Burl Cain remade Angola prison in his own image
Can he do the same with notorious Parchman?
By Jerry Mitchell
Mississippi Center For Investigative Reporting
Burl Cain burnished his reputation as a reformer inside the walls of one of the nation’s bloodiest prisons, the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola where stabbings, beatings and killings were commonplace.
And now he faces the battle of turning around another notorious prison, the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, which has been immortalized for its brutal violence in songs, books and landmark litigation.
The 78-year-old Mississippi corrections commissioner vows that in three years, there will be reduced violence and no illegal gangs: “It will be a model for people to come see.”
‘Change Angola, But Don’t Let It Change You’
Cain grew up on a Louisiana farm and afterward taught agriculture. He couldn’t cut it. “Teaching is harder work than being a warden,” he said.
He went from the classroom to the Louisiana Farm Bureau and then handled agribusiness for the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections.
In 1981, his career took an unexpected turn when officials hired him as a warden at the Dixon Correctional Institution in Jackson, Louisiana, hoping that he could make the prison pay for itself. He decided to accept the job, inspired in part by the fact his father had been a warden for a POW camp that housed elite German soldiers.
Fourteen years later, he got the offer of running Angola, the infamous prison that was once a slave plantation. None of the wardens before him had lasted more than five years “because it was such a violent place and totally out of control,” he said.
When he accepted the job, his marching orders were simple: “Change Angola, but don’t let it change you.”
After taking the job, he said his mother told him he would be held accountable if he failed to introduce inmates to God.
Not long after arriving in 1995, he handled his first execution: Thomas Word, who had murdered his mother-in-law.
“You could see so clearly just how frightened he was,” Cain recalled. “He didn’t utter a word as we strapped him to the gurney. When the time came to ask him if he had anything to say, he didn’t answer. He choked up.”
Four minutes after the fatal injection was given, “he flatlined,” Cain said.
That night he said he couldn’t sleep, thoughts pouring into his brain: “You just killed that guy, and you didn’t say one thing about his soul. You forgot everything your mama told you. God is going to hold you accountable.”
In the executions that followed, Cain read scriptures and prayed with the inmates. “I wound up holding the next one’s hand while he was being executed,” he said.
That catapulted him to the conclusion that the only way to change Angola would be to bring more “reality” or “morality” into the prison, he said. “If we can get you to be moral, that’s really the only rehabilitation.”
He said he was stunned to find out that the prison “didn’t teach people on death row to read and write. How can they read the rules and how can they read the Bible if they can’t read? I want everybody to read.”
The hope of Pell grants had already disappeared because Congress had decided in 1994 to make inmates ineligible.
Unable to get colleges to travel to his remote prison, the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary volunteered to locate a seminary at the prison, which enabled inmates to get diplomas, Cain said.
“That was the game changer,” he said. “All inmates then who wanted to advance their education could (do so) without having to pledge to any particular religion.”
Soon, many inmates were studying their religious texts, he said. “They changed because of the seminary.”
Nearly 300 inmates graduated with bachelor’s degrees, becoming pastors, some of whom he sent to other prisons as “missionaries,” he said. “Immediately we saw their culture change.”
Other wardens welcomed this, he said. “Even if they were atheists, they wanted peace in their prisons.”
Over time, Angola’s illegal gangs gave way to “church gangs,” he said. “The illegal gangs, we got our foot on them, but this church gang was getting to have all kinds of good things.”
Cain drew national attention for his approach, most prominently in the 1998 documentary, The Farm: Angola, USA, which was nominated for an Academy Award. “We lost to Schindler’s List (documentary),” he said. “How can you not lose to Schindler’s List?”
(In the wake of Schindler’s List winning Best Picture in 1993, director Steven Spielberg helped produce The Last Days, a 1998 Oscar-winning documentary about Hungarian Jews who survived the Holocaust.)
More than a decade later, a sequel to The Farm featured Cain again as a larger-than-life character.
Inside Angola, he focused on providing skills to inmates to help turn them into tax-paying citizens.
He found part of that answer in developing a school that enabled inmates to earn Automotive Service Excellence certifications, making it possible for them to get coveted jobs in car repair.
And the prison offered a big carrot through a Reentry Court: A judge can reduce your 10-year sentence reduced to two or three years if you complete this training program in two or three years.
Seminary graduates serving life sentences became both mentors and certified instructors for fellow inmates.
If a man serving a life sentence because he failed to control his anger teaches an anger management course to fellow inmates, Cain said, “think how effective he is, compared to someone who has never struggled with anger.”
Cain is urging Mississippi lawmakers to create a Reentry Court.
Lower recidivism “means somebody doesn’t get their throat cut,” he said. “That means somebody doesn’t get shot.”
In 2016, Cain resigned from Angola after allegations arose that he improperly used corrections workers to do home renovations, but three separate investigations cleared him and others of charges. Gov. Tate Reeves said his search committee dug into the matter and had “zero reservations” about appointing Cain.
