Panel backs ex-Louisiana warden to lead Mississippi prisons
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — The Mississippi Senate Corrections Committee on Tuesday unanimously endorsed a former prison warden who faced ethics questions in Louisiana to be the new leader of Mississippi’s troubled prison system.
The full Senate is expected to vote in the next few days on confirming Burl Cain as corrections commissioner. Cain, 77, has been working as commissioner since May 20, when Republican Gov. Tate Reeves announced he was nominating him to the $132,000-a-year job after a nationwide search. It’s not unusual for a nominee to work while awaiting confirmation.
Corrections committee members said during the confirmation hearing Tuesday that a background report by a Mississippi legislative watchdog group cleared any concerns they had about Cain’s ethics issues in Louisiana. But, members of the committee would not release the report to The Associated Press, citing confidentiality.
Mississippi’s prison system is under federal investigation and has struggled for years with tight budgets, short staffing and shoddy living conditions.
“Failure here is not an option to me,” Cain told senators Tuesday.
Two lawsuits filed on behalf of inmates say that the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman is dangerous, vermin-infested and unfit for human habitation. Attorneys in both are being paid by entertainment mogul Jay-Z, rapper Yo Gotti and Team Roc, the philanthropic arm of Jay-Z’s Roc Nation.
“We’re going to fix Parchman,” Cain said Tuesday.
Mississippi has one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation. The U.S. Justice Department announced in February that it is investigating the state prison system after several inmates were killed or injured in outbursts of violence in late December and early January.
During his 21-year tenure at Angola, Cain was credited with improving conditions and decreasing violence. He was also known for pushing the expansion of religious outreach. After his 2016 resignation, a 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. 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 reports by The Advocate about his private real estate dealings. The newspaper reported that Cain sold interest in tracts of land to two developers who were friends or family of two Angola inmates convicted of murder, raising questions about whether Cain had violated corrections policy.
“I’ve been thoroughly investigated, and I’ve come out clean,” Cain said Tuesday.
Last month, Reeves characterized Cain’s time at Angola as a success story, saying: “They went from beatings to Bible study.”
Cain told senators Tuesday that he is still chairman of a prison employees’ credit union in Louisiana and that he is chief executive officer of Global Prison Seminaries Foundation, a nonprofit organization that’s based in Texas and operates in 17 states.
Cain told reporters after the hearing that someone else is now running the foundation and he has requested an ethics opinion on whether he can be a paid consultant for the foundation while he is Mississippi corrections commissioner. He said he took a pay cut from his previous salary of $150,000 to come to Mississippi. He said he is not paid by the credit union.
A previous Mississippi corrections commissioner, Christopher Epps, is in federal prison after pleading guilty in 2015 to money laundering and filing false tax returns. Prosecutors said he took nearly $1.5 million in bribes from contractors doing business with Mississippi prisons.
Associated Press writer Kevin McGill in New Orleans contributed to this report. Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus.