Howard has just served us four plates of the best chocolate-chip cookies I've ever eaten when Warden Burl Cain tells us that Howard killed a man and is going to die an old man in prison for it. It's flat as that, but it exposes the most intimate, relevant detail of Howard's life. I don't want to look at him, but I do, and Howard doesn't flinch. Howard's sad eyes don't change, don't feign remorse or regret, just stay sad, and his gold-plated teeth are the only thing that hints he was once a man who wouldn't let himself be stared at. "I don't know how Howard killed somebody, and I don't care," says Cain about his favorite prisoner. "I care about how he is now." Even though Louisiana offers no hope for parole, Cain says he believes Howard is rehabilitated and should be freed if he can meet the family of the man he killed and receive its forgiveness. Howard nods in agreement, because justice is as simple and brutal as that, even if he is going to die here in Angola prison.
Heaven and hell and sin and redemption are just philosophy to me, a system to make sense out of life. But here in Angola, heaven and hell and sin and redemption aren't philosophy. They are the answers to why you're here and who you are and where you are going to end up.
There are 88 men on death row, and Burl Cain has killed more people than most of them. He has set five down by lethal injection, and he has held each of their hands as they died. One man had track marks so bad they had to shoot the poison into his neck, and he kept bolting upright, so Cain had to push his shoulder down with his right hand while letting the man hold Cain's left for comfort. The table has five straps on the gurney--two leg manacles, two wristbands and one chest belt--making a horizontal cross, the only thing in Angola that isn't pointing toward either heaven or hell. Cain says he stayed quiet when he killed his first man and didn't give him a chance to confess and get right with God, and Cain felt him go to hell, felt it in his hand surer than anything he'd ever known, and it made him commit his life to Christ. "My wife, she doesn't like that she's married a killer," he says. "This is probably going to end my marriage."
One of Cain's predecessors, Warden C. Murray Henderson, was recently convicted of shooting his wife five times, and he's most likely going to wind up in Angola for it. At 18,000 acres, it's the largest prison in the U.S., with the lowest-paid guards, few of whom have graduated from high school. It's a place that Collier's magazine once called "the worst prison in America," where in 1951, in an effort to protest the brutal conditions, 31 prisoners sliced their Achilles tendons so they couldn't be sent to work.
At the prison museum Cain has built, where all the T shirts, coffee mugs and videos have the name ANGOLA printed in big letters, Cain points his thick fingers at pictures of the men he has executed. "They're special people to me," he says.