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Former Angola Warden Burl Cain Appointed Head of Mississippi Prison System

Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves is another supporter and in May 2020 he announced the appointment of Cain, 77, to the top position in the Mississippi Department of Corrections, an overcrowded and underfunded prison system that has seen dozens of prisoners die violently or due to inadequate health care over the past year, as PLN has previously reported. [PLN, June 2020, p. 1.]

“We need a strong, experienced leader that Mississippians can trust, and I believe that person is Burl,” said Reeves. “I do not make this decision lightly. The safety and dignity of all within our system is at stake. Burl’s impressive decades-long career in corrections, leading prison facilities and ushering in progressive measures to improve conditions is exactly what we need.”

Progressives may balk at this characterization of Cain’s policies. His tenure at Angola was marked by his introduction of a Baptist theological seminary, favoring that denomination while allegedly suppressing other faiths, as well as racial prejudice and the overuse of punishment — especially solitary confinement. His style is authoritarian, not progressive, and he did not tolerate dissent of any kind — characterizing peaceful protest as “violence.”

“The prison operates with one authentic authoritarian figure, the warden and the rule book,” said Cain. “And so if you’re going to be defiant and be belligerent and do a hunger strike, then you’re giving me an ultimatum. If you don’t give me what I want, I’m going to starve myself to death and not eat, therefore do what I say. So, therefore, that is absolutely contrary to the administration, the rule books, and so forth. He’s trying to give us ultimatums. Ultimatums is what they give you when they take hostages. Ultimatums are not what we do in prison. ... There is no peaceful demonstration.”

Cain’s resignation from Angola came amid an investigation of a land deal he made with the friends and family of an Angola prisoner. The Baton Rouge Advocate reported on the land deal in 2015. The reporting sparked a 2016 probe that found no improprieties and a 2017 legislative auditor’s report that found Cain had used 10 prison employees to perform services at his private residence.

Cain’s reputation for stabilizing Angola is widespread. The prison was known in the 1970s for violence and a thriving inmate sex-slave trade. But several prison staff members told the Mississippi Free Press that many of the reforms Cain is credited with enacting were started under earlier administrations. Cain believes much of the positive change in the prison is due to the arrival of a New Orleans Baptist Seminary campus at Angola at his behest, the year he became warden.

Cain says he enforces a Christian culture among the prisoners, regardless of their faith. Critics say the culture he imposes is Southern Baptist and that he suppresses all other faiths. For instance, in 2007, the prison settled a lawsuit brought by a Mormon prisoner and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) over Cain’s administration denying him access to Mormon publications. Two years later, the ACLU helped a Catholic prisoner and a Muslim prisoner file another lawsuit over denial of religious rights, including making Baptist services the only television available on Sunday mornings and denying Muslims religious literature and the right to meet for religious worship.

Cain also has a documented history of racist remarks. As far back as 1993, when he was a member of the Louisiana Civil Service Commission, he voiced fears that Asians living in Louisiana could take state jobs away from other residents because “they make real good grades,” as he opposed a waiver of the civil-service tests for college graduates with above-average grades. This “model minority myth” is unsubstantiated by research and harms Asians.

Cain was reprimanded by the commission’s director who told him he did not “care about the color of the skin or the slant of the eyes,” but about finding “the best person to work for the state of Louisiana.” But Cain shook it off, saying that Asians had put Americans out of business in the fishing industry and seemed to be given preference by the commission.

Cain’s alleged racism and religious bigotry influenced his treatment of prisoners who belonged to the Black Panther Party, which he referred to as a “religion.” Albert Woodfox spend 44 years and 10 months in solitary confinement — longer than any other prisoner in U.S. history — because of his party affiliation.

In a 2008 deposition, Cain admitted to keeping Woodfox, Robert King, and Herman Wallace — members of the Black Panther Party who became known as the “Angola Three” after being convicted of the 1973 murder of a prison guard—isolated based on flimsy evidence. When Woodfox’s attorney pointed out that Cain had admitted Woodfox did not cause much trouble, Cain compared him to a lion in a cage who causes little trouble because of the cage. Using that perspective, no segregated prisoner could ever be credited with good behavior.

Of course, there is ample, if limited, opportunity for a segregated prisoner to cause trouble.

Attorney Nicholas Trenticosta mentioned that after King was released from prison, he stayed out of trouble. That was deception, said Cain, who believed that King was only waiting for other members of the “Angola Three” to get out so they could reunite and return to their violent ways.

Cain also said that, even if he knew King was innocent of the guard’s murder, he would still keep him in isolation because he was “still trying to practice Black Pantherism,” and would try to organize younger prisoners, causing “chaos and conflict. He has to stay in a cell while he’s in Angola.”  


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