After decades in solitary confinement, Herman Wallace died just days after leaving prison. As warden at Angola, Burl Cain ensured he remained in solitary confinement. Mourners at Wallace's funerals included members of the Black Panther Party. (Photo courtesy Ann Harkness)

MDOC Nominee Burl Cain’s Colorful Past: Lions, Black Panthers and Baptists

For 44 years and 10 months, Albert Woodfox woke up every day in a 6-by-9-foot prison cell in the Louisiana State Penitentiary. There, he spent his evenings worrying that the next morning would be the one when he arose screaming, a fully broken man like so many others whose cries had awakened him during his decades in solitary confinement.

“I’ve always felt that solitary confinement is the most brutal form of torture that does not involve physical violence being used against you. There’s no other purpose than to break the human spirit,” Woodfox, a black man, said in a video with the American Civil Liberties Union last year.

Woodfox holds the unenviable distinction as the person who served in solitary confinement, bereft of all meaningful contact with other human beings, for a longer period than any other human being in U.S. prison history.  Burl Cain, the Louisiana prison warden who ensured Woodfox remained there for his last two decades as a prisoner, could soon become the new head of Mississippi’s state prisons.

‘Moral People Don’t Commit Crimes’

Burl Cain served as the warden of Louisiana’s historically notorious Angola prison for 21 years, where he sought to remedy the penitentiary’s problems with a Christian regimen that often drew accusations that he violated some inmates’ religious rights. (Photo courtesy MDOC)

From 1995 until 2016, Cain served as the warden at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, where Woodfox lived for more than four decades. The prison is also known as Angola, after the old slave plantation where it now sits. There, Cain gained a reputation for enforcing discipline through prison labor and a culture rooted in evangelical Christianity.

“We need a strong, experienced leader that Mississippians can trust, and I believe that person is Burl,” Gov. Tate Reeves said when he announced Cain’s appointment on Wednesday. “I do not make this decision lightly. The safety and dignity of all within our system is at stake. Burl’s impressive decades-long career in corrections, leading prison facilities and ushering in progressive measures to improve conditions, is exactly what we need.”

Since New Year’s Day, dozens of inmates in the Mississippi Department of Corrections system have died, a number of them violently. Reeves and other state leaders have vowed to work to reform the State prison system.

Reeves’ pick to reform prisons said on Wednesday that he will focus on stabilizing Mississippi’s prison system, prioritizing “moral rehabilitation” because “moral people don’t commit crimes.”

During his tenure, Cain earned a reputation for helping turn around Angola, which was once known for constant violence and even an inmate sex-slave trade in the 1970s. Several people whose work involved the prison, though, told the Mississippi Free Press on background that a significant amount of the changes in Angola’s culture that Cain often gets credit for began under prior wardens.

Cain resigned as warden at Angola in 2015 after The Baton Rouge Advocate reported on a land deal he had made allegedly involving the friends or family of two of his inmates. A 2016 probe found no improprieties, but a 2017 report from Louisiana’s state legislative auditor found that Cain had used 10 corrections department employees to perform services at his private residence. Still, the later probe cleared him of wrongdoing.

“I think what’s important is that those allegations were unfounded, that there were no crimes committed, and so what we have to do is avoid the hint of impropriety,” Cain said during a Wednesday press conference with Reeves. “We will continue to do that. I’ve done that throughout my career. You’re going to get investigations, it’s going to happen. That’s good. But it was unfounded as far as any wrongdoing or ethics violations or what have you.”

The Louisiana State Penitentiary, seen here in 1901, was modeled after the old plantation where it resides, Angola. (Photo courtesy Louisiana Department of Corrections)

Cain Cited Asian ‘Problem’

From early in his career, though, Cain proved a magnet for scrutiny. As a member of the Louisiana Civil Service Commission in January 1993, he voiced fears that Asians living in Louisiana could threaten state jobs for other residents because “they make real good grades.”

He made the remark ahead of the body’s vote on whether or not to waive civil-service tests for college graduates with above-average grades who sought employment in state government. Asian students would have an unfair advantage, Cain warned.

“You’re going to have a problem because right now you have a lot of Asians and people like that, and they make real good grades,” the Associated Press reported him telling fellow members at the time. “I don’t know how they do it, but they do.”

