Amid twin probes into his side business dealings, Burl Cain, the legendary and long-tenured warden of Louisiana’s storied Angola prison, will step down from his post Jan. 1 after nearly 21 years on the job, the head of the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections announced Wednesday.
Corrections Secretary James LeBlanc issued a statement confirming the move but did not say why Cain is leaving.
“The department wishes him the best in his retirement,” LeBlanc said.
The abrupt resignation of perhaps America’s most famous jailer came a month after The Advocate published an article outlining a series of private real-estate deals Cain entered into with relatives and friends of favored inmates, in apparent violation of Department of Public Safety and Corrections rules.
In a subsequent story, the mother of a man murdered by an offender whose stepfather was Cain’s business partner called for the warden’s dismissal. State Rep. Kenny Havard, R-Jackson, whose district includes many state corrections workers, also said last week that Cain should resign if the newspaper’s report was accurate.
This month, Louisiana’s legislative auditor opened an investigation into Cain’s real-estate transactions, and the corrections department said it too would conduct a review.
The Advocate’s report focused on a series of real-estate deals Cain entered into in West Feliciana Parish between 2006 and 2009.
Cain spent more than $2 million on roughly 150 acres of land near Jackson, intending to subdivide it into estates, just before the national recession hit. In separate deals, he sold interests in the properties, totaling more than $1 million, to two prominent developers with close links to state inmates.
A Department of Public Safety and Corrections rule says employees may not have “nonprofessional relationships with offenders or with offenders’ families or friends.”
Cain did not respond to multiple requests for comment Wednesday. Numerous queries to a corrections spokeswoman for additional comments were unfruitful Wednesday.
According to a story by WAFB, which first reported the resignation, Cain said that he had done nothing wrong. The station reported that Cain said when The Advocate “questioned his religious beliefs, he knew it was time to step down.”
The Advocate’s articles did not raise any questions about Cain’s faith.
“Last night … my wife and I discussed it,” he told the station. “She was a real champion, but at that point, I was really … you know, it was pretty devastating. We didn’t hardly sleep last night. Because you are changing your whole life and your whole career. This is something you have been doing for 40 years. That is what you are familiar with. And you give up everything in that life, and you really make a new life. That is what we have to do.”
Cain’s sudden exit comes in the run-up to Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards’ inauguration, as the new governor is starting to announce cabinet appointments. Edwards has declined to say whether he intends to keep Cain’s boss, LeBlanc, who is very close to Cain. Richard Carbo, a spokesman for the new governor, reiterated Wednesday evening that no decisions about that appointment have been made.
State Sen. J.P. Morrell, who chairs the Judiciary B committee, which oversees corrections, said he thinks the incoming governor probably welcomes Cain’s departure, whether or not he sought it.
“At the end of the day, obviously the allegations that have been put forth so far are very concerning,” Morrell said. “There’s definitely an appearance of impropriety. This resignation removes a distraction from the new administration and allows us all to focus on sentencing reform and other budgetary concerns as we are still the incarceration capital of the world.
“Going forward, this governor and this Legislature definitely prefer to start with a clean slate.”
Cain, 73, was named warden in 1995 of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, the nation’s largest maximum-security prison by landmass. His administration brought Angola into the national spotlight as a once-violent prison that he helped transform, a change that Cain has attributed in large part to religious inmate-rehabilitation programs. He is the longest-serving warden in the prison’s history.
LeBlanc, in a statement, said, “Warden Cain has contributed significantly to public safety and offender rehabilitation, including the establishment of both the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary at Angola and the Reentry Court program. Warden Cain has also been involved in the successful campaign of the Louisiana Prison Chapel Foundation to build chapels at every state correctional facility in Louisiana. … Other states have followed Warden Cain’s lead and mimicked programs and policies he instituted over the years.”
Though Cain reported to LeBlanc, he was widely thought to exert broad control of the agency. He is so close to LeBlanc, a former business partner and subordinate, that LeBlanc recused himself from the department’s review of Cain’s real-estate deals.
The review is being overseen by Undersecretary Thomas Bickham. Pam Laborde, a spokeswoman for the department, said late Wednesday that the review will continue despite Cain’s resignation. Laborde said she believes an interim replacement for Cain will be named, but she said she did not know when that might occur.
Cain was considered one of the most powerful people in Louisiana — and one of its highest-paid state employees, with an annual salary of $167,211 — due in part to his access to the prison labor system, a major economic driver in many parts of the state. He also served for more than two decades as the employee representative on the Civil Service Commission, which makes personnel decisions affecting the state’s labor force of tens of thousands.
Early in Cain’s tenure, the prison was released from a long-running federal consent decree over conditions there.
Cain’s job as warden gave him “near-dictatorial control,” wrote Dennis Shere, his official biographer, in the book “Cain’s Redemption.”
The flap over Cain’s real-estate dealings was hardly his first controversy. Cain’s regime was dogged by scandal numerous times over the last three decades, usually over side deals he confected with private companies, many of which used or sought to use inmate labor. Though he’s been the target of more than one federal corruption investigation, including one into his West Feliciana real-estate dealings, he’s never been charged.
“I wouldn’t be that smart to keep getting away with it all this time, everything I get accused of,” he said in August in response to a question about the controversies that have followed him over the years.
A Vernon Parish native, Cain served as warden of Dixon Correctional Institute in Jackson from 1981 to 1995.
Prior to that, he was assistant secretary of the Office of Agri-Business, a precursor to Prison Enterprises, the subdivision of the corrections department that sells inmate-made products to outside agencies. He holds a bachelor’s degree from LSU.
Dr. Charles Kleinpeter, who headed Prison Enterprises for a little over a decade after being brought on by Cain, said he thinks the warden will be missed.
“I think he’ll be hard to replace,” Kleinpeter said. “He’s brought a lot of different people together — not only inmates but staff. He’s flamboyant and can be controversial, but I think that makes him effective. I give him good marks.” Among other things, Kleinpeter credited Cain for allowing inmates who die at Angola to have more dignified funerals, and for trying to give inmates more reason to hope, largely through his support for religious programming.
Others are glad to see Cain go. Alida Anthony, who called for Cain’s dismissal after learning that the warden had gone into business with the stepfather of the man who murdered her son, was nearly speechless when she heard Cain was quitting.
“Oh my God. Y’all opened up a can of worms,” she said. “Oh my God, I’m so excited. … I’m so happy.”
Anthony said she plans to continue fighting the efforts by her son’s killer, Jason Lormand, to seek clemency. Lormand’s stepfather, Charles Chatelain, was one of Cain’s business partners in the West Feliciana property; he is also the chairman of Prison Enterprises’ oversight board and serves on a committee that oversees Angola’s famous prison rodeo.
Havard, the state representative from Jackson, said Wednesday that if the allegations against Cain are true, the warden did the right thing by stepping down.
“You can’t play by two sets of rules,” he said. “I think for years there have been two sets of rules. I think this sends a strong signal that everyone’s gonna be treated fair no matter who you are or what your status is.”
Still, Havard, who has tangled politically with the warden over the years, said Cain’s exit is bittersweet to him.
“I think over the years Warden Cain has done a lot of good,” Havard said. “He’s not an all-bad person. But he’s done some questionable things too. And those things have come to light. We’ll see at the end of the day … whether he stepped over the line or not. I think the truth needs to come out.”
Staff writer Steve Hardy contributed to this report.
-Editor’s note: This story was changed Dec. 9 to include remarks from DPSC spokeswoman Pam Laborde.