Advocates expressed shock and distress with the announcement that Burl Cain will be the new head of the Mississippi Department of Corrections. Cain spent decades working in Louisiana Department of Corrections and gained notoriety as the warden at Louisiana State Penitentiary, retiring in 2016 when an investigation was opened alleging that he used those incarcerated at Angola for his personal needs.
One of the many notable controversies during Cain’s time as head of Angola was the lawsuit Lewis v. Cain filed on behalf of all men incarcerated at Angola by The Promise of Justice Initiative (PJI), the law firm Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC (Cohen Milstein), the Advocacy Center (AC), and the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Louisiana (ACLU-La). The lawsuit alleges that people incarcerated there needlessly suffer from chronic pain, permanent injury, and preventable sickness and death as a result of prison officials’ failure to provide constitutionally adequate medical care. The lawsuit is ongoing.
Under Cain’s leadership, prisoners reported endless experiences of degradation and cruelty: a man denied access to a specialist for four years while his throat cancer advanced; a man denied medical attention four times during a stroke, which left him blind and paralyzed; a blind man denied even a cane for 16 years. In many cases, only the specter of legal action spurred the prison to provide long-delayed medical care. Cain forcefully pushed back against the lawsuit.
In another suit, Cain defended the extreme heat at Angola that federal courts unanimously found was unconstitutional. During one hearing he was removed from the courtroom for trying to coach a witness from the gallery. The DOC and Cain faced sanctions in that matter for their attempts to alter the collection of data of the temperatures.
Attorney for the Promise of Justice Initiative, Ben Cohen, says, “Burl Cain entered a prison system that was being reformed after it had been the most violent in the country, and turned it into the most corrupt. The already ongoing deaths, illness, and scandals at Mississippi DOC mirror the horrors that were endemic during Cain’s time at Angola and he left that position amid serious corruption allegations. His failing up to this new position is unacceptable and we are praying for those who will soon be incarcerated under his control.”