Angola 'lifers' help younger prisoners with a second chance


Posted on February 21, 2011 at 11:36 PM

Updated Tuesday, Feb 22 at 11:25 AM

Angela Hill / Eyewitness News

ANGOLA, LA - When Burl Cain walked into Angola state penitentiary 16 years ago he walked into almost a century of history.

“It was a bloody place and it was violent,” he recalls. “There was predators and prey of predators, and it was unsafe for all of us, including the staff.”

Today he walks freely, without guards. It has been nothing short of a cultural revolution and one he attributes to a simple thought.

“It just came to me that moral people aren’t criminals,” he said. “If I can get these guys to be moral, I make this place safe and we’ll calm it down.”

And over time Cain's moral rehabilitation took hold. He started GED classes and trade schools, and he built an extension of the New Orleans Baptist Theological seminary and eliminated the 'lock up and feed mentality' that existed for decades.

It did calm Angola, dramatically, but it also had another purpose.

“My job is to correct deviant behavior, and I’m not doing it if I don’t really try to correct their behavior so when they get out again they don’t hurt you,” he said. “It’s all about that.”

The majority of men who come to Angola never get out. But for those who do, there's a 50 percent chance they'll be back. Cain is now on a mission to cut that recidivism and ultimately to cut the number of victims in our state.

He’s having success with a new program that was actually started by two New Orleans criminal judges: Judge Arthur Hunter and Judge Laurie White. They went to Baton Rouge to help change the law allowing them to sentence non-hardened criminals to a re-entry program at Angola. It’s a tough program where criminals have to to learn a skill that will earn them a good living and they have to learn to be a good human being.

Burl Cain knew just who could teach these guys - some of his lifers.

Shelby Arabi came to Angola on a life sentence for second-degree murder. He is head of the automotive technology program at Angola and became a master certified instructor to do it.

He oversees other instructors like Dana Jackson who's been here 12 years on a life sentence for possession to distribute heroin.

“If I can never go home, then I feel like these young guys coming through here, then if I can give them something and say, look man, you don’t have to sell drugs, you don't have to steal, you don't have to do any of this. I'm going to show you this and when I show you this and you get certified, then you are guaranteed to make good money and you don't have to commit crimes anymore,” said Jackson.

If it is giving direction to the inmates, it has given purpose to the lifers.

“I have a son out there,” said Arabi. “My son is 27 years old now, or soon to be 27 years old, and I was kinda vacant from him for the most part of his life, so it's a chance for me to maybe take on a father role to some of the younger guys and maybe brought a change to their life to prevent them from coming back to prison."

George Vortish, 25, was sent to Angola for second-degree battery.

“I used a lot of drugs and I had got released from prison once before in 2007 and I got in a fistfight in the French Quarter,” he said.

Judge White gave him a shot at the re-entry program and he has soared, completing the auto service certification and more.

“I studied this test for four months and passed it along with my GED at the same time," he said. "I amaze myself sometimes with the things I know, the things that I learned.”

Vortish credits his teacher and mentor, Damian Bode, who has been in Angola 10 years on a 40-year sentence for armed robbery.

“Once I got to know George personally, we built a bond in the relationship,” recalled Bode. “It was just more than mechanics and putting in bolts and turning wrenches. I don’t want him to come where I’m at.”

Thirty-year-old Jonathon Garner of New Orleans arrived here with a five-year sentence for selling drugs.

“I couldn't really pay the bills and I didn’t have any skills, so it was hard for me to get a job, so I turned to drugs,” he said.

Garner is studying to be a certified electrician. He is motivated to be self sufficient and to be a father. He also wants to address concerns that once he gets out, he could break the law again.

“I'm not only getting the opportunity to become someone in life, the program also changes me inside,” he said. “It teaches me a lot of things about life.”

And he is learning about life from these lifers who live in the dorms with all those in the re-entry program. The mentors have been trained in counseling, some getting degrees.

Sidney Deloche, who came to Angola in 1978 as a convicted rapist, is now a minister of a prison church and is in charge of the mentors.

“Our job in this dorm with them is 24/7,” he said. “We live with them. We have classes with them every day."

George Gillam, 33, has spent half his life in prison for first-degree murder. As a mentor, he has a strong message.

“I think all these guys pretty much have the same story. We learned violence. It’s a learned behavior. Selling drugs, it’s a learned behavior and you learn it from peers," Gillam said. "If I had just changed, hung out with smarter kids, better kids I wouldn’t be in prison today."

Haywood Jones has spent 13 years in Angola for second-degree murder. He is now a mentor. He says helping the younger inmates change begins with building trust.

“When you see their heart and where they are at, you gonna be able to help them in those areas to be productive in society and to be productive in life,” he said.

Two new prisoners from Orleans Parish arrive to enter the new program - Efrem Harry and Edward Wiley. Both say they want out of the criminal life.

And that is the first step for all these prisoners in the re-entry program.

“It is all about being responsible and accountable, you see, and if we can get these young men to be accountable and become accountable, then they can go back into society,” Deloche said. “These guys have another chance and we have to convince them that they have what we wish we had.”

Cain believes the re-entry program is a weapon in breaking the cycle of crime. He sees hope in the eyes of prisoners who understand they have a second chance and he sees a sense of purpose in those who will never leave Angola, but understand they have helped another human being.

But, he says the biggest victory of the program would be fewer victims on the streets of New Orleans.

Fifty percent of prisoners who get out of prison today, return to prison within three years.

That's according to the Pew Center, which recently partnered with Governor Jindal to study our criminal justice system and to offer suggestions on how to reduce the number of repeat offenders.

The national organization may not have to look far for ideas.