Gov. Reeves’ choice for MDOC Commissioner brings decades of corrections experience

Updated: May. 21, 2020 at 7:50 AM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - His was a very personal way of dealing with prisoners when Burl Cain was Warden at Angola in Louisiana.

“The second execution I had the guy asked me to hold his hand, so I did.”

As he takes the office of Commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Corrections -- pending confirmation by the Mississippi Senate -- Burl Cain brings 21 years of experience.

Angola is one of the country’s most notorious prisons. He says his way of doing things always included treating the prisoners with respect. After all, they’re people too, he said.

For a while he had it posted where everyone can see it - the Bible verse Phillippians 3:13.

“'We cannot change the past, we press on to change the future,' so that was our motto," he said. "Quit looking at what you did. Let’s look at what you’re going to be.”

He instructed his guards that if the inmates wanted to tell them something or ask them a question, they were not to blow them off. Treat them like people, he said. You never know if they’re trying to tell you about a hit on someone or another problem that needs addressing.

When you look at the big picture, the victims and their families come first, Cain said. But to keep peace in a prison, you have to keep inmates’ families informed and connected. He’s also looking for a better way to treat the families of the inmates.

“The family is a victim too, to a lesser degree, but, you know, when they can’t get in to see the inmates or you make them wait too long to visit or you don’t answer them on the phone, it’s wrong,” he said. “They’re citizens. They pay taxes. Inmates’ families pay taxes too.”

Late last year, Parchman and other prisons around the state were rocked by gang fights and controversy. Cain said during his time at Angola, it got to where there were no gang problems. Building morality into people, he said, makes them act right.

“I don’t mean to be facetious. I never had a gang. Never had any gang problems. Never had to deal with a gang. Didn’t happen, and it’s not going to happen here. They’re going to dissolve," he said. “I know they’re listening to me, thinking, you crazy, you’ve lost your mind. But I promise you we’re going to do this again in 3-4 years and we’re going to say, ‘Where did they go?’”

There will be additional training for corrections officers, Cain said, and the education and moral training invested in the inmates will make the job better for the guards.

“Our prison system is broken, but we’re doing everything we can to repair it,” Governor Tate Reeves said. “Mississippi’s prisons had a leadership crisis.”

He pointed to Cain as the answer to the crisis. He told his search committee, led by Vicksburg Mayor George Flaggs and now Department of Public Safety Commissioner Sean Tindell, to find someone who stood out.

“Not the best possible person in Jackson, not the best possible person in Mississippi. I asked them to find me the best possible person in America,” Reeves said. “Angola was once known as the bloodiest prisons in America and it was wracked with violence and it failed the staff, inmates and citizens who relied on it to provide justice. Then a man named Burl Cain entered the picture.”

But there were allegations about Cain. Some said he was spending public money for private use. Cain says those allegations were baseless.

He said he was going to run for Governor of Louisiana, and he wanted to start a non-profit seminary for prisoners that would encourage them to follow their faith and ultimately put them in the pulpit.

He said he left Angola for those reasons, not because of any political pressure from the allegations.

Cain holds that the situation was overblown by political opponents and the media. He even called it “fake news.”

“My dream was to create the nonprofit, so I left Angola to start the nonprofit. I had five investigations. It didn’t make any difference because it was no wrongdoing, nothing happened," said Cain. "We didn’t break any laws or any rules, nor any ethics rules.”

Reeves says the search committee did their job right.

“The search committee was aware of the accusations. I personally was aware of the accusations, and we did extensive research. Once the politics were removed, the accusations were basically dropped, and I have absolute full confidence in Burl Cain’s ability to change the culture at the Mississippi Department of Corrections,” Reeves said. “I have absolute confidence that he will do so in a way that will make all Mississippians proud. I have zero reservations about appointing him the Commissioner of the Department of Corrections.”

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