“It seems like that once the politics were removed, 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.”
When Cain decided to accept the $132,000-a-year job in Mississippi, he drew a parting shot from Alanah Odoms Hebert, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana.
“Burl Cain left a legacy of corruption, cruelty and callous disregard for the human lives in his custody,” she said. “From denying people access to medical care to holding three innocent men in solitary confinement for decades, the brutal conditions he oversaw at Angola were an affront to justice and human dignity that had a devastating impact on the facility’s overwhelmingly Black population.”
The “Angola Three,” who were all convicted of murder, were held for decades in solitary confinement. Two of them were indicted in 1972 for stabbing to death a correctional officer, just a day after another officer had been burned to death. They served more than 40 years each in solitary. One died before facing a new trial, and the other two were released after appeals and plea deals.
Cain said Hebert, who is an attorney, should put all of her evidence in writing.
“She knows that hearsay is no evidence,” he said. “Her predecessor, Marjorie Esman, told The New York Times in 2013: ‘I think what Burl Cain calls moral rehabilitation is, in his mind, religious doctrine, but a lot of good has come of it. I think it’s unfortunate that the only college available is a Christian one, but the fact that a college is there at all is important.’”
‘We’re Going To Save Mississippi Millions And Millions Of Dollars’
When Cain first stepped into his role as corrections commissioner in Mississippi on May 21, he discovered a system full of dysfunction and delays.
There were 87 vacancies for parole and probation officers because the hiring process took too long. He said he has since shortened the process and filled the vacancies.
He also found vacancies for hundreds of positions as correctional officers with a starting pay of $25,650, which qualifies a family of three or more for food stamps.
Since 2014, the number of correctional officers has plummeted from 1,591 to 667 on Feb. 28, according to the state Personnel Board. If Mississippi lawmakers raise the starting salary to $31,971, Cain said he believes he can fill the 433 open positions.
In neighboring Alabama, the state is paying $900 million to replace its three men’s prisons in response to Justice Department litigation. A federal judge has ordered the state to hire an additional 2,000 correctional officers. To fill these jobs, Alabama raised starting pay to $31,452.
In 2020, the Justice Department began investigating four Mississippi prisons after the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting exposed grisly violence, gang control and subhuman living conditions in the state’s prisons. That investigation is continuing.
“The way to keep (the Justice Department) out is don’t have any reason for them to sue and win in court,” Cain said. “We’re going to save Mississippi millions and millions of dollars. That’s why this (pay hike) is a cheap amount.”
Senate Corrections Chairman Juan Barnett, D-Heidelberg, praised Cain for seeking raises “for people who need it,” rather than high-paid administrators. “I have to applaud him for that,” he said.
Cain said he has repaired infrastructure problems at Parchman and other Mississippi prisons, fixing holes in walls and making other repairs. He said hopes to open them up in the near future to the press if the pandemic permits.
He’s aiming to end the rule of the gangs behind bars, sending dozens of gang leaders to other states in exchange for theirs, he said. “They’re nobodies when they get here.” He warned gang leaders who want to take their place, “Come on up,” he said. “I’ll chop your head off, too.”
When Cain arrived at Mississippi’s prisons, he said he was horrified by the small portions of food served to inmates at South Mississippi Correctional Institution, who were carrying their own forks and spoons around to eat, he said. “That’s crazy. That’s inhumane.”
On March 31, he is ending food service contracts and returning prisons to the practice of growing food, he said. “We’re going to have plenty of big helpings and not feed them with a thimble.” He said he believes prisons need four things to succeed: “good food, good medicine, good playing and good praying.”
The department has a new company providing health care to inmates, and he said he hopes to have a basketball league, a football league and a softball league. “We got to get to playing, as soon as COVID’s over.”
He drew national criticism for lack of COVID-19 testing inside Mississippi prisons. He said he decided to invest instead in prevention, pointing to fewer deaths inside Mississippi prisons as proof his approach works. According to The Marshall Project’s database on COVID deaths in prison, Mississippi has 23 deaths, or 13 per 10,000 inmates through Feb. 26, less than the average for federal prisons. COVID cases totaled 1,392, or 788 per 10,000 inmates.
‘An Island Of Freedom Within The Fence’
Cain remains focused on changing the mindset inside the prisons, and he said he believes that starts with seminaries. The Mississippi Baptist Convention is contributing $50,000 a year for an extension of the New Orleans seminary at Parchman and $40,000 for a seminary for women at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility.
Cain said he is building chapels through private money at each state prison as a gathering place for Christians, Muslims, Jews or those of other religions. On Jan. 26, a groundbreaking took place for Parchman’s chapel, expected to hold as many as 300 when it’s finished. “It won’t be used for anything else but what it’s meant to be —God’s house,” Cain said. “The inmates migrate to it because it’s an island of freedom within the fence.”
