ANGOLA, La. — Angola Prison is home to the worst of the worst — murderers, rapists, armed robbers and habitual felons. It’s also home to godly men like North American Mission Board chaplain Robert Toney and prison warden Burl Cain.
The average prison sentence at Angola is a whopping 93 years. That is, for those who don’t have life sentences. Some 3,700 of the prison’s 5,000 prisoners are in for life, so most will die there. If their families don’t claim their bodies, they’ll be buried there.
Officially the Louisiana State Penitentiary, Angola is the largest maximum security prison in the United States. Some 60 percent of the inmates are African American; 40 percent are white and Hispanic.
Staffed by 1,800, it’s also called “The Farm” — located on 18,000 acres in West Feliciana Parish near Mississippi. Angola is guarded on three sides by the Mississippi River. Escape attempts are rare.
Angola is so large it is the only prison in the United States to run its own radio station. Tom Hanks’ movie, “The Green Mile,” was based on life on death row at Angola in the 1930s, while films such as “Dead Man Walking” and “Monster’s Ball” also were partially filmed there.
But Toney, the chaplain, calls Angola “the land of new beginnings.” Toney, 39, is a Gloster, Miss., native who answered a call to the ministry as a high school senior. He came to Angola in 1999 after graduating from Mississippi College and New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
“Angola doesn’t have to be the end of the road,” Toney said of the prison, where an estimated 2,000 inmates are born-again Christians.
Toney loves his job. In late September, for instance, he spent time escorting 101-year-old George Beverly Shea — who donated an organ to the prison chapel — around Angola. But like any job, some days for Toney are better than others.
“Most of what I do here is simply one-on-one contact with the guys, getting to know them as real people,” Toney said. “I like to walk out of my office, go down the hall and just be a normal everyday person — ministering, listening and caring for these guys. If people would just listen to the inmates and take some time with them, it would hold down a lot of violence.”
The more gut-wrenching part of Toney’s job is getting to know an inmate, forming a bond with him, seeing him accept Christ and become a man profoundly changed by the gospel, only to later have to accompany him as he walks to Angola’s execution room.
Toney recalled “Feltus,” one of the prisoners he’s known who, shackled in chains, took that final walk down death row, the so-called “green mile.”
“Warden Cain asked me to pray and minister to him. But what was amazing was that Feltus told me he wanted to pray for me and for the officers who were charged with carrying out his execution. He prayed for me and I for him.
“He showed me his hand, which had John 3:16 written on it,” Toney said. “Feltus walked into the execution room and moments later, came out in a body bag. That’s hard to take, and the next day, I had to go back to his unit and realized he wasn’t there. I always have to struggle with that.”
In addition to his daily ministry to inmates, Toney and Cain were key players in the establishment of an accredited extension of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary at Angola.
“The Bible college here is a miracle story,” Toney said. “It has brought tremendous hope to the prison population. Inmates can graduate with a B.A. degree in religion, a legitimate degree. They can go to LSU or anywhere they want to go and build on that degree.
“But it wouldn’t have happened without Southern Baptists and the vision that Baptists had,” Toney said, referring to the late Landrum Leavell, then-president of New Orleans Seminary, and T.W. Terrell, director of missions in Louisiana’s Judson Baptist Association.
Cain, 67, has been Angola’s warden the last 15 years. He and Toney also have been instrumental in establishing similar Bible colleges at prisons in Mississippi, Georgia and Florida. Kentucky and Alabama prison Bible colleges are in the works.
Inmate Ron Hicks, serving a life sentence for murder, is just one Bible college graduate Toney is proud of.
In a prison of many smaller churches, “Ron Hicks is a young man who pastors the fastest-growing church in Angola,” Toney said. “At Angola, we don’t have gangs doing bad things. Our gangs are churches and our gang leaders are preachers who are preaching the gospel.
“Ron Hicks is a special young man, the same age as me. But even in his situation, God has brought us together, and I’ve been blessed to encourage him as a pastor, husband and father. Ron encourages me just to see what God has done in his life and how God uses him.”
Sentenced at 19, Hicks says from the day he entered Angola Prison in 1989, “I repented and asked God to forgive me for what I did. From that day forward, I just sold out for Christ. Since I’ve been here, I’ve been living for Jesus to the best of my ability with the help of the Holy Spirit.
“Chaplain Toney’s doing a wonderful job and is a great inspiration,” Hicks said. “He’s got a big heart of compassion for the men here.”
Cain agrees with Hicks that Toney — although physically intimidating at 6’2” and 260 lbs. — has a tender heart.
“He’s a big old guy who’s tall and strong but he’s got a heart for the Lord,” Cain said. “He struggles like all of us to be in God’s will, but the inmates love him and he was a driving force for the Bible college.
“With 3,700 men serving life sentences, this is as hardcore a prison as there is,” the warden said. “But because of men like Robert Toney and Ron Hicks, this prison is safer than most cities. It’s amazing what God can do with people like them.”
Toney is just one of more than 300 North American Mission Board prison chaplains serving across the United States. In all, 3,200 SBC-commissioned and endorsed chaplains are ministering in institutions, the military, corporations, healthcare and public safety.
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Noah writes for the North American Mission Board. To view a video about Robert Toney and other chaplain ministries, visit www.namb.net and click on the “Missionary Focus” gallery.)