Cain was evoking a phenomenon known as the “model minority myth,” which experts say is not backed up by data, and is often harmful for Asian people, making some feel more pressure to perform and even leading to mental-health issues.

The commission’s director at the time, Herb Sumrall, rebuked Cain, saying he did not “care about the color of the skin or the slant of the eyes,” but rather about finding “the best person to work for the state of Louisiana.”

Cain defended himself soon after, saying he just wanted to make sure “citizens in this country (got) a first shot at the job.”

“They’ve run into the same problem with them in the fishing business, where they came over and kind of put the Americans that have been fishing for years out of business. We have people that come from other countries that we seem to give preference,” the AP reported him saying.

The Times in Shreveport, La., at the time ran the story under a “Controversy” label. But in the decades since, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves’ pick to head Mississippi’s troubled prison system has supplanted that controversy with many others.

‘Mandated Baptist Programming’

At Angola, Cain’s methods included enforcing a Christian culture among inmates, regardless of their religious beliefs. Critics have noted that Cain, a Southern Baptist, is more selective than that, emphasizing a Christian regimen that more closely resembles his own Baptist faith. Since the year he became warden, the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary has even operated on the prison’s campus, offering inmates the chance to earn degrees in ministry. 

Those practices, though, have drawn criticisms and even lawsuits, alleging violations of other prisoners’ religious rights.

In 2007, the prison settled with the Louisiana branch of the American Civil Liberties Union after it sued on behalf of a Mormon inmate who said Angola’s administration denied him access to religious publications.

Two years later, the ACLU sued again, this time on behalf of a Catholic prisoner and a Muslim prisoner, alleging that Cain’s practices violated their religious rights. Every Sunday morning, the lawsuit said, Catholic inmate Donald Ledger had to wake up to televisions that were locked into “mandated Baptist programming.” Ledger said he ought to have the right to watch Catholic Mass on Sunday mornings instead.

Shawn Anderson, a member of the Nation of Islam, also complained in the suit that he was denied access to his own religious literature and publications, and that he wanted the right to gather with fellow believers to worship. 

“Catholics, Muslims and Mormons just want the same opportunities that Baptist prisoners are given,” ACLU-Louisiana Executive Director Marjorie R. Esman said in a February 2009 statement. “As Warden, Burl Cain can tell prisoners to do a lot of things, but he can’t compel them to practice a certain religion or block their reasonable requests to practice their religion. We fully support Warden Cain’s efforts to encourage prisoners to look toward changing their lives for the better, but he cannot do that through religious coercion.”

‘The Lion in a Cage’

The Nation of Islam is a movement that combines radical black politics with Islamic religious teaching. Cain has expressed a bias against radical black belief systems before. During his time as warden, he presided over and ensured that three black male inmates, known as the “Angola Three.” Their life sentences came after convictions for the 1973 murder of prison guard Brent Miller. One of those men was Albert Woodfox.

During a 2008 deposition, the warden claimed that he kept them locked up because of the men’s ties to radical black activism. The three men—Robert King, Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace—were members of the Black Panther Party

When Woodfox’s attorney, Nicholas Trenticosta, asked Cain about previous remarks in which he had said the man “didn’t cause very much trouble,” the warden compared Woodfox to a caged animal.

“Because the lion in a cage can’t cause much trouble, you see. So therefore, he don’t cause no trouble because he’s in the cage. He’s in the cell,” Cain said.

King had his murder conviction overturned in 2001 amid charges he was convicted on flimsy evidence. The State indicted him again, but offered to let him out on time served in exchange for a plea deal. King left Angola in 2001.

Robert King, middle, celebrated his seventh year as a free man with supporters in 2008. (Photo courtesy Ann Harkness)

Trenticosta brought up King’s release during the 2008 deposition, pointing out that violence had not followed that Panther’s release from prison, as Cain suggested Woodfox’s release from solitary confinement would.

“He is only waiting, in my opinion, for them to get out so they can reunite,” Cain said, referring to the other two Black Panthers at Angola.

“Reunite for what reason?” Trenticosta asked.

