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Pious prisoner seeks governor’s OK to get out

Eugene Tanniehill has lived inside the gates of Louisiana's maximum-security penitentiary since 1960, after getting a life term for murder. Tanniehill, who has reportedly undergone a transformation from criminal to pastoral prison leader, last week won the first round in his effort to win parole.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Eugene Tanniehill has lived inside the gates of the state's maximum-security penitentiary since 1960, after getting a life term for murder.

Hundreds of men are serving life at Angola, but Tanniehill is unusual: He has a chance to get out. Most of his fellow prisoners will die there, but Tanniehill last week won the first round in his effort to win parole.

Whether he does depends partly on Gov. Kathleen Blanco, who can accept or reject the parole recommendation Tanniehill won from the state pardon board.

Since taking office, Blanco has approved 133 of 206 such recommendations. So far none of Blanco's pardon decisions has attracted much attention, but Tanniehill's case is quite a story: a man of violence who grew into a man of the cloth.

At age 25, Tanniehill confessed to bludgeoning a man to death with a pipe in Grant Parish, during an armed robbery. He got a life sentence for the killing, plus 25 years for the robbery.

He arrived at Angola when the prison was among the nation's most violent. He survived it, and has grown old; few prisoners have been there longer. Now 72, he's been inside the gates since John Kennedy was president.

He says he was born again four years after the crime. Now dubbed the "bishop of Angola," Tanniehill has become a pastoral leader in a place where a lot of men need guidance and direction.

Tanniehill is a favorite of Angola warden Burl Cain — perhaps because Tanniehill shines as an exemplar for Cain's notion that prisoners can use religion as a path to rehabilitation.

Cain, warden since 1995, has built four chapels on the prison grounds and set up nightly prayer services. Angola has four part-time chaplains. The warden attributes a drop in violence at the prison to Angola's commitment to "moral rehabilitation" programs.

Tanniehill was one of the first graduates of Angola's "Bible college" that has trained dozens of inmates to be ministers.

The politics of 'moral rehab'
In a minor way, the concept of "moral rehab" could come up in next year's presidential race. U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback, a conservative from Kansas who's a long shot for the Republican nomination, believes religion can provide inmates with an alternative to crime if they ever get out. To highlight the issue, Brownback spent a night in an Angola cell last year.

Louisiana and other states with religious prison programs are watching how federal courts resolve a lawsuit by Americans United for Separation of Church and State against the state of Iowa, challenging a program run by Prison Fellowship Ministries. The ministry group is appealing a federal judge's order to end the Iowa prison program and repay the state $1.53 million.

Legal issues aside, Tanniehill's case appears to lend credence to the argument that faith can facilitate rehabilitation. He's quick to take responsibility — and ask forgiveness — for the murder he committed.

"Every time the crime is brought up, it makes me repent again," he said in a 1995 interview.

He called Angola "a refuge to me. It has kept me alive because the life I was living would have destroyed me."

His story attracted the attention of filmmakers and was featured in "The Farm," the award-winning 1998 documentary about life at Angola.

A job offer — if he gets parole
And nearly five decades after his crime, the pardon board's ruling last week was a step toward freedom. He'll go free if Blanco and the state parole board agree that he deserves parole.

Once before, in 1997, the pardon board recommended a reduction in Tanniehill's sentence. Foster rejected it.

This time, the Grant Parish sheriff opposed the pardon request.

Tanniehill has said that a fellow churchman has offered him a job — in New York City, of all places. Tanniehill, a native of rural north Louisiana, wants to accept.

First, he needs permission from the governor and the parole board.