‘We’ve got to have churches in our prisons’: Senate advances Burl Cain, controversial pick as Mississippi prisons chief

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Rogelio V. Solis / Associated Press

Burl Cain responds to a reporter’s question after being introduced by Gov. Tate Reeves as the new commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Corrections on Wednesday, May 20, 2020.

After only brief questioning about legal and ethical allegations he faced in Louisiana, a Senate panel on Tuesday unanimously approved Burl Cain’s appointment to run Mississippi’s troubled prisons system.

Cain’s appointment by Gov. Tate Reeves now moves to the full Senate, which is expected to confirm him as Mississippi corrections commissioner.

“I was investigated – three investigations and it was all totally unfounded,” Cain, former warden of Angola prison in Louisiana, told members of the Mississippi Senate Corrections Committee. “That’s why I stand before you today. I’ve been totally investigated and I’ve come out clean. I was exonerated.”

Cain, who gained national attention for his leadership as warden at the Louisiana Penitentiary at Angola, told lawmakers on Tuesday that he plans to change the Mississippi Department of Corrections into the “department of rehabilitation” of inmates. He also said he plans to bring the faith-based rehabilitation programs that gained him national attention at Angola to Mississippi’s prisons, including the notorious State Penitentiary at Parchman.

Cain said he has four main tenets for fixing Mississippi’s prison system: “Good food … Good medicine … Good playing … and good praying.”

Mississippi’s prison system, long plagued by violence and claims of inhumane conditions, is the subject of a U.S. Department of Justice civil rights investigation and multiple lawsuits. Since late last year, the system has seen dozens of inmate deaths and injuries, including from riots and fights.

“We’ve got to have churches in our prisons,” Cain said, “with inmate pastors in the pulpit to change their own people … Failure is not an option. We’ve got to fix it.”

Cain said he plans to solve severe staffing shortages in Mississippi prisons in part by reducing red tape and hiring requirements such as applicants having to pay for a physical from a private doctor. He said he’s already hired 22 people in a couple of weeks since Reeves appointed him, pending Senate confirmation.

Cain, 77, has worked in corrections for 40 years, and was warden at Angola for 21 years.

He resigned at Angola in 2015 amid allegations that he misused public money. In 2017 a Louisiana legislative watchdog audit found that corrections employees performed work on Cain’s private home, some apparently while being paid by the state. The audit also claimed he received free benefits such as appliances and flat screen televisions and lodging at Angola for his relatives.

A series by The Advocate newspaper raised questions about Cain’s real estate dealings with friends and relatives of inmates.

Cain was neither indicted nor convicted on an allegations. Reeves said Cain was thoroughly vetted by a selection panel he appointed to find a new MDOC chief and chalked Cain’s problems in Louisiana up to politics.

As warden at Angola, Cain was both credited for turning around one of the nation’s most violent, troubled prisons and criticized for enacting harsh punishments of inmates.

On news of his Mississippi appointment by Reeves, the Louisiana American Civil Liberties Union in a statement said: “Burl Cain left a legacy of corruption, cruelty and callous disregard for the human lives in his custody.

“From denying people access to medical care to holding three innocent men in solitary confinement for decades, the brutal conditions he oversaw at Angola were an affront to justice and human dignity … While professing to believe in redemption and decarceration, his record makes a mockery of those claims.”

Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, who had asked Cain on Tuesday about past allegations, told Cain, “I’m satisfied … We’ve been provided information that corroborates that exoneration.”

Sen. Sollie Norwood, D-Jackson, told Cain that he had received numerous calls and emails from constituents urging him to vote against Cain’s confirmation.

“I believe in second chances,” Norwood told Cain. “I appreciate what you’ve said and I believe you. I’m going to have to vote against what some of my constituents are saying, but I believe you’ve hit all the buttons that need to be touched.”

Senate Corrections Vice Chairman Sen. Daniel Sparks, R-Belmont, asked Cain for assurances that Mississippi prison contracts and spending – rocked by past corruption that landed a former commissioner in prison – would be aboveboard and avoid “even the appearance of impropriety.”

Cain assured him it would.

Cain, who will be paid $132,000 a year as head of Mississippi corrections, told lawmakers he plans to remain involved in the Global Prison Seminaries Foundation he helped found. He said he has asked the Mississippi Ethics Commission for an opinion on whether he can maintain a paid position with the foundation.

Corrections Chairman Juan Barnett said he had previously talked with Cain about closing Parchman, and asked him again Tuesday whether that might be an option.

Cain said: “If I close Parchman it means failure. We’ve got to fix it. We are going to fix it.”