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Burl Cain's Bet 

The Angola warden believes some of his inmates should be set free -- or at least get a hearing.

Two years ago, Warden Burl Cain bet his credibility on George "Ashanti" Witherspoon, 50, who was then serving 25 years of a 75-year sentence for attempted murder of two police officers in the Shreveport area. Witherspoon and the two officers were all wounded in a shoot-out, but no one was killed.

Witherspoon had an exemplary prison record. A church-going Episcopalian, he became a CPR instructor and trainer at Angola and journeyed outside to teach life-saving courses to firefighters and other safety personnel. His parole was not opposed by the officers he shot or the district attorney who prosecuted him.

State prison personnel are forbidden by law from making clemency recommendations, except in response to inquiries from state pardon and parole boards. And the Parole Board wanted some reassurances about Witherspoon.

"The Parole Board let him out, but they only let him out after I testified before them and told them he would do all right," Cain says. "They put it on tape because they wanted me to be responsible, which I don't mind, being responsible for somebody like him. ... He's a very productive citizen now, doing really well."

Witherspoon is married and works as a law clerk motivational speaker and Web page designer. "Now, there's a predator sleeping in his bed (at Angola)," says Cain. "There are a lot of inmates, who can do all right when they get out and make room for predators."

Like some previous wardens at Angola, Cain has stated publicly he could personally select several hundred reformed prisoners from Angola. And like his predecessors, he has, on reflection, later thought better of being held to a number or a percentage. Still, he now says, "I certainly have inmates that will be released that won't come back."

Cain says that after serving a period of time, even lifers deserve a hearing before the parole board. "When you come here at 18 to 20 years old, maybe your whole life might be too long, maybe not," Cain says. "Charles Manson gets a hearing; my inmates don't have a hearing. It doesn't mean Charles Manson ought to go free, some of mine ought never go free, but at least they ought to have a hearing."

Cain is largely alone in his call to widen parole eligibility. Life in prison no longer means 10 years and six months of good prison conduct before an inmate is eligible for clemency, as it did from 1926 to 1973. "Life" since then has meant just that.

"The big thing" in the Witherspoon case, Cain says, is that the victims didn't object to his parole. "I have a problem now releasing inmates where the victims object. ... Nobody should be released that somebody has got to be afraid of."

Cain says Angola has teamed up with the prison's religious community and the New Orleans-based victims' rights group Victims and Citizens Against Crime to develop an "inmate-victim reconciliation" program that will help victims and their families move on with their lives. Elizabeth Harvey, mother of the slain teen-ager Faith Hathaway, whose murder was depicted in the movie Dead Man Walking, is also participating in the committee work for the program, which prison officials critique and review.

"We're pushing it real hard," Cain says. "I think it has to be in place before the [parole] board starts to release people."

A victim's family may have a lot of questions about a murder or other crime that only the offender can answer, Cain says. "Like what happened. Give me some closure on this. I know it may sound horrible and gruesome, but many times they just want to know. So this is a way for inmates to tell them -- in the right condition and the right situation -- and for him to also say how sorry he is and how he wishes he hadn't done it."

Cain says the inmate will receive no reward or other inducement for participating in the program.

The Angola program mirrors the Restorative Justice Project, launched in 1999 at the Wade Correctional Center at Homer by prison Chaplain Ray Anderson. The RJ Project has a developed a 20-session, 50-hour course that ends with the offender writing a letter to the victim asking for forgiveness. He takes responsibility for his actions, explains the motive for the crime (if he or she can), expresses an understanding of what the victim went through, and asks for forgiveness. The inmate letter is carefully critiqued so as not to "re-offend someone by using hurtful or inappropriate words," according to the program's Web site. Completed letters are filed with a victim's advocacy office, which asks if the offended persons want to receive the apologies.

Like at Angola, participating prisoners at Wade receive no special recognition. "This isn't about them," Anderson says. "They don't benefit, except internally."

There have been notable individual examples of contrition in the past. After serving a 12-year sentence for armed robbery, Nelson Marks apologized in 1994 to employees of a Baton Rouge bank he robbed in West Baton Rouge Parish in 1982. The effort was facilitated by then-LSU basketball coach Dale Brown and Liberty Bank & Trust president Alden McDonald of New Orleans. While in prison, Marks co-founded the Project Return rehabilitation center for ex-offenders in New Orleans.

It remains to be seen, of course, whether prison inmate-victim apology programs will catch on statewide. Will it be applied in the case of "inmate-on-inmate" assaults, which pose a danger to prison personnel who must intervene in such disputes? Might prison administrators also establish guidelines for apologizing to inmates for unjust orders and prosecutions in prison disciplinary court?

And perhaps most significantly, should an individual victim be the final judge of a prisoner's rehabilitation? Says Cain: "Part of changing is when the inmate goes back and begs forgiveness from the victim's family, admits what he's done, and asks for forgiveness and has redeemed himself to the point that he can make a living and won't be doing those crimes again. Rehabilitation happens first in the heart. If you don't change inside in your heart, you're not going to be rehabilitated. I can educate you ... but until you change morally in your heart, I haven't changed you.

"When you can say, 'I'm sorry and I'm sincerely sorry,' and when [a victim] can accept that, then we can talk about maybe you being released. Talk about it."

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