When he arrived at Parchman, nearly all the slots for chaplain were empty. He has filled the slots now, mostly with pastors who served time at Angola, a group of chaplains he calls “the A-Team.”
“Free-world chaplains may be afraid to go in the prison,” but these new chaplains are going “up and down the tier, talking to guys,” he said. “Parchman is safer now than it was, and it’s moving fast.” Between July 2019 and January 2020, seven inmates were killed at Parchman. Since Cain was appointed in May, there has been one homicide.
Last year saw Parchman’s rules violations drop by nearly two-thirds from the year before — from 3,019 to 1,104. “Serious” rules violations, which include acts of violence, fell from 817 to 393. Head chaplain Ron Olivier, a seminary graduate who headed an inmate church inside Angola for 15 years before being paroled, said he and other chaplains are “showing hope with our own lives. It’s very inspiring to minister from a position of having been where they are. That’s an instant connection.”
Inmates have told him they have seen chaplains more in the last three weeks than in the last 10 years, he said. “The only time they saw the chaplain before was when he was bringing bad news. Now we’re coming to bring some good news.” Violence is down at Parchman and that’s no shock, he said. “We’re treating them like people instead of animals.”
He doesn’t view the ministry as work, he said. “It’s pouring into people and showing them a better way. The correctional facility is supposed to correct you.”
‘Let The Ones Go That Should Be Let Go’
One rule Cain has established to curb violence is to require anyone who hurts another inmate to pay the medical bills. “If you cause any injury, it’s not fair for taxpayers to pay the bill for your stupidity; therefore, you have to pay the doctor bill,” he said. “If you break somebody’s jaw, we will freeze your account. You don’t get your account back until you pay for the broken jaw.”
Families and friends often contribute to those inmate accounts. Currently, the state of Mississippi is responsible for all of the inmates’ medical bills, which run about $80 million a year. Cain has asked lawmakers for another $3 million for equipment for vocational training that would give inmates the skills they need for jobs on the outside.
At prisons, he is setting up simulators to teach men and women how to drive forklifts and machines to teach welding, he said. “Inmates can perfect their skills and leave with a job.”
Each week, Cain receives hundreds of letters from inmates, and he tries to answer them all. “I spent probably 10 hours this weekend answering them,” he said recently.
In these letters, inmates detail what’s happening behind bars. “I know exactly who’s slacking on me. They don’t all lie. Why would I not read them?” he asked. “I know better what’s going on in prison than the people running it because they’re not listening.” He received some blowback for making smoking legal again inside Mississippi prisons.
“The gangs are making the money and smuggling it in anyway,” he said. “It’s working me to death, trying to find it. Make it legal, and you just put the gang out of business.” He has big plans on the horizon: to create a prison rodeo, just as he did at Angola, which he said brought in about $4 million a year.
And he wants to create a hospice at Parchman, where families could stay with dying loved ones, he said. Instead of hiring a host of psychologists and counselors, he believes in letting inmates help others in areas such as depression, he said. “We’re letting them take ownership of their environment.”
Dr. Michael Whelan, who worked as a psychologist at Parchman for more than decade, said depression is common among inmates, who need someone to confide in. “Maybe their mother died, and they can’t go to the funeral,” he said. He likes the idea of peer help, but if it is severe depression, professional intervention is needed, he said.
Cain believes most inmates should receive a parole hearing, citing the cost to keep some behind bars. “If you have hearings, it’s a tool for us to give hope,” he said. “Let the ones go that should be let go.”
Mississippi has more than 1,100 prisoners 60 and older. The medical cost alone for 198 of them? Nearly $2 million, according to the 2019 figure, the most current available. Victims of crimes should have the ultimate say in parole, Cain said. “Charles Manson got a hearing, but he never got out.”
Barnett, who has visited Parchman, said he believes Cain has done “a pretty good job so far. Some of the inmates inside the facility are buying into some of the things he’s doing.” The number of complaints he has received from family members about prison conditions are “way down since he came in,” Barnett said.
Bryan Shaver, an Olive Branch businessman who works with Kairos Prison Ministry, said officials are doing a better job of giving inmates access to programs. Most family members and friends of inmates told MCIR there have been improvements since Cain’s arrival.
Valerie Zimmerman, whose son is serving time in the Chickasaw County Correctional Facility, praised the commissioner for building churches, adding video visits and making other changes. “I know that our prison system has a long way to go. It didn’t get this way overnight and it won’t be fixed overnight,” she said, “but I feel like Burl Cain is headed in the right direction with the improvements that he’s made in the short time he’s been in charge.”
Sherry Mullikin, whose son is in South Mississippi Correctional Institution, praised Cain for changes. Many issues still need to be addressed, she said. “If he can fix MDOC, it will be a miracle.”
Jerry Mitchell is an investigative reporter for the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization that is exposing wrongdoing, educating and empowering Mississippians, and raising up the next generation of investigative reporters. Sign up for MCIR’s newsletters here.