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Sunday Stories from the South
*Since this is Easter weekend I’ve decided to publish my weekly story early.
The first time I saw the inside of a prison was in 1999; I was 16. I hadn’t knocked over a fruit stand or been caught stealing hubcaps, I was just an unsuspecting teenager playing piano for a Louisiana gospel group.
One Wednesday evening in October, my pastor and leader of the band gathered us up after prayer meeting and told us we had been invited to come sing at Angola, the Louisiana State Penitentiary. We were all wide-eyed and slack-jawed. “The Farm,” as it was known to most, had a long reputation of being not only the largest, but also the bloodiest prison in America. And for those of us who had grown up hearing stories, this was like hearing that we had been invited to sing in the main arena at the Roman Colosseum with ribeyes tied around our necks.
Angola Prison is named for the slave plantation that once occupied its 18,000 acres near St. Francisville, in West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana. It is hemmed in on three sides by swamps and the Mississippi River. The other side is a vast expanse of fields on which the inmates grow crops.
But when folks in Louisiana think of Angola, they aren’t thinking about Bradley Tomatoes and collard greens. There were nearly 2,350 assaults committed on the grounds of the penitentiary in 1996 alone. Many of these resulted in death, as inmates fashioned crude weapons using everything from sharpened mop handles and toothbrushes, to strangling ropes made from corn silk and shoe strings.
“It’s not like it once was,” the pastor said.
“Well, I should hope not!” the mothers and grandmothers of the boys in the band said in a hot mix of fear and aggravation.
“There was a time when they just handed out weapons to the inmates and let them keep the peace as it suited them best,” said the mother of the drummer. “Didn’t really even have guards.” And there was truth to that.
“They’ve not had an incident involving members of the public in several years,” our pastor said, trying to reassure everybody. “I think it will be good for these boys.”
And with little further protests, we decided to book the date to perform for two days at the supermax prison where 85% of all inmates who ever leave do so feet first.
Twice a year, Angola puts on a rodeo. A couple days in April and every Sunday in October. We had been slated to put on a concert on the last rodeo Sunday of the year. Bucking bulls, wild broncs, and a horde of murderous men with nothing left but time. “What could go wrong,” we thought.
But by the time our old 1959 Silver Eagle made its way to the razor-wire gates at the end of Old Highway 66, most of us young folks were practically giddy. To tell the truth, I don’t think we had enough sense to be frightened.
There were hundreds of freemen already there by the time we arrived. Thousands come annually to watch the convicts test their mettle against steers and horses and each other. And at eight dollars a head, it’s pretty cheap entertainment.
We were led through the prison compound into the rodeo arena by the warden, Big Burl Cain. Cain believes in redemption. He believes that the worst of men can become good men with enough patience, discipline, and proper instruction.
When we got off of our bus, one of our crew asked him how he had been so successful at turning the “Alcatraz of the South” into a fairly safe environment. Warden Cain replied, “Three things make for a peaceful prison: good work, good prayin’, and good playin’.”
“You passed the fields when you came up the road. We teach these men how to work. Some have never had a job. So we give em’ a trade. We teach plumbing and welding and carpentry and masonry. Those who prefer the fields can learn to grow their own food.” He said.
“You will also notice the steeples before you notice the guard towers around here these days. We build em’ churches and encourage attendance. We’ve also even partnered with seminaries to train our converts and make preachers out of em’. Some of them are even sent to other prisons as missionaries.” said Cain.
“But the rodeo is purely for fun. It gives these men something to look forward to. A chance to let their hair down and feel the wind in their faces. For most of em’, it’s the closest thing to freedom they will ever experience again.”
The first inmate I met confirmed as much. As we began unloading our equipment to set up for the afternoon concert, two men came over to help us. A young white man named Nick Nicholson, and an old black man named Eugene Tanniehill, Jr. whom everyone called, “Bishop.”
Nick was a former all-around champion of the Angola rodeo. “I always dreamed of being a cowboy,” he said. “But I didn’t know that it would take killing a man to finally get me into the saddle. These days I beg for a mean bull.” There was no humor in his words. Nor was this a cold remark of a callous and unfeeling man. He said it with an air of confession. As though perpetual repentance to every person he met would make his life sentence a little easier to bear. He was 36, and he would end his natural life between unending rows of field corn and the concrete walls of Cell Block C.
Nicholson would eventually end up buried beneath a plain white cross in a coffin he had built himself. As one of the apprenticed carpenters who had no living friends or family in the free world, he had already built a box of birch and pine that would one day follow a horse-drawn carriage in Angola’s own Potter’s Field. This was “good work” according to Nick, “honorable work.” “Me and my boys have even been asked to build coffins for the Graham family,” he said. “Me and Billy Graham will be buried in boxes I have made, out of the same tree.” Then his eyes fell again and he stood there shaking his head.
The Bishop, on the other hand, was lively and upbeat. “God has been better to me than I ever was to myself,” he said, smiling. “Two people have died at my hands,” he said, staring hard into my young eyes. “One was a young man I kilt for seventeen dollars and half a bottle of whiskey, the other was Old Tanniehill hisself.” He said, thumbing his chest.
“That boy didn’t deserve killin’,” continued Tanniehill, “and I have been paying for it on this farm for better than forty years now. But Old Tanniehill did deserve killin’, and I kilt him when I hung him on the cross beside Jesus.” He smiled again. “Some say I will never leave this place. But I am already free. A body in jail is better off than a soul in prison. Old Tanniehill is dead and Bishop Tanniehill is a brand new man.”
Then the Bishop pulled a few of us boys over to one side, “But the Lord has told me that I won’t die in this here prison. He’s gonna turn me loose, give me a pretty wife, and give me a nationwide ministry. You just watch and see.”
The rodeo and the concert went off without a hitch. No one was severely wounded in the arena, and not a single band member took a shiv to the gut. We considered this a victory. I suppose everyone remembers things in their own way, but for a few hours one Sunday in October of 99’, I remember experiencing freedom in a new way; sitting beside convicts who lived only for bad bulls and bible studies.
Some years later I was somewhere in the hills of North Carolina preaching under a tent. After services were over, I went back to my hotel room and ordered a pizza. I was flipping through the channels to find something to watch as I stuffed down slices of pepperoni with jalapenos and extra cheese when I landed on a face that stopped me in mid-chew.
The tv landed on TBN (Trinity Broadcasting Network). Sitting there beside Jan Crouch and her enormous purple hair was Eugene “Bishop” Tanniehill and his lovely new wife. After 52 years, he was released from Angola. He was now an ordained bishop and was serving along Jim Cymbala at The Brooklyn Tabernacle in New York. He spent the rest of hi life these trying to get back into prisons, telling hopeless men how to find hope in Jesus.
To this day I would put my hand on the Bible and swear that he turned into the camera and stared hard into my young eyes once again and winked, saying, “I told you so.”
Bishop Tanniehill died at home in 2020.
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