James Gill: Warden Burl Cain playing by a different set of rules _lowres

Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- Warden Burl Cain ORG XMIT: BAT1411251554468918

Burl Cain is stepping down after 20 years as Angola warden, but he may be reluctant to quit the corrections racket.

Cain has said he has “no clue” what he will do next. But at 73, having spent most of his working life in penitentiaries, Cain showed no inclination to retire until The Advocate revealed he had been doing real estate deals with friends and relatives of inmates enjoying favored treatment.

Cain was always on the look-out for a little moolah on the side — often by putting inmates to work for private companies. He has evidently been considering the possibility of continuing to do so when he is no longer lord of the Farm, preaching the gospel to a captive audience of thousands.

Convicts granted work release have become quite a profit source for the private sector in recent years, and Cain demonstrated an interest in a slice of the action three years ago when he asked the state ethics board whether it would be permissible to work for a firm called Louisiana Workforce.

Such is the bizarre concept of ethics that obtains in Louisiana that the board, with conflicts of interest staring it in the face, raised no objection.

Paul Perkins, Cain’s pal and longtime deputy, retired from the state payroll about 10 years ago to form Louisiana Workforce when his old department adopted a new policy for convicts deemed worthy of work release.

Work release is, of course, a thoroughly wise policy, relieving convicts of the penitentiary’s crushing tedium while they readjust to life on the outside and accumulate a few bucks to tide them over when they hit the street. It must cut recidivism substantially.

To qualify, convicts must be within three years of their release date or doing less than seven for a nonviolent offense. Convicts on work release had always been assigned to a sheriff, who nabbed a share of their earnings to pay for their upkeep.

The new rule allowed private companies to contract with sheriffs and assume responsibility for supervising the convicts and finding them jobs. In return, they kept 62 percent of earnings and charged for commissary items and — that old slammer scam — telephone calls. They generally split the Corrections Department per diems with the sheriffs.

The rationale for the new arrangement was that specialist private companies would be focused on finding the most lucrative jobs for their clients for the sake of the bottom line.

It has certainly worked out fine for Louisiana Workforce, which is now the state’s leading private operator in the program and generally has about 1,200 convicts under its wing. It also appears to have helped countless inmates turn their lives around. According to the Corrections Department, up to 20 percent of the lucky convicts remain on the payroll of their transitional employers when they are freed. If Louisiana Workforce is growing rich from their labors, it is unlikely that they feel exploited. They are the privileged of the prison population.

Louisiana Workforce appears to be a competent outfit but clearly owes much of its success to Perkins’ connections. Perkins worked not only under Cain, but was also No. 2 man at the Dixon Correctional Institute in East Feliciana Parish when Jimmy LeBlanc was warden there. When Perkins left, he, Cain and LeBlanc formed a security company, which soon folded.

LeBlanc then secured an ethics board opinion clearing him to work for an unnamed work release company because, like Cain, he disavowed responsibility for deciding which inmates would be allowed into the program. The ethics board must have fallen off a turnip truck. LeBlanc apparently never did go to work for any such company and, a year later, was appointed head of the entire Corrections Department.

Thus was LeBlanc able to decree last year that sheriffs could no longer contract with private work-release operators without inviting competitive bids. That seemed a wise move, since St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain had handed a work-release contract to some pals, who proved unable to prevent an inmate escaping and kidnapping his ex-girlfriend.

LeBlanc promptly decided to show how good government works in Louisiana with a plan to establish a work-release program for 350 inmates at a time in the shuttered state pen in DeQuincy. Bid specs were drawn up, and six companies declared their interest. But five evidently decided they didn’t like the odds and left Louisiana Workforce to be awarded its biggest contract yet.

The future looks bright for Louisiana Workforce, but Cain, now the subject of three official investigations, won’t be part of it, Perkins says.

James Gill’s email address is jgill@theadvocate.com.