When Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves inherited a prison system in meltdown, one of the most important decisions he faced was selecting a commissioner to try to turn it around.
In order to avoid the mistakes of his predecessors in making this appointment, he should have had two criteria at the forefront of his consideration: to find someone who is experienced at running prisons and unassailably ethical.
Reeves’ choice of legendary Louisiana warden Burl Cain only checks one of those criteria off the list.
During Cain’s more than two decades in corrections — most of that time running the prison at Angola, Louisiana’s equivalent to Parchman — he was constantly in the spotlight, for both good and ill.
His “tough love” approach to corrections, combining stern discipline and Christian outreach, was credited in part with reforming Angola from one of the worst prisons in the nation to one that other penal institutions began to emulate. He started a highly successful prison rodeo there and partnered with a theological seminary to convert some inmates into ordained ministers.
But all the while he was dogged with allegations of abusing his position for personal gain, including side business deals that eventually caused him to retire in late 2015.
A little more than a year later, Louisiana’s government watchdog agency released an audit that showed Cain benefited from free corrections employee labor and nearly $20,000 in other freebies for himself or family members.
He was not charged with any crime, and it’s unclear whether he ever had to pay anything back other than a $250 check he wrote in 2016 for his estimated cost of having a prison shop paint two large iron gates from one of his residences.
Still, it is laughable for Cain to say, as he did at the press conference in which he was introduced by Reeves as the Republican governor’s pick, that he has been and will continue to be ethically straight as an arrow.
“What we have to do is avoid the hint of impropriety,” Cain said. “We will continue to do that. I have done that throughout my career.”
Hardly. Friends and foes called Cain by the nickname “Boss Hogg,” after the greedy, unethical county commissioner from the 1980s sitcom “Dukes of Hazzard.”
Some of the lowlights, according to the extensive reporting on Cain done by Louisiana’s largest daily newspaper, The Advocate:
• In 1992, Cain welcomed a company to build a recycling plant at the prison where he was warden before his promotion to Angola. He cut a side deal with the company to pay him a 5% commission on every new plant he lined up for them — an apparent violation of Louisiana ethics rules.
• Three years later, now at Angola, Cain OK’d the use of inmate labor to work with a shady company to scrape rust and old labels off expired canned goods and put on new labels so that the food could be sold in countries with laxer food regulations than the United States. The plant was quickly shut down after it came under scrutiny from a federal judge.
• In the late 1990s, Cain, a publicity hound, granted the author of a book about Angola extensive access to the prison’s inmates. Later, Cain hit up the writer, asking for $50,000 of the $60,000 the writer got in advance money from the publisher.
• And the deal that eventually undid the warden: a multimillion-dollar real-estate venture in which Cain partnered with relatives and friends of favored inmates.
Cain’s irregular behavior caused his titular former boss — many claimed that Cain was the real head of Louisiana’s corrections system — to adopt policies to ban some of the things that Cain had done.
Even though Cain himself skirted prosecution, other associates did not, including a son who is serving a three-year federal prison sentence after pleading guilty to corruption charges during his own time as a Louisiana prison warden.
Reeves appointed a committee to help him select a corrections commissioner for Mississippi. The committee had 55 applicants and whittled the number down to three finalists it forwarded to Reeves.
It is alarming that neither that committee nor Reeves steered clear of someone with such a questionable past as the 77-year-old Cain, so soon after former Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps was exposed as a crook who solicited over a million dollars in kickbacks and bribes from those who did business with Mississippi’s prisons.
Epps was likewise considered a corrections pro who improved the state’s prisons while bamboozling both Democratic and Republican governors and lawmakers.
When senators hold confirmation hearings on Cain, they should remember that history, vote him down and tell Reeves to try again.
• Contact Tim Kalich at 581-7243 or firstname.lastname@example.org.