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 during his daily coronavirus update for media in Jackson, Miss., Wednesday, May 20, 2020. Cain was warden at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, which is commonly known as Angola, for 21 years. Credit: Rogelio V. Solis / Associated Press

Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Burl Cain plans to ask the Legislature to pass a bill to allow incarcerated people to construct buildings as a form of job training, a tie in with the department’s focus on reentry.

Under state law, the Department of Administration and Finance oversees construction, repairs, additions and demolition for all state buildings. The department also reviews and pre-approves all architectural and engineering service contracts for building projects. 

Cain said licensed contractors are required to build any state building, which is why he sees a need for a change in state law. 

“It takes too long and we need to move faster,” he told Mississippi Today about the current process. “Those are the things we can hone our own skills on and have the inmates build the buildings themselves.”

Cain envisions incarcerated people constructing one-story buildings that are no more than 5,000 square feet to house prison programs such as a welding school, carpentry program or a commercial truck driving simulator. 

The buildings would be at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, which has the most space compared to the state’s other prisons. A certified contractor, electrician, roofer and others involved would supervise incarcerated people during construction, he said. 

“You’re teaching an electrician how to be an electrician,” Cain said. “You’re teaching a carpenter how to frame a building. You put a roof on a building, you’re teaching an inmate how to be a roofer.”

The commissioner also believes allowing incarcerated people to construct buildings for prison training programs could help save taxpayer money. That is especially true as construction-related costs remain high, he said. 

A Department of Administration and Finance spokesperson declined to comment. 

During a previous legislative session, Cain said he tried to get a law passed to allow incarcerated people to construct buildings, but he said the timing didn’t work out and the effort didn’t have momentum. 

Now that he has reentry, job training and other programs in place, Cain said he has a way to show the Legislature that it should invest in more of his efforts. 

READ MORE: After 121 scalding Mississippi summers, Parchman prison is getting air conditioning

Since becoming commissioner in 2020, Cain has focused on rehabilitation and reentry as a way to prevent people from returning to prison. Skilled jobs training has been part of those efforts. 

Last year, MDOC debuted a mobile welding training center. It started with a group of women at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Pearl and moved to the South Mississippi Correctional Institution in Leakesville.

Earlier this year, MDOC accepted a donated tractor trailer from Rankin County Sheriff Bryan Bailey and District Attorney Bubba Bramlett that was seized during a drug transportation arrest on Interstate 20. The vehicle was turned into a simulator to train incarcerated people for careers in commercial truck driving. 

“Now the trend is reentry, and reentry only happens when you send them out with a skill so he can get a job,” Cain said.

Businesses may not want to hire a formerly incarcerated person to sweep the floor, but he said they may be more inclined to if they are certified and have a skill such as welding, truck driving or roofing. 

More than 9,000 people leave the Missisisppi prison system each year, according to a 2021 report by the Corrections and Criminal Justice Oversight Task Force, which Cain is a member of. 

“Let me have the freedom to teach them how to build those buildings and pour the concrete and let them do that and to prove themselves,” Cain said. 

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Mina, a California native, covers the criminal justice system. Before joining Mississippi Today, she was a reporter for the Clarion Ledger and newspapers in Massachusetts. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and USA Today.