Time magazine credited John Whitley with turning around hopelessness and violence at the largest maximum security in America—the Louisiana State Penitentiary (commonly called Angola) with "little more than his sense of decency and fairness."
John Whitley was born in January 1944. He was raised in Hammond, Louisiana and attended Southeastern Louisiana University Lab School and later graduated from Southeastern Louisiana University in 1967 and 1968. He enlisted in the U.S. Army and after his discharge in 1970, began his career in corrections.
Whitley, who began his career in corrections at Angola in 1970, rose through the ranks during its bloodiest years to become Deputy Warden of the infamous institution, 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. He also 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.
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; Alumnus of the Year of Southeastern Louisiana University in 1993; Profile in "AMERICA", a Russian-Language Magazine, January, 1994; Panelist, Time/Warner forum on Crime & Punishment - February, 1994; Profile by CBS News (Mike Wallace) - "In the Killing Fields of America" - January, 1995