Journalism students participate in first-ever prison journalism seminar at Angola

Oct 14, 2010 | General News, Liberal Arts

Louisiana’s criminal justice system, like its institutions of higher learning, is staring at a severe budget crisis.  Yet, unlike education, it can’t simply let people go in a pinch.
And Louisiana needs journalists who are advocates for fixing its social and economic ills, according to Burl Cain, warden of Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, who addressed a group of Tech journalism students, who attended the first-ever prison journalism seminar at Angola Oct. 7.
Cain, who has been warden since 1995, is known for his tough-love and amazing overhaul of what was once considered one of the worst prisons in America.
“It was a great pleasure to host the journalism students from Louisiana Tech,” said Cathy Fontenot, assistant warden/programming.  “We appreciate the interest in The Angolite as well as the support of Warden Cain’s team as we accomplish ‘moral rehabilitation’ here at what is now considered the most progressive and productive maximum-security penitentiary in America.”
Kerry Myers, the inmate editor of The Angolite prison news magazine, conducted the 4-hour seminar, along with other members of the editorial staff of the publication.  The seminar was held for Tech journalism students at the request of Dr. Elizabeth Christian, assistant professor of journalism.
Myers and his small staff—and even smaller budget—produce the award-winning bimonthly publication without any taxpayer dollars.  All equipment and costs used to produced The Angolite come from subscriptions or donations from supporters.
Myers addressed the history of The Angolite and prison journalism around the United States and why it’s imperative to both the prison community and the outside community to know what is going on inside the prison walls.  Myers told students it was up to student and professional journalists to educate the public on the state’s criminal justice system.
Fontenot said,  “Greater public safety is only possible if those who work in the field of criminal justice and those who we serve and protect maintain open lines of communication about what is going on in society as well as behind the walls of prisons. The issues facing our state and our country are too great to not be discussed by those who are truly educated and open-minded.  It is our hope that your journalism students, who came here to learn, will assist us in further educating the public we jointly serve.”
Louisiana also has the only FCC-licensed radio station on prison grounds in the United States.  It received the license in 1984 and now operated 24 hours a day, seven days a week playing a host of music and talk radio programs.  Cain was instrumental in reopening Angola’s closed-circuit television station, which has become a huge part of the culture for the prisoners, said Lane Nelson, Angolite staff writer.
Cain has also been a huge proponent of the prison media, unlike nearly all prisons in the country.  Angola, which houses more than 5,000 maximum-security inmates, is a trailblazer in terms of criminal justice communication being done by prisoners.
“The visit was an eye opening experience that has forever altered my perception of how I see people,” said Justin Fort, a junior political science major and journalism minor from Choudrant. “It showed me people everywhere have the ability to be great, in their actions and with their personalities. It is a belief until recently I, along with many others, did not recognize.”
Kristin Bruce, a freshman journalism major from Blanchard, agreed.
“Before I had seen and heard what I did at Angola, I was all for sentencing a man for life in prison after committing a murder,” she said. “Now I think there are exceptions and that those guys are human beings just like everyone else.”
Others who attended included:  Derek Amaya, a journalism major from Metairie; Kelly Belton, a journalism and political science major from Simonton, Texas; Sherelle Black, a journalism major from Bossier City; Ashley Dison, a journalism major from Spearsville; Haley Kraemer, a journalism major from Shreveport; Landon Meyer, a speech communication major from Mandeville; Amie Rolland, a journalism major from Keithville; Lance Traweek, a journalism and political science major from Monroe; Jessica Wethington, a journalism major from Slidell; Robert Wilson, a journalism major from Boyce; and Flora Stringer, public information administrator for Tech’s News Bureau and journalism department.
Written by Dr. Elizabeth Christian