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John Whitley (born January 1944 in Hammond, Louisiana) was a Louisiana corrections officer who served as the warden of Louisiana State Penitentiary (or Angola Prison), the largest maximum-security in the United States, from 1990 to 1995. Time magazine credited Warden Whitley with turning around hopelessness and violence at Angola with "little more than his sense of decency and fairness."
Early life and education
John Whitley attended Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, Louisiana, and graduated in 1968. He enlisted in the United States Army that year, and served during the Vietnam War before his discharge in 1970. Shortly after, he began his career in corrections.
Whitley started his career as a classification officer at Angola in 1970, and rose through the ranks during its bloodiest years to become Deputy Warden of the prison. He moved on to become the warden of another Louisiana prison, Hunt Correctional Center, and left the state to run a private prison in Texas. He was asked to return to Angola in 1990 to restore order in the wake of enough stabbings, suicides and escapes to cause a United States Federal Judge to declare a state of emergency at the prison. Within two years, he had stemmed the violence with incentives for good behavior, like extra visits, and by increasing educational opportunities with literacy tutoring, and computer and paralegal courses. And he enabled some trustworthy and deserving inmates to travel outside the prison as part of athletic teams and inmate bands that provided entertainment for churches, nursing homes, and other charitable organizations.
He launched an outreach program to all criminal justice programs in the State of Louisiana, offering to send both prison officials and inmates to college classrooms to help both students and faculty better understand the realities of prison management and prison life.
Like several Louisiana wardens before him, Whitley was committed to an open door policy with the media. He told the inmate-produced newsmagazine, The Angolite, that he would continue the decades-long policy of lack of censorship that had enabled the inmates to win major national journalism awards for investigating problems at the prison, and would also continue to welcome outside media and cooperate with them: “We’re not going to have anything to hide in Angola,” he said. “And, if there’s something that’s wrong in the prison, I want to know about it, and my staff better correct it—because I intend to be proud of this prison and the way we operate it.” Under Whitley, The Angolite branched out into uncensored radio and television journalism because he saw them in the spirit of the prison’s other outreach programs designed to educate the public about what really goes on in prison. He explained to National Public Radio’s Fresh Air host, Terry Gross, the philosophy that lay behind the lack of censorship: “We want … different views of prison. Some of the views, I don’t like. It upsets me sometimes, but it’s true. We’re looking for the truth.”
In July 1991, hours after Whitley carried out an execution in the state’s electric chair, the prison tensed up when inmate welders—one of whose brother had been executed—were ordered by a corrections department employee to build a “hospital examining table” that they soon learned was actually a lethal injection gurney. Hundreds of fellow inmates staged a work strike. When Whitley learned what was happening, he locked up the strikers, and brought in SWAT teams to prepare for the strike. Then he told the media that deceiving the inmate workers was wrong and the work order should never have been issued: it put the inmates in a bad position, and he was not going to subject them to building the lethal injection gurney. With that statement, he ended the strike without violence and gained the respect of both the inmate population and his security force. He also earned a commendation from the conservative Baton Rouge Morning Advocate, for taking the unusual step—for any warden—of admitting the prison had erred and correcting the mistake. “It’s refreshing to see a high-ranking government official admit mistakes and attempt to rectify them. It’s a sign of integrity and responsibility.” So impressed was Time magazine that he was invited to New York City to share his management philosophy with its corporate officers and editors, and was profiled in a three page feature; he was the only American prison warden to have that profile. The Russian language magazine, America, followed suit with a six-page profile of Whitley.[page needed]
Angola first earned accreditation from the American Correctional Association during Whitley’s tenure, a concrete measure of the reforms he enacted to increase the safety under which both inmates and employees live and work on the prison farm.
Having accomplished his goal of turning Angola into the safest maximum security in America, Whitley retired as warden in 1995. In what “may have been a first in the history of U. S. prisons,” over a hundred inmate leaders pooled their money to throw him a farewell party, which was attended by prison employees and officials, and covered by news media throughout Louisiana.
After leaving Angola, Whitley ran a private prison in Florida until he was called back again to Louisiana to act as the Court Expert for the U.S. Middle District Court of Louisiana, which oversaw the state’s prisons compliance with a 1975 federal court order. He remained in that position until 2003.
Whitley received numerous awards and honors during his tenure as Warden. Several of those were: Profile in "Time" Magazine, December 1992; Alumni of the Year" Southeastern Louisiana University 1993; Profile in "AMERICA", a Russian-Language Magazine, January 1994; Panelist, Time/Warner forum on Crime & Punishment - Feb. 1994; Profile by CBS News (Mike Wallace) - "In the Killing Fields of America" - Jan. 1995
- Jill Smolowe, “Bringing Decency Into Hell: John Whitley,” Time, December 14, 1992.
- Jill Smolowe, “Bringing Decency Into Hell: John Whitley,” Time, December 14, 1992
- Wilbert Rideau and Ron Wikberg, “New Man at the Helm,” The Angolite, May/June 1990.
- “Fresh Air,” November 14, 1994
- John Semien and James Minton, “Inmates placed in ‘bad position,’ warden concedes,” Baton Rouge Morning Advocate, July 25, 1991; Allen Johnson, Jr., “More Angola,” The Louisiana Weekly, July 27, 1991.
- “Our Views” (editorial) Saturday Advocate, July 27, 1991.
- Milford Fryer, Suburban Editor, “Admitting mistake unusual, correct,” Sunday Advocate, July 28, 1991.
- America, January 1994, p.25.
- David Snyder, “Angola lifers sorry to see the warden go,” The New Orleans Times-Picayune, January 31, 1995.