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Analysis: Mississippi prisons nominee faces Senate scrutiny

2 months 2 weeks 6 days ago Sunday, May 24 2020 May 24, 2020 May 24, 2020 6:46 PM May 24, 2020 in News
Source: Associated Press

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — The nominee to lead Mississippi’s troubled prison system, Burl Cain, spent 21 years as warden of Louisiana’s Angola penitentiary, resigning in early 2016 amid ethics questions about how public money was spent during his tenure. Advocates for inmates’ rights have also condemned his work.

“Burl Cain left a legacy of corruption, cruelty and callous disregard for the human lives in his custody,” the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana, Alanah Odoms Hebert, said Thursday.

She issued the statement a day after Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves announced he’s nominating Cain to become corrections commissioner in this state. Reeves said he has “zero reservations” about Cain’s work in Louisiana and that under Cain’s guidance, Angola “went from beatings to Bible study.”

“I have absolute, full confidence in Burl Cain’s ability to change the culture at the Mississippi Department of Corrections,” Reeves said.

For years, Mississippi prisons have operated with tight budgets and have struggled to hire enough guards because of low pay, long hours and dangerous conditions. Outbursts of violence in late December and early January left several inmates dead or injured. Lawsuits filed on behalf of prisoners say living conditions are unsanitary. And the U.S. Justice Department announced in February that it is investigating the Mississippi prison system.

Reeves became governor in mid-January, about two weeks after the previous corrections commissioner, Pelicia Hall, resigned. Reeves soon appointed a committee to search for a new commissioner. He recalled on Wednesday: “I asked them to find me the best possible person in America.”

Cain thanked Reeves and the search committee.

“I promise to do a great job, to help the Department of Corrections and to do the four components that’s essential to have a good prison — that’s good food, good praying, good playing and good medicine,” Cain said.

In the next few weeks, Cain will face a confirmation hearing in the state Senate Corrections Committee. Chairman Juan Barnett, a Democrat from Heidelberg, told The Associated Press on Friday that he will review Cain’s record and would like to have a private conversation with him in addition to at least one hearing that will be open to the public.

Barnett said he thinks Reeves and the search committee would not have chosen Cain if they thought the former warden would “damage” or embarrass Mississippi.

“I think the whole of America, we’re going to have to start trusting in somebody,” Barnett said.

A 2017 Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Office report said nearly $28,000 in public money was used for the unauthorized purchase of appliances and household furnishings for Cain’s home on prison grounds at Angola. It also said Cain’s relatives stayed overnight in state-owned homes at the prison nearly 200 times.

Cain resigned a year before the audit was issued, after the Baton Rouge newspaper, The Advocate, reported that he had sold interest in tracts of land to two developers who were friends or family of two murder convicts at Angola.

Cain said in Mississippi last week that allegations against him in Louisiana were “unfounded” and that “there were no crimes committed.”

Mississippi has one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation. The director of the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi, Cliff Johnson, said Friday that crowded prisons and long sentences are “a recipe for chaos and violence.”

Johnson is not taking a public position on whether lawmakers should confirm Cain, but said he wants legislators to change some sentencing laws and to expand eligibility for parole.

“If the Legislature doesn’t give the new commissioner the tools, then it doesn’t much matter who we hire,” Johnson said.

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