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What message does Smart Justice Summit send by featuring Angola State prison warden Burl Cain?

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Florida’s Department of Corrections has had a difficult past few years, with allegations of widespread abuse, neglect, torture and death of inmates under Its watch.

Brandishing a list of suspected violations both criminal and civil rights, a coalition of 14 human rights groups is calling on the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the DOC. Claims include excessive use of force, misuse of solitary confinement, suicide, starvation, sexual assault, torture by scalding and more.

Among this shower of criticism is the Florida Smart Justice Alliance, led by Barney Bishop, which is holding its Justice Summit V in Sarasota this week.

The Summit seeks to bring together legislators, law enforcement, and other experts to promote ideas and innovation for improving the state’s criminal justice system while maintaining public safety.

No doubt, a worthy endeavor.

Among the scheduled speakers are lawmakers from across Florida and all levels government — both state and local — with DOC Secretary Julie Jones as keynote speaker. Attendees will hold panel discussions with such creative names as “Smart Initiatives,” “Managing Entities in a Smart Justice System,” and “The Roadmap to System Excellence: Strengthening the ‘Front Door. ‘”

Anything that deals with criminal justice, particularly in law enforcement and prisons, tends to attract more than its share of colorful characters. One of those interesting personalities, at least in some circles, will speak on Wednesday.

Angola State Prison Warden Nathan Burl Cain spoke on “The Impact of Moral Rehabilitation in Prisons.”

Cain, known as “God’s Own Warden,” has amassed a nearly mythical tenure running the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola. After more than 21 years as warden, he unexpectedly announced he will be retiring in January.

As impressive as his resume might be, Cain may not be the ideal choice for a Summit that hopes to find “cutting-edge ideas from other states,” as Bishop writes in the Sunshine State News.

Few can argue Cain is experienced in his field, running the largest prison in the state with America’s highest incarceration rate. Along with his reputation for being no-nonsense, Cain also brings a wealth of controversy, including accusations of several side business deals with outside companies and several violations of Louisiana’s corrections rules.

As profiled by Gordon Russell and Maya Lau in The Advocate, Cain was compared to “Boss Hogg, the portly and avaricious power broker who controlled the fictional Georgia county in TV’s “The Dukes of Hazzard.”

“For years, many close observers have said Cain was really in charge of the corrections department, even if he wasn’t the top man on the organizational chart,” they wrote in “The Fall of Burl Cain.”

A number of these business deals leaned heavily on profits from inmate labor, under the guise of providing skills for prisoners. Another was for a failed recycling program.

Yet, the one arrangement that proved to be Cain’s ultimate undoing involved possible violations of state rules barring contact with inmates’ relatives, when he entered into questionable business partnerships in a real estate development north of Baton Rouge.

Offering an agenda that includes someone like Cain, who brings both notoriety and infamy to the event, might not be the wisest choice to help bring reforms to the DOC.

Florida’s prison system desperately needs new ideas, and not an old-school Boss Hogg.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.

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