Studio portrait of Sid Salter. (photo by Beth Wynn / © Mississippi State University)

By: Sid Salter

There has been more than a little media tut-tutting over the decision by Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves to hire controversial former Louisiana corrections official Burl Cain, 77, to lead the Mississippi Department of Corrections.

Journalists widely panned Reeves’ choice of Cain to pull Mississippi’s prison system out of its present mire of rising prison deaths, U.S. Justice Department civil rights probes, federal lawsuits challenging prison conditions, persistent gang violence, major contraband discoveries, and corrections officer shortages exacerbated by low pay.

The reason? Cain retired as warden of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola after a Baton Rouge newspaper raised questions about his private real estate transactions with friends and kin of what the paper alleged were favored inmates. The Times-Picayune’ s Bryn Stole, in reporting Cain’s hire in Mississippi this week, wrote: “Throughout his career in Louisiana, Cain was also dogged by allegations of impropriety, nepotism and by controversy surrounding a number of side business deals involving inmate labor that appeared to skirt state ethics rules.”

Cain’s response was defiant: “Those allegations were unfounded…there were no crimes committed.” Factually, there’s no record of Cain being indicted or convicted of a crime.

Reeves said he thoroughly vetted Cain’s record: “Angola was once known as the bloodiest prison in America. Then a man named Burl Cain entered the picture. He brought faith, security, safety, dignity and pride to the prison. They went from beatings to Bible study.”

Cain’s national reputation for restoring order and safety at Angola, once one of the nation’s most feared and violent prisons, is undeniable.

Mississippi 18,000-acre prison farm at Parchman is a vestige of the antebellum South, as outlined in a fascinating 2002 article by the late Emory School of Law Professor Melvin Gutterman in the Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law Review: “In the South, at the end of the Civil War slavery was abolished as an American institution. The Union triumph resulted in the emancipation of four million blacks. The conclusion of the conflict had not, however, wiped out the need for cheap labor to work the plantations.

“Emancipation gave a new meaning to crime in the South, as a minor transgression that was tolerated by former slave owners became a serious crime. The southern states treasuries were empty, and they could no longer afford to maintain their prison systems. The devastation in the South and the agitation of early Reconstruction forced southern officials to search for methods to reduce expenses associated with a burgeoning prison system.

“A southern businessman, Edmund Richardson, offered a solution that would fill both gaps. Richardson needed cheap laborers to work his land in the Yazoo Delta, so he contracted with the state of Mississippi to feed, clothe, guard and treat well the criminals assigned to him provided he could keep all the profits. The state, for its part, agreed to pay him for the prisoners’ maintenance. Richardson’s proposal started the era of convict leasing in Mississippi, and other southern states enthusiastically embraced the contract arrangement.”

History proves Parchman was founded as a corrupt enterprise, and to Mississippi’s enduring misery, it has struggled to break free from that sad legacy for more than a century. Witness former MDOC Commissioner Chris Epps’s 2015 downfall as he pleaded guilty to taking almost $2 million in bribes and kickbacks, money laundering and tax fraud.

Cain had success at the nation’s most notorious prison farm at Angola. Perhaps he’ll have it again at the nation’s second most fearer prison farm, the one in Sunflower County, Mississippi. Frankly, the bar’s never been set particularly high since Richardson got his first convict lease payment during Reconstruction.

Cain’s reputation, both good and bad, preceded him in his move to Mississippi. Now, here’s hoping he can manage Mississippi’s prison farm as well as he managed Louisiana’s.