Gov. Tate Reeves announced on Wednesday that he appointed Burl Cain, the longtime warden of the Angola State Prison who resigned in 2015 after newspaper reports questioned his business and real estate dealings, to oversee the troubled Mississippi Department of Corrections.
Reeves said he selected Cain, the 77-year-old who gained a national reputation for incorporating his Christian theology into the fabric of the notorious Louisiana prison, after a nationwide search because of his track record of reducing violence and crime at Angola.
The appointment comes after the Mississippi prison system was rocked in 2013 with a scandal resulting in the conviction and sentence of 20 years for then-Commissioner Chris Epps, who received bribes to award contracts to private vendors.
It also comes after a 2020 outbreak of violence inside Mississippi prisons that resulted in the deaths of dozens of state inmates since the beginning of the calendar year. Reeves himself indicated in January that more recent misspending had occurred in the department’s leadership ranks.
“I promise to do a great job to help the Department of Corrections and do the four components that are essential to having a good prison: have good food, good playing, good praying and good medicine,” Cain said on Wednesday at a press conference with Reeves.
Cain was a controversial figure in Louisiana. An audit by the Louisiana legislature found that 10 corrections employees performed work on Cain’s private residence — and some apparently while being paid by the state.
The audit also claimed that while warden of Angola, Cain received other free benefits such as free appliances and flat screen televisions (totaling $27,000) and lodging at Angola for his relatives.
Cain pointed out on Wednesday he was not charged with any crime.
“I think what is important is those allegations were unfounded,” Cain said on Wednesday. “There was no crime committed. What we have to do is avoid the hint of impropriety. We will continue to do that. I have done that throughout my career.”
At the time of the 2015 audit, Cain said he did not know any of the state employees were on the clock and that he had spent a significant amount of his own money on the home at Angola before the appliances were purchased with public funds.
Reeves said he knew of the concerns raised in the audit before selecting Cain to oversee the corrections department.
“The search committee was aware of the allegations. I was personally aware of the allegations,” Reeves said on Wednesday. “We did extensive research, and it seems like that once the politics were removed the accusations were basically dropped.”
Reeves continued: “I have absolute full confidence in Burl Cain’s ability to change the culture at the Department of Corrections. I have absolute confidence he will do so in a manner to make Mississippians proud. I have zero reservations about appointing him.”
News of the decision was met with sharp criticism by several elected officials on Wednesday afternoon.
State Rep. Jarvis Dortch, D-Jackson, said he knew of Cain from the Angola rodeo that had received nationwide attention, but began researching him further after the governor’s announcement. In a phone interview on Wednesday afternoon, Dortch specifically highlighted information about the Louisiana Legislature’s audit of Cain.
“I don’t understand how somebody reads that and lets him get past the first interview,” Dortch said. “It does not make any sense. It is hard to explain that one.”
The Mississippi prison system, particularly Parchman State Prison, was the site of riots and violence late in December and early January before Reeves took office after winning the November general election. At least 30 inmates have died in state prisons since the beginning of the calendar year, and most of those deaths occurred at Parchman.
Many inmates and advocacy groups also have voiced opposition to the unsafe and poor conditions throughout the system, and those groups have criticized Reeves’ leadership since he took office in January.
Amid the violence in mid-January, Reeves appointed a committee to conduct a nationwide search to fill the top prisons position. Vicksburg Mayor George Flaggs, the chairman of the search committee, said the committee received multiple applications, though he did not give a number.
In corrections circles, Cain is well known nationally. Some have praised him for turning around the culture at Angola, which for decades was considered one of the most violent prisons in the country.
An investigation by the Marshall Project, a national non-profit that reports on prison issues, detailed how Cain incorporated Christianity into the prison life. But it cited instances where he was accused of ordering beatings, of placing inmates in solitary confinement for long periods of time and of punishing non-Christian religious groups.
“We need a strong, experienced leader that Mississippians can trust, and I believe that person is Burl,” Reeves said. “I do not make this decision lightly. The safety and dignity of all within our system is at stake. Burl’s impressive, decades-long career in corrections, leading prison facilities and ushering in progressive measures to improve conditions is exactly what we need. We still have a long road ahead of us, but Burl will lead MDOC in the right direction.”
Reeves also announced the appointment of state Court of Appeals Judge Sean Tindall of Gulfport, a former state senator, to serve as commissioner of the Department of Public Safety on Wednesday.
Both Cain and Tindell must be confirmed by the state Senate. Confirmation hearings typically occur near the end of a legislative session, which this year will most likely be in June.