PJI Responds to The Atlantic’s Newest Piece on Angola

August 9, 2015

To the Editor:

The video and accompanying print piece from Jeffrey Goldberg and colleagues regarding Angola prison are striking not only for their flattering portrayal of Warden Burl Cain, but also – more troublingly – for their take on the thousands of men in custody there.  Mr. Goldberg seems to credit the “remarkable” Warden Cain singularly for the fact that many of the men at Angola now possess what Mr. Goldberg considers “morality.” 

If Mr. Goldberg had paused to consider, as only one example, the brutal regime of solitary confinement to which he makes only a passing mention (notably at Angola’s Camp J, where dozens of prisoners live in squalor and are ruled by abject terror), he might have observed that it is not Cain but the men incarcerated at Angola who are remarkable.  They are a testament to the loss of humanity that occurs as a result of our social experiment in mass incarceration – more acute in Louisiana than anywhere.  The ability of a band of men to persevere in a place governed by hostility to their humanity is what is remarkable. 

 To paint these remarkable men as incapable of knowing right from wrong but for the guiding hand of Warden Cain belies a serious lack of understanding people in prison.  The attitude smacks of prejudgment as to some sort of intrinsic criminality, and fails to contend with the significant social forces in Louisiana that drive crime and punishment. 

We are glad that Mr. Goldberg comes to the conclusion that life without parole is an unfair and excessive sentence.  But he and his readers might consider that the prisoners at Angola were, perhaps, never categorically amoral to begin with.