Can You Win an Ethics Award?

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I once visited a guy on death row…

in Angola Prison in Louisiana. The air in that part of Louisiana smells slightly muddy and it’s heavy. One feels as though it takes no more than breathing in to get a drink of water. The prison is old. Its walls hold horror in layers like coats of gray paint.

The Warden was our host. A surprisingly affable man of deep personal faith, which he shared presumptively. He walked us by the area where the long since dismantled gallows once stood. Past the separate barracks for younger, more vulnerable prisoners, those who would “be eaten alive” by the more seasoned inmates. We walked easily through various checkpoints, under guard towers, and between high, razor wire fences into ever more secure areas. Inmates mingled beside and between us, smiling, shaking hands, and exchanging pleasant greetings. While I cannot speak for the other professors, I felt no sense of fear. The inmates showed nothing but confidence.

We learned that Angola is virtually escape proof. Should a man get past the walls, wire, and guards, he would find himself hemmed in on every side by alligator and snake infested swamps and hills covered in impenetrable brush. Angola has always been a place where the worst offenders pay their debts--people thought of as best kept away from potential victims. As we walked through, I could feel the sadness of crushed dreams.

The average Angola prisoner never leaves. Sentences are generally long and the stress of incarceration is oppressive and fatal. Once inside, we were told that the typical man leaves in a coffin bound for the prison graveyard.

We passed through more barracks, spotlessly clean, blankets flatly pulled and tucked into bunk corners, everything in its place, everyone diligently at his task. We saw the recreation area, the stables and barns (Angola is a working farm), the dining hall and kitchen where dozens of men steadily washed and chopped the next meal, almost all of which was grown on the farm.

The tour wound through the maze of buildings, in and out of more and less secure areas, into and through education buildings where some of our tribe taught classes in theology, philosophy, church history, pastoral ministry, preaching, and, my discipline: ethics. I was on the bus that day because of my eligibility to teach an ethics class at Angola Prison.

Over and over we heard from the Warden on the success of the program offering an Associates Degree in Christian Religion. We graduated men of faith who though they remained prisoners, had turned Angola from the most violent maximum security prison in the United States into the least violent maximum security prison--a worst to first transition seldom seen in American penal institutions. We heard from inmates that it was the hope these graduates shared that made all the difference.

That news caused me to reflect as I walked along on what it must be like to teach ethics to men who have, for the most part, committed the most reprehensible immoralities. Evidence of their crimes in most cases caused juries to hand them a de facto death sentence. Teaching right and wrong to men who have committed atrocities--how does one do that exactly? Men who almost without exception grew up in homes filled with violence, poverty, and pain--how does one tell them God is kind without coming off sounding like an idiot? How on earth could I teach men who lived miles away from the moral codes that lead to success?

As this confusing conundrum bounced around my brain, our tour kept walking. Outside, across a courtyard to a lone building with a single purpose. A relatively small but impossible to miss, handcrafted sign shouted in all capital letters: DEATH ROW. Through a door and another heightened security area, then a still higher security area, we toured past a caged room with a single museum piece: the no longer used electric chair at its center. Black wire mesh covered its back, bottom, arms and legs; leather cinches hung limp; a steel halo arched overhead with thick electric wiring tucked in place. A dark and ghastly thing created to execute justice with a touch of retribution.

Death Row is a gruesome place. It hangs on you like the grave clothes of Lazarus.

Into another room with chairs and a large glass window. It was a viewing room, and the view was through the kind of glass sandwiching chicken wire that can’t be easily broken through. Glass so thick it appeared to have a yellow tint. On the other side of the glass we saw a flat table about seven feet long and two feet wide. The table had 45-degree projections at each side, like a broken cross, where a man’s arms would be stretched and secured. I counted nine straps from the pillow at the head to the foot block, which had a steel ring attached to a chain, which was in turn attached to the cinder block wall.

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