† Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice and Considering Hate, is co-founder of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm CST.
The Incarceration Capital and the Reign of Cain
by nancy a heitzeg
I’ve just returned again from the State of Louisiana, known for Mardis Gras and Saints to many, but best known to me as the world’s leading imprisoner. Louisiana locks up people — mostly Black – at a stunning rate of 1341 per 100,000, a rate that is nearly double that of the U.S. as a whole. The numbers are mind-boggling, but so is the ethos that normalizes pervasive prisons as a way of life and an economic centerpiece. There are nine correctional facilities for adults alone, not including the parish jails, including the infamous Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) or the juvenile detention centers both short-term and long.
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There is always more to say about what is seen here – about the Youth Study Center, the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women, and the co-optation of nonprofits by the smoke and mirrors of criminal injustice “reform”. But at the epicenter of this vast incarceration enterprise is always the old/new plantation of LSP Angola, with it’s convenient cover stories and hidden horrors.CI has covered Angola extensively ( see How to Convey the Horror?, PIC: Old School/New School, LSP Angola Rodeo: At the Intersections of Abuse, Visiting a Modern-Day Slave Plantation, Part 1 and Part 2 and more) yet there never are adequate words to describe it. Today there won’t be either, just a note on recent developments, that through time will reveal more than we will know.
As my class was planning their tour of Angola, we heard word that Warden Burl Cain, who ruled the prison for 20 years, had been forced to resign. Shortly thereafter, the LSP Museum/Gift Shop which arranges the tour let us know that all tours had been cancelled until further notice due to potential flooding. Now flooding is now and often a real possibility at Angola, but given the timing and the fact that State Police have been there busily collecting “records”, it seems most likely that the prison will need to rethink the PR given the swirling scandal.
The tours, the rodeo, and the ostensible openness of a redeemed Angola to public view is mythology furthered by Cain himself. And it remains to be seen whether this round of investigations will stick or what direction the new administration will take. Cain’s abrupt resignation came after a series of articles in The Advocate revealed that Cain, who served as head of the storied penitentiary for two decades, did real estate deals with family and friends of two inmates who, during their sentences at Angola, were offered favorable treatment not available to most offenders. The result was an internal investigation by the Department of Public Safety and Corrections and Cain’s abrupt resignation effective January 1. Although that investigation is supposedly completed ( no results have been published yet), Cain is the now target of a criminal investigation by the Inspector General’s Office and the State Police with the cooperation of the Department of Public Safety and Corrections. The details of the investigation is not yet clear although reports have indicated that payroll and other records have been seized from Angola.
As the timeline from The Advocate illustrates, Cain’s career has been one long smarmy side-deal. This is perhaps no anomaly in a state where mass incarceration greases endless economic wheels while simultaneously re inscribing slavery. But it is a striking fall for the man who conned millions with his deceptively folksy slick and his tall-tails of Christian redemption as the key to “taming” Angola. It will be a PR challenge too – not just for Angola – but for the entire Right on Crime crew to account for the fall of Cain. His seemingly generous but ultimately coercive brand of fundamentalist evangelical Christianity foisted on a captive population was the template for programs in Texas, Mississippi, Georgia, New Mexico, Michigan, and West Virginia. Cain’s version of salvation was everything that the conservative prison reformers wanted to hear.
Those who dared to look more closely and those who survived him knew that that the veneer barely concealed a still brutal regime. The persistent slave labor in primitive agricultural conditions (” old timey” as Cain likes to call them). The on-going federal lawsuits over living conditions on death row where heat indices have reached more than 130 degrees. The horrific endless isolation and on-going obstruction over the legal fate of The Angola 3. The over-sight of over the execution of innocents. The heavy hand of retribution:
“Cain also dealt with potential violence by throwing inmates in notoriously grim solitary confinement blocks. “Men have faced more decades of solitary confinement for not adhering to strict Christian codes and maintaining their political beliefs,” a filmmaker who visited Angola prisoners for years told The Atlantic in 2013. “It has been my experience working with formerly incarcerated men that many, even after they are released, continue to fear the notoriously retributive wrath of Burl Cain.” He has been accused of punishing members of other religions for failing to follow his creed; in 2009, after accusations that his staff had destroyed a Catholic death row prisoner’s rosary, he settled an ACLU lawsuit, allowing him to meet with a priest and watch mass on television.”
What Cain and his classification tour guides never wanted to tell you — as you are lulled into the sprawling landscape – is that more than 20% of the prisons’ now 6300 inmates are in permanent lock-down in the notorious Camp J. Or that the lauded hospice program only serves 4-5 inmates at a time with Christian only counseling. Or that escape attempts persist and weapons are confiscated on an on-going basis. That his assault numbers are rigged, and his vaunted “re-entry” programs teach menial skills to a population where 90% will never re-enter. Anywhere.
Who knows what the current investigation will yield for Burl Cain and Angola? It is difficult to gauge how far it will go or whether it will garner meaningful change, Cain may survive this scandal too, as he has on previous occasions. If not , he may be replaced by yet another good old boy in the web of cronyism and corruption that pervades the system, in Louisiana and elsewhere. If there is any semblance of justice–karma! — Cain’s crimes will be fully revealed. Not just the economic wheelings and dealings but the depth of the brutality, the scope of human suffering that was wrought at that place throughout time, and most certainly by his hand. May his supporters and cheerleaders and co-signers of his version of conservative Christian “prison reform” be exposed along with him. Over.
May LSP Angola, that Last Slave Plantation be fully seen and finally, ended.