The head of the beleaguered state corrections agency — which in the past six months saw the unwilling resignation of its highest-profile employee and is currently investigating some of its high-ranking officials — responded to a mostly mild series of questions and even praise during his state Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday.
James “Jimmy” LeBlanc is yet to be formally reinstalled as secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Corrections, pending final confirmation proceedings expected to come next month, but the long-serving leader’s next term appears a foregone conclusion in the eyes of officials.
Gov. John Bel Edwards, who reappointed LeBlanc in January, said through a spokesman last month he has “complete confidence in LeBlanc.” That statement came at the same time questions were being raised about how thorough the corrections agency was in its recent investigation and putative exoneration of former Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola Warden Burl Cain, who said in March LeBlanc is his “very best friend.”
If LeBlanc somehow fails to be confirmed, workers will have to chip his name off the new sign at the entrance to Angola, which once bore Cain’s name. The shiny red-and-black letters reading “James LeBlanc, Secretary,” surrounded by an array of newly planted flowers, were visible on a trip to the Angola rodeo last month.
Cain stepped down under fire in December — and officially retired in January — in the wake of an investigation by The Advocate into his business dealings with family or friends of inmates. He’d served as Angola warden for two decades.
Now, Cain’s son Nate is under investigation by the department and has been placed on leave from his role as warden of the Avoyelles Correctional Center in Cottonport.
Nate Cain’s wife, Tonia Cain, who until recently was the prison’s business manager, along with Deputy Warden Paul Gaspard, also are on leave amid a probe.
A recent article also revealed Nate Cain was found by a state corrections investigator to have played a role in a handcuffed inmate’s 2009 beating — an episode that could’ve resulted in federal charges and termination.
Instead, Nate Cain was disciplined lightly for it and later promoted.
On Wednesday, Darryl Campbell, a corrections official, confirmed two additional Avoyelles employees are no longer at the facility, at least for the time being. Beau Milligan was placed on leave, and Randon Harrington has been sent to participate in off-site training, Campbell said. Both are believed to be linked to an ongoing probe, the focus of which has not been officially identified.
Harrington and Cain were both cited in the inmate beating at Phelps Correctional Center, where Cain was deputy warden at the time.
The investigation comes in the wake of a number of public records requests filed by The Advocate seeking credit card receipts, ledgers showing money taken in by inmate concessions and invoices for a new building inside the prison’s gates.
On Wednesday, LeBlanc said he’s a Vietnam veteran who was born and raised in a prison community in St. Gabriel. He’s served corrections since 1973, when he started working at the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women in that town, he said.
“There is probably not a department that I get more calls about than corrections,” said Sen. Wesley Bishop, D-New Orleans, addressing LeBlanc. “I’m concerned about the number of people we send to prison.”
LeBlanc said he’s working with the Pew Charitable Trusts, a nonpartisan organization headquartered in Philadelphia, to form a task force aimed at lowering Louisiana’s incarceration rate, which is the highest in the nation.
LeBlanc said the state prison population has declined by 2,400 inmates since 2013.
LeBlanc supervises what he called a decentralized organization of 11 prisons and law enforcement agencies with some 4,800 staff members.
Like other state agencies, the corrections department has had to find ways to continue to operate in spite of budget shortfalls.
“Jimmy, I know it’s been very tough on you in the prison system because you’ve been cut for the last eight years and you’re still getting cut,” said Sen. Greg Tarver, D-Shreveport. “But I got to commend you on what you’re trying to do in educating the prisoners and thinking out of the box and working with private industry, trying to develop programs to help these people not go back into prison.”
Follow Maya Lau on Twitter, @mayalau.