JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Mississippi senators on Wednesday confirmed a new state corrections commissioner who said he intends to improve the state’s troubled prison system by expanding the role of religion and ensuring that inmates receive better food, recreation and job training.
Burl Cain, 77, is a former warden of Angola prison in Louisiana, and he faced ethics questions in that state. Cain has been working as the Mississippi corrections commissioner since May 20, when Republican Gov. Tate Reeves announced he was nominating him to the $132,000-a-year job after a nationwide search.
Senate Corrections Committee members said during a confirmation hearing Tuesday that a background report by a Mississippi legislative watchdog group cleared any concerns they had about Cain’s ethics issues in Louisiana. But, members of the committee would not release the report to The Associated Press, citing confidentiality.
Mississippi’s prison system is under federal investigation and has struggled for years with tight budgets, short staffing and shoddy living conditions.
Two lawsuits filed on behalf of inmates say that the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman is dangerous, vermin-infested and unfit for human habitation.
“We’re going to fix Parchman,” Cain said Tuesday.
Mississippi has one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation. The U.S. Justice Department announced in February that it is investigating the state prison system after several inmates were killed or injured in outbursts of violence in late December and early January.
During his 21-year tenure at Angola, Cain was credited with improving conditions and decreasing violence. He was also known for expanding religious outreach. After his 2016 resignation, a Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Office report said nearly $28,000 in public money was used for the unauthorized purchase of appliances and household furnishings for Cain’s home on prison grounds. It also said Cain’s relatives stayed overnight in state-owned homes at the prison nearly 200 times.
Cain resigned a year before the audit was issued, after reports by The Advocate about his private real estate dealings. The newspaper reported that Cain sold interests in tracts of land to two developers who were friends or family of two Angola inmates convicted of murder, raising questions about whether Cain had violated corrections policy.
“I’ve been thoroughly investigated, and I’ve come out clean,” Cain said Tuesday.
A previous Mississippi corrections commissioner, Christopher Epps, is in federal prison after pleading guilty in 2015 to money laundering and filing false tax returns. Prosecutors said he took nearly $1.5 million in bribes from contractors doing business with Mississippi prisons.
Associated Press writer Kevin McGill in New Orleans contributed to this report. Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus.
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