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Are we allowed to try new things?

In an era of massive prison bureaucracies, Burl Cain is a throwback

By Eric J. Williams

Who lets this many inmates mix with the general public like this? Can anyone but Burl Cain pull this off? Would any other warden in this country even try?

These were the types of questions I heard warden after warden ask on Sunday at the Angola Prison Rodeo. I had the pleasure of attending the Rodeo with a group of wardens from the annual conference of NAAWS (North American Association of Wardens and Superintendents) and many of the wardens were blown away by what they saw. But it wasn’t the bull riding and roping that shocked them, it was the inmate craft fair held simultaneously with the rodeo.

There were at least 500 inmates at the rodeo selling their wares and interacting with the general public who walked up and down seemingly endless rows of the normal prison crafts (there is only so much woodworking and leather craft that anyone can look at before everything starts to looks the same).

As we walked the aisles, we talked to the inmates about everything from how they made certain craft items to the lengths of their sentences. Many inmates either sat with their families at their booths or walked with them through the fairgrounds. Only in one section were higher security inmates separated from the public and then, only by an eight foot chain link fence.

In an era of massive prison bureaucracies, Burl Cain is a throwback. He’s worked for the Louisiana Department of Corrections seemingly forever, the whole time as a warden. He is a larger-than-life figure in the prison world, with standing in the community and political connections to match.

Given his long tenure, he has the freedom in his position to innovate. Many may question some of these innovations, given their often religious undertones, but it is hard to imagine anyone who is more willing to try and reform those under his charge.

This led many of the wardens to wonder what would happen to Angola once Burl Cain retires. It led me to wonder if we have passed the time when wardens had the freedom to make the kinds of changes and try the kinds of programs that Burl Cain has.

While Cain has served for twenty-nine years, a long tenure for a warden today might be closer to four. There are a variety of good reasons to move wardens around and if the problems of the 1970s and 1980s taught anything, it was that having an entrenched warden running his own fiefdom could lead to massive problems.

But I wonder if in going so far in the other direction, we haven’t lost something important. Warden Cain has gained the trust of his staff, the inmates, and the politicians to implement changes that are in line with his mission. Another warden who is also secure in his or her position and has a long tenure in a single institution might try innovative programming and not be afraid to make some mistakes along the way.

But how many wardens now have the freedom to make changes in their facility without worrying about blowback from upper management? Has professionalization and bureaucratization given us a generation of prison administrators who lack the freedom and institutional knowledge to try new things? Will there ever be another Burl Cain?

I tend to doubt it. The world of corrections has changed too much over the past thirty years. And when Warden Cain does finally step down, there will be some Gulf of Mexico sized shoes to fill at The Farm in Angola.

Eric J. Williams is a professor of criminal justice at Sonoma State University.

His book, “The Big House in a Small Town: Prisons, Communities, and Economics in Rural America,” is published by Praeger Press and can be found at Amazon.

Williams joins Corrections1 through the Correctional Management Institute of Texas. See all the CMIT columnists here.

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