Most people call it Angola. Some simply refer to it as "the farm." In 1954, Collier's magazine called it "America's worst prison." And to those who have been there long enough to remember the way Louisiana State Penitentiary used to be, it was hell on earth.

In 1995, Burl Cain took over as Angola's warden, pointing the notorious prison in a different direction. He forbade cussing, pumped in religious radio day and night and persuaded a Baptist seminary to open a campus for the prisoners. Morale rose and prison violence plummeted, but Cain's critics say he has crossed the line separating church and state.

Cain shrugs off the accusations, giving credit to God.

"It was divine intervention," he said. "All we did was make the prison more moral."

The Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola sits on 18,000 acres of some of the most fertile farmland in the world. On three sides are the swirling, vicious waters of the Mississippi River, and on the fourth side is a jagged band of hills.

Angola is the largest maximum-security prison in the United States and home to more than 5,000 inmates. It is where Louisiana sends its most violent criminals.

Most of them will never leave. Nearly 70 percent of the inmates at Angola are serving life sentences without parole, and most of the rest have sentences so long that they won't live to see their release dates.

Although some reforms had already been put into effect before Cain, the misery of prison life continued to spawn a savage kind of violence. The year before Cain arrived, there were nearly 300 attacks on the staff and 766 inmate-on-inmate assaults, half of which were with weapons.

Sidney Deloch is serving a life sentence for aggravated rape. He has been at Angola for 25 years and became an inmate pastor after taking correspondence courses. "When I came here it was a fast-moving, bloody prison," he said. "There was plenty of stabbing."

Clarence Everette arrived at Angola in 1969 to begin serving a life sentence for murder. During his first night in one of the dorms, another inmate's throat was slit. "You had to sleep with one eye open," he said. "Most everybody had knives back then."

For those doing time there, Angola can be a very lonely place. Less than 20 percent of the inmates receive visitors.

"Our greatest challenge was to give hope where there was no hope," Cain said in an interview, "and the only way to do that was through moral rehabilitation."

Cain, 61, is a stocky man with a shock of white hair. He looks more like a kindly grandfather than caretaker to 5,000 murderers, robbers and rapists. Soon after his arrival, Cain set out to change the culture of Angola.

"You've got to think outside the box and quit thinking like prison people," he said. His own education was in agriculture, not corrections.

To effect that cultural change, Cain banned cursing by guards and inmates. He insisted on cleanliness and invited outsiders to visit the prison. His message to the outside world was simple: Angola no longer has anything to hide.

A promise Cain made to an inmate just before the prisoner's execution prompted the warden to establish a literacy program for the 80-plus prisoners on death row. He also founded an inmate hospice staffed mostly by prisoners and upgraded the prison radio station, which began airing religious programming 24 hours a day.

Using his homespun charm, Cain managed to persuade a New Orleans-based Baptist seminary to open a campus at Angola. The school allows qualified inmates to earn bachelor's degrees in theology, sociology and general studies.

Like most reformers, Cain is not without his critics. Nearly all of his initiatives have come under fire. When he started teaching death row inmates to read, some charged that it was a waste of time. But Cain disagrees.

"For one human being to keep another in the dark is just morally wrong," he said.

The American Civil Liberties Union is concerned that Cain is overstepping the line separating church and state.

Joe Cook, ACLU executive director in New Orleans, said: "I think he goes over the line. He clearly endorses religion and encourages it."

Cook said he is particularly troubled by the heavy emphasis on Christianity at Angola. "Prison officials are obligated to treat religions in an even-handed manner," Cook said.

Although a devout Southern Baptist, Cain said he doesn't play favorites. Inmates representing 19 Christian and non-Christian denominations attend the Bible College. "We don't care what religion they are," Cain said, "as long as they're morally sound."

Despite the critics, the transformation of Angola is, for some, just short of miraculous.

Since Cain took over as warden, inmate attacks on the staff have plunged nearly 70 percent, and inmate-on-inmate violence has dropped 44 percent. Suicides and escape attempts, once common, are now rare.

"The violence in Angola is almost gone," said longtime inmate Everette. "It ain't about violence; it's about religion."

Sidney Deloch, serving a life term at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, leads a worship service. He said the prison, once "a {grv}{grv}fast-moving, bloody'' place, has improved.Burl Cain, warden of the Louisiana State Penitentiary, with visiting students from Wheaton College in Illinois. "It was divine intervention," he said of faith-based reforms. "All we did was make the prison more moral."