Jim Ridgeway of Solitary Watch has prodded me to follow the “sawdust trail” of Burl Cain, warden of Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Jim’s article of Jan. 7 questions whether there may be another side to the transformation of Angola from violence and despair to hope under Warden Cain’s administration. From between the cracks of glowing press reports on the prison, there are hints that access to favorable treatment — education programs, for example — may be conditional to embracing evangelical Christianity. The only college degree program at Angola is in Christian ministry through New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, requiring a statement of personal faith in Jesus Christ for admission.

Warden Cain’s religious standards are decidedly Southern Baptist, known for its history of soliciting and counting converts. I attended a Southern Baptist Church many years ago as a law student in Washington, D.C., and was stunned that church membership was possible merely by raising your hand at the end of a service. Christian media, long on style and often short on substance, has been quick to promote Cain’s evangelistic passion as a new model for prison reform. Who could object to the popular Bible club AWANA hosting for the eighth consecutive year on May 1 what may be the largest gathering of children and their incarcerated dads in U.S. history? Some 1,000 children were to gather at Angola for games, food, crafts and pony rides and a chance to hear their dads say, “I’m sorry/I love you.” My interest is always piqued, however, when I hear of great success stories from evangelical ministries among captive audiences.

I ordered Dennis Shere’s book on Warden Cain, “Cain’s Redemption: A Story of Hope and Transformation in America’s Bloodiest Prison.” It is full of heartrending stories of the warden’s experiences from normal, everyday discipline to holding the hands of dying capital criminals as they receive their lethal injections. I wondered, “Is the transforming grace that has changed Angola from God or from Warden Cain?” My instinct says some of each but more of the latter than the former. The warden says that there may be as many as 2,000 men at Angola who have committed their lives to Christ. He expresses concern that when he leaves, however, the prison will revert back to violence and despair. There may have been 2,000 out of 5,500 prisoners at Angola who have repeated the evangelical Sinner’s Prayer of repentance, but the number of those who did so because it was in their best political interest is unknown.

Warden Cain is without question a committed Christian. He carries a heart for the downtrodden and disadvantaged that is sadly missing in prisons across the United States, to say nothing of the churches in the United States. He has learned, through his own walk of faith, to value all human life, an attitude that can transform any prison regardless of religion. And he carries within himself a deep concern for the eternal destiny of those who have fallen through the cracks. I would caution him to let prisoners respond to his light rather than his charismatic power.

Imposed Christian values, Christian morality and notches on the old salvation belt are no more of a lasting hope for Angola prison than they are for America. Unless faith is lived out in selfless service inside and outside prison, it is religion — not faith. Warden Cain walks a fine line between Christ as Savior and Warden Cain as redeemer.