Our View: Prison appointee is not who Mississippi needs

 

 

 

Given the current state of Mississippi's prison system, as well as its sordid history, there should have been a couple of obvious priorities for the person who would be the new commission of the Mississippi Department of Corrections.

 

In recent years, the state's prison system has been rocked with violence (since late December, there have been 42 prison deaths, including nine deaths at the notorious Parchman prison, most of them by violence) and corruption (in 2015, Former MDOC head Christopher Epps was sentenced to 20 years in prison for taking bribes and kickbacks).

 

You would start with finding a person with an impeccable record, with no hint of financial scandal. You would also seek a dynamic leader approaching the prime of his/her career to lead the prison system during challenges it faces, which include a federal lawsuit now pending that is related to the epidemic of deaths in the prison system.

 

 

When Gov. Tate Reeves appointed Burl Cain as the new MDOC Commissioner on Wednesday, we got neither of those qualities.

 

Instead we have a 77-year-old whose career is checkered with accusations of shady dealing during his 21-year tenure as warden of Louisiana's notorious Angola Prison, most of them involving inmate labor deals.

 

Cain resigned as Angola warden abruptly in late 2015 as reports of yet another questionable business deal involving relatives of Angola inmates began to surface.

 

After making the appointment, Reeves dismissed Cain's long history of questionable practices as politically motivated. Reeves said Cain was thoroughly vetted by the seven-member committee he appointed to conduct a nation-wide search and that Cain was cleared of all charges.

 

That is emphatically false.

 

Next month, a federal judge will make a ruling on a class-action lawsuit against Angola Prison and Cain, who was warden at the time.

 

In 2015, the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana filed a class action suit against the state, claiming inmates at Angola during Cain's tenure were denied their constitutional right to adequate medical care.

 

After a three-week trial in 2018, the judge ruled the state had violated the inmates' constitutional rights and ordered the plaintiff and defendant into settlement talks. In June, the judge is expected to announce the final decision, a ruling that could cost the state of Louisiana millions of dollars.

 

It is no longer a matter of culpability, but only a matter of how much the state of Louisiana will be ordered to pay.

 

The man squarely in the middle of this is Burl Cain, who has made his reputation on reducing violence at Angola, largely by Christian proselytizing -- "From beatings to Bible study," is the way Reeves put it.

 

Yet even that claim is not beyond scrutiny. Many cite federal policies implemented in the wake of a previous lawsuit against the prison just prior to Cain's arrival as the primary reason for the reduced violence that Cain has subsequently built his reputation on.

 

At a time when Mississippi needs a credible, dynamic leader at the head of its prison system we may instead be saddled with a septuagenarian with a checkered past and penchant for self-promotion.

 

The only thing standing in the way of this is the Mississippi Senate, which can confirm or reject Reeve's choice.

 

We strongly urge the Senate to vote against confirming Cain. He's simply not who Mississippi needs right now.

 

 

 

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