub).
On Rikers Island, New York city, eight elders are making weekly visits to conduct Bible studies with prison inmates. Also, other prisons in the city are being visited.
Is this to say that the answer to the tremendous prison and crime problems is this instruction program conducted by Jehovah’s Witnesses? By no means! Admittedly, their contribution toward solving the problem is minor. Yet, I believe they provide a clue to the real answer.
[Blurb on page 6]
“Meetings are held in a room of the prison’s Education Building.”
[Blurb on page 7]
“The only question asked was: Do you have any guns?’”
[Blurb on page 8]
“We can trust you people to do what you say.”
[Picture on page 9]
The six baptismal candidates standing before the speaker, with part of the audience in the background, just prior to their baptism
[Picture on page 10]
Still dripping with water, an inmate radiates happiness after his baptism