May 21, 2020 9:55:17 AM
JACKSON -- Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves said Wednesday that he is nominating a former warden of Louisiana's Angola prison to take charge of the Mississippi prison system that is under federal investigation and has struggled for years with tight budgets, short staffing and shoddy living conditions.
During his 21-year tenure at Angola, Burl Cain was credited with improving conditions and decreasing violence. He was also known for pushing the expansion of religious outreach. But ethical and legal questions arose during his final years there.
After his 2016 resignation, a state 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 murderers at Angola, raising questions about whether Cain had violated corrections policy.
"Those allegations were unfounded," Cain said in response to questions Wednesday. "There were no crimes committed."
Cain must be confirmed as corrections commissioner by the Mississippi Senate. He would replace former state Rep. Tommy Taylor, who has been acting commissioner since shortly after Reeves became governor in January.
Reeves said Cain was chosen after a nationwide search, and the governor called him a success story at Angola.
"They went from beatings to Bible study," Reeves said as Cain appeared with him at a news conference.
Reeves also said he and members of the search committee knew about the accusations against Cain in Louisiana, and he has "zero reservations" about choosing Cain.
"It seemed like that once the politics were removed, that the accusations were basically dropped," Reeves said. "I have absolute, full confidence in Burl Cain's ability to change the culture at the Mississippi Department of Corrections."
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.
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. At least 42 inmates have died since then, many after illness.
Mississippi prisons also faces multiple federal lawsuits filed on behalf of inmates.
Two lawsuits say that the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman is dangerous, vermin-infested and unfit for human habitation. Attorneys in both of those lawsuits are being paid by entertainment mogul Jay-Z, rapper Yo Gotti and Team Roc, the philanthropic arm of Jay-Z's Roc Nation.
Mississippi Center for Justice, the ACLU of Mississippi and some private attorneys filed a lawsuit last week seeking broader testing for the new coronavirus and additional protections for inmates at Central Mississippi Correctional Facility and South Mississippi Correctional Institution.
"Even in these crowded 100-person double-bunked zones, prison officials have not adequately implemented rudimentary pandemic response protocols, such as frequently cleaning and disinfection of living units and provisions of sufficient cleaning supplies," the lawsuit says. "Residents regularly run out of soap and cannot wash their hands. Some use unlaundered personal towels to try and clean common areas."
Mississippi has about 18,000 prisoners in custody. Reeves coronavirus testing had been done on 56 inmates, and 20 of them tested positive. He also said 58 prison employees had been tested, and nine of those were positive.
The number of coronavirus infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick. For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause severe symptoms and be fatal.
As the coronavirus started to spread in the U.S., Mississippi banned visitors to prisons and it limited the transfer of inmates between prisons.
The Department of Corrections said in late April that gloves and additional soap were being provided in prisons. A news release said hand sanitizer is available in "strategic locations," including dining areas. In court papers filed in mid-April, the Department of Corrections said hand sanitizer with 60 percent or more alcohol is a security concern, and distributing it to all inmates is not feasible.
The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency and Mississippi Prison Industries Corporation have provided many of the masks being used by inmates and prison employees. The Department of Corrections said Parchman inmates are using 5,000 masks donated by REFORM Alliance, affiliated with Jay-Z.
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