“Because he passes out the little cookies with the Panther on them. If he passed out those cookies with KKK on them, it would be no different to me,” Cain replied. “He would be guilty. If you build your life on hatred, and you’re hung up back 20 or 30 years ago, and we have moved onto society past that, you can’t go back reliving in the public. You’re dangerous.”

“Let’s just for the sake assume, if you can, that (King) is not guilty of the murder of Brent Miller,” Trenticosta said several minutes later. 

“OK. I would still keep him in (solitary),” the warden said. “I still know he has a propensity for violence. I still know that he is still trying to practice Black Pantherism, and I still would not want him walking around my prison because he would organize the young new inmates. I would have me all kinds of problems, more than I could stand, and I would have the blacks chasing after them. I would have chaos and conflict, and I believe that. He has to stay in a cell while he’s in Angola.”

‘One Authentic Authoritarian Figure’

As evidence for his claim that Woodfox remained dangerous in 2008, Cain cited a letter the man once wrote in which he decried “capitalism, imperialism, racism, exploitation, oppression, and the murder of the poor and oppressed people.”

“History has taught us that revolution is a violent thing, but a highly necessary occurrence of life. Revolution, is blood shed, deaths, sacrifices, hardships, nothing can, and will change that,” Woodfox wrote in the letter, which Cain read aloud before admitting, under questioning from the man’s attorney, that he had penned it 35 years earlier, in 1973.

At another point in the deposition, Cain described a hunger strike that Woodfox began and other inmates joined in 1999. The warden rejected Woodfox’s attorney suggestion that hunger strikes are peaceful, not violent demonstrations.

“The prison operates with one authentic authoritarian figure, the warden and the rule book,” Cain said. “And so if you’re going to be defiant and be belligerent and do a hunger strike, then you’re giving me an ultimatum. If you don’t give me what I want, I’m going to starve myself to death and not eat, therefore, do what I say. So, therefore, that is absolutely contrary to the administration, the rule books and so forth. He’s trying to give us ultimatums. Ultimatums is what they give you when they take hostages. Ultimatums are not what we do in prison. … There is no peaceful demonstration.”

In 2013, Herman Wallace was dying from liver cancer when a judge granted his release and ordered him a new trial, finding that the court had unconstitutionally excluded women from his original jury. On Oct. 1, 2013, The 71-year-old man, who had spent more than four decades in solitary confinement by that point, left Hunt Correctional Facility, where he had been since the state moved him out of Angola in 2009. The state reindicted him on Oct. 3, but he never saw a courtroom nor a prison again; he died the next day on Oct. 4.

Mourners shared memories and messages at Herman Wallace’s funeral in 2013. (Photo courtesy Ann Harkness)

Just over a year later, a federal judge overturned Woodfox’s conviction, and he left Angola in February 2016, pleading no contest to a manslaughter charge in exchange for the State giving up its push for a retrial. In later remarks, Woodfox maintained his innocence, but said he accepted the plea deal because he was in poor health and did not want to risk spending any more of his life behind bars. The then-69-year-old man had served 43 years in solitary confinement—longer than anyone in U.S. history.

Cain’s fears that violence would follow Woodfox’s release, either from prison or even just solitary confinement, have remained unrealized. Eight years earlier during his deposition with the man’s attorney, Cain confessed that he did not know what Black Panthers believed.

“Warden Cain, what is Black Pantherism?” Trenticosta asked.

“I have no idea. I have never been one. I know they hold their fists up, and I know that I read about them, and they advocated violence,” Cain said. “… Maybe they are nice good people, but (Woodfox) is not.”

Then, the warden, who credits the imposition of his own religion in prison life with turning Angola around, compared Black Panthers to religious devotees.

“There have been people who were in the Black Panther religion that clenched their fists and did horrible things before that don’t anymore,” he said. “He never left where he was before. He was still living that stuff, that violence. I feel, I see, I live—I know what he stands for.”

“Do you believe the Black Panthers are religious people, that it is a religion?” Trenticosta asked.

“Well, I don’t know what they are. I don’t know anything about them. I am just telling you, they moved on. He didn’t,” Cain said. “Let’s don’t get into what they are and all that. I don’t care and don’t know. It doesn’t bother me.”

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