Burl Cain, the legendary and long-tenured warden of Louisiana’s storied Angola prison, is stepping down effective Jan. 1, he told WAFB-TV on Wednesday.
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 also said it would do 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.”
According to the WAFB report, 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.”
“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 previously had declined to say whether he intended to keep Cain’s boss, Department of Public Safety and Corrections Secretary James LeBlanc.
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 penitentiary that he helped transform, a transformation that he attributes in large part to religious inmate-rehabilitation programs. He is the longest-serving warden in the prison’s history.
Though he’s not the head of the corrections department, Cain was widely thought to exert broad control of the agency that is nominally run by LeBlanc, a close friend and former business partner of the warden’s.
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 nearly 60,000 people.
Cain’s job as warden gave him “near-dictatorial control,” wrote Dennis Shere, his official biographer, in the book “Cain’s Redemption.”
Cain’s regime has also been dogged by controversy over his numerous — often botched — deals over the years 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 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 Agribusiness, 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.
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 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.”
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.”