Gov. Tate Reeves’ appointment of long-time Louisiana prison head Burt Cain to lead the Mississippi’s prisons is a gutsy move, one we are optimistic about.
The appointment came at the recommendations of a solid five-person panel consisting of Parole Board member Kathy Henry, Vicksburg Mayor George Flaggs, Gov. Tate Reeves, Southern Poverty Law Center Managing Attorney Jody Owens and retired Leake County Sheriff Greg Waggoner. This was a well-rounded panel reflecting diverse viewpoints on the prisons. Jody Owens, for instance, now Hinds County District Attorney, was lead attorney in the Southern Poverty Center lawsuit against the state’s operation of the East Mississippi Correctional Facility.
First the good news: Burt Cain has been a pioneer in making prison ministry a central component of incarceration. Books have been written about his amazing turnaround of Louisiana’s high-security Angola prison. He founded Global Prison Seminary Foundation, which is leading the charge on using the power of faith to turn broken lives around. This is a good fit for Mississippi, the most religious state in the nation. A punitive, throw-away-the-key prison system does not jive with our state’s spirit, in which forgiveness and redemption is fundamental. The key to reforming our prison system and reducing our state’s ridiculously high incarceration rate is to truly commit to rehabilitation.
Now the bad news: Cain resigned from his 21-year tenure in Louisiana in 2017 amid ethics accusations from the Baton Rouge Advocate. Cain was later exonerated, but there were some issues regarding Cain’s using his prison position to gain economic benefits. That’s not a good sign, expecially following the Epps scandal. McNair’s response: “You can do 99 things right and one thing wrong and all anybody remembers is the one thing wrong.” There is also the question of Cain’s age of 78.
There is rarely a perfect choice, especially for the incredibly difficult job of head of the Mississippi Department of Corrections. All in all, the search committee made a solid choice for Cain. We wish him Godspeed for his vital mission.