“Louisiana is the world’s prison capital. The state imprisons more of its people, per head, than any of its U.S. counterparts. First among Americans means first in the world. Louisiana’s incarceration rate is nearly triple Iran’s, seven times China’s and 10 times Germany’s.”
That paragraph opens a devastating eight-part series published this month by The Times-Picayune of New Orleans about how the state’s largely private prison system profits from high incarceration rates and tough sentencing, and how many with the power to curtail the system actually have a financial incentive to perpetuate it.
The picture that emerges is one of convicts as chattel and a legal system essentially based on human commodification.
First, some facts from the series:
• One in 86 Louisiana adults is in the prison system, which is nearly double the national average.
• More than 50 percent of Louisiana’s inmates are in local prisons, which is more than any other state. The next highest state is Kentucky at 33 percent. The national average is 5 percent.
• Louisiana leads the nation in the percentage of its prisoners serving life without parole.
• Louisiana spends less on local inmates than any other state.
• Nearly two-thirds of Louisiana’s prisoners are nonviolent offenders. The national average is less than half.
In the early 1990s, the state was under a federal court order to reduce overcrowding, but instead of releasing prisoners or loosening sentencing guidelines, the state incentivized the building of private prisons. But, in what the newspaper called “a uniquely Louisiana twist,” most of the prison entrepreneurs were actually rural sheriffs. They saw a way to make a profit and did.
It also was a chance to employ local people, especially failed farmers forced into bankruptcy court by a severe drop in the crop prices.
But in order for the local prisons to remain profitable, the beds, which one prison operator in the series distastefully refers to as “honey holes,” must remain full. That means that on almost a daily basis, local prison officials are on the phones bartering for prisoners with overcrowded jails in the big cities.
Source: The New York Times | Charles Blow