Dig Baton Rouge

Steeples & Barbed Wire

Prison ministry at Angola

On June 6, 2000, Charles deGravelles arrived at the guarded gates of Angola Prison at sunrise. He spent that sweltering, summer day with a prisoner by the name of Feltus Taylor, Jr. on Louisiana State Penitentiary’s infamous Death Row. Over the course of three years, deGravelles and inmate Taylor, Jr. had developed a close friendship through the prison’s Episcopal Ministry. June 6, 2000, however, would mark the end of it.

“Somebody asked him on the day of his execution whether he wanted a crucifix,” said deGravelles. According to deGravelles, Taylor, Jr. replied, “‘You know, where I’m going, I’m going to get the real thing.’”

At the warden’s command, a lethal injection was administered and through the death chamber’s viewing glass, deGravelles held eye contact with his dear friend until his eyes shut and only his lifeless body remained strapped on the execution gurney.

“I wanted to take my chair and throw it through the window that divided us and stop it, but I didn’t,” said deGravelles. “He had, in fact, found faith and he died with dignity. He died with a lot of grace.”

Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the United States. Roughly 36,000 inmates spend their days, months, and for approximately 80 percent of the 6,300 prisoners housed at Angola, entire lives behind bars.

Often called the “Alcatraz of the South” and “The Farm,” Angola welcomes those entering with a black and red Louisiana State Penitentiary sign and barbed wire.

Standing on the Mississippi River levee overlooking the prison’s 18,000 acres, a few steeples subtly stick out. However, unlike many churches in the Bible belt, no fancy fountains, no chic crosses, and no shiny signs accompany Angola’s places of worship—only more thorny wires.

DeGravelles got his start in prison ministry one weekend in 1990 at Angola’s Prison Camp B and described it as, “literally life changing.” Walking up and down an unairconditioned cellblock tier he met with and spoke to inmates, many of whom were serving life sentences.

“I had really just begun my own faith journey and these guys, some of them were ahead of me and some of them were behind me in that respect and I just realized that’s where I needed to be,” said deGravelles. “I went up there with the desire to be on the frontline ministry somewhere, get my hands dirty and do something of value.”

A former active deacon at Trinity Episcopal Church, a prior chaplain and teacher at Episcopal High School, and the Archdeacon of the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana from 2005 to 2009, deGravelles knows what faith on the outside, all too often, looks like compared with what it means for so many locked up behind bars.

“I think in some ways ministering to people in prison is different. You have people who have wrecked their own life and wrecked a lot of other people’s lives in the process,” said deGravelles. “You’ve got an environment of really extreme need and it’s funny because those people very often are seeking God at a much more intense level because they know that they need him. They know that they need help.”

However, not all inmates want help, especially if it comes in the form of a cross. On his first day speaking with prisoners, many told deGravelles, “next cell buddy.” DeGravelles vividly remembers one man in particular saying, “‘I’ve seen you Christians, you guys come up here to feel good about yourselves and feel like you’re doing something and you’ll never be back.’” 

Well, DeGravelles did go back. He even became close friends with that same prisoner who originally turned his back on him, and when released after serving a twenty-year sentence, deGravelles was waiting patiently on the other side of the gates.

DeGravelles’ interaction with one inmate almost makes him look like a prisoner himself. The two jokingly spar over LSU and Florida baseball, yet later speak privately about more pressing issues. During it all, deGravelles looks right at home.

While society often sees prisoners, especially at Angola, as sociopaths and psychopaths beyond hope and without a chance, deGravelles views them through a more optimistic lens.

“One of the tenants of the Christian faith is that no one is ever beyond hope,” said deGravelles. “I believe that everyone has a chance.”

Realistically speaking, the majority of inmates deGravelles has gotten to know over the years will never know life outside of Angola, some, however like Kerry Myers, will and do. When Myer’s answers the call for our one-on-one phone interview he does so as a free man. Myers spent 26 years of his life locked up at Louisiana State Penitentiary before being released in December of 2016; however, his friendship with deGravelles still holds strong. 

When asked if Myers considered deGravelles more of a minister or a friend Myers simply responds, “both.”

“When you become a genuine friend of someone your circumstances change, but that doesn’t change,” said Myers. “That’s what Charlie is, that’s the kind of person he is.”

Photos by Sean Gasser

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