What Does Rehabilitation Look Like for Lifers?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

That’s the question tackled by this short documentary on Angola prison:

A reader adds:

I was struck by the video Jeff Goldberg did on Angola prison and how it fit into the broader discussion he had with TNC about mass incarceration. Seeking to learn more about the prison, about which I knew little, I happened upon a book by one of its most famous prisoners, Wilbert Rideau: In the Place of Justice. The story is a chronicle of Rideau’s time at Angola, his role as editor of the prison newspaper, and his eventual release. It is also one man’s chronicle of Angola, and the changes it underwent during his time there (early ‘70s until early 2000s).

The book is well-written and harrowing. It is relevant to the debate on many levels, but the one most germane to the exchange between TNC and Goldberg is Rideau’s description of the tenure of Burl Cain.

Goldberg presents Burl Cain as a savior of sorts. While he has obvious discomfort with the level of religiosity Cain imposes on prisoners, Goldberg sees this as somewhat justifiable given that Cain has been saddled with the consequences of harsh and inflexible sentencing laws. In the documentary, Cain echoes this sentiment. He asserts that he is dealing with a situation someone else created.

Rideau’s account suggests a far more nuanced interpretation is required. Cain is a man of power in Louisiana politics and has been for years. His power and influence coincided with numerous changes to state sentencing guidelines that are directly responsible for the increase in long-term incarceration. More to the point, Rideau describes how Cain’s actions directly influenced these changes (pages 244-246).

While I do not profess any special expertise in this area, it strikes me that, if Rideau’s assertions are correct, Cain woefully misrepresents his role in the expansion of the carceral state. He is not simply dealing with the consequences, but instead he helped create this problem.

Another reader notes about Louisiana prisons in general:

Louisiana not only has the highest incarceration rate of any U.S. state, it has a higher incarceration rate than most countries. To give some numbers, Louisiana’s incarceration rate is 5 times Iran’s, 13 times China’s, and and 20 times Germany’s.