Bienvenue en Louisiane: The Prison Effect

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Louisiana isn’t all food, fun, and Mardi Gras. Image courtesy of the U.S. Embassy

Laissez les bons temps rouler” (Let the good times roll), is a common phrase heard during Mardi Gras in Louisiana – but how good are those times, really?

Louisiana is a place famous for its colorful blend of cultures, its food and music, bayous and a few A-list entertainers. However, all of this flavor has a bitter aftertaste that few are talking about – and outsiders often don’t even know about.

It’s a disturbing trend that has become the norm to the locals, as the state works to find a resolution for those who they consider a menace to their society: Too many people are going to prison, and they’re staying there too long.

Louisiana: Prison Capital of the World?

Did you know that America has the highest incarceration rate in the world? Not only that, the southern state of Louisiana is the world’s prison capital. According to Cindy Chang of  the Times- Picayune, Louisiana imprisons more of its people per head than any other U.S. State.

One in 86 adult is actively doing time. With regards to blacks, who are the highest populated group in prison, one in 14 is behind bars; one in seven is either in prison, on parole or on probation.

Needless to say, the crime rate is exceptionally high, but it doesn’t explain the number one ranking Louisiana maintains year after year. Chang’s article reports that Louisiana’s arrest rate was nearly five times that of Iran, 13 times of China and 20 times of Germany.

Crime Rate Math

A National Institute of Corrections crime report showed that in 2011:

  • The crime rate in Louisiana was 5% lower than the national average rate.
  • Property crimes accounted for approximately 92% of the overall crime rate.
  • Property crime rates were 2% lower than the national rate.
  • The remaining 8% of crime were violent crimes.
  • The Louisiana violent crime rate was 27% lower than other states.

Despite these statistics, the incarceration (in prison) rate is 115% higher than the national average. (Per 100,000). So what is really going on here in the state of Louisiana? If everything else (crime rate) is down, how could the incarceration rate be up?

Mandatory Minimum Sentencing

Chang simplifies the answer: It’s all about the mandatory minimum sentences. In Louisiana, a two-time car burglar can get 24 years without parole and a trio of drug convictions will get someone a free pass to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola for life. Murderers automatically get life without parole on a jury verdict. Writing bad checks can earn you up to 10 years in jail.

The Editorial Board of Nola.com explained that someone who is caught with a small amount of marijuana for the second time, faces up to 5 years in jail with possibly hard labor, and on the third or subsequent offense, the sentence is 20 years of hard labor.  This includes marijuana possession.

Because of mandatory minimum sentences, the Louisiana prison population has more than doubled over the past 20 years. According to Blueprint Louisiana (a statewide citizen’s group on reforms in criminal justice and education) “only 37 percent of offenders in Louisiana have been convicted of violent crimes…and the average sentence for drug related crimes is almost 10 years.

Private Prisons: Fattening the Cow

Having so many people imprisoned will take away from state resources, so why is there such a huge desire to put people away for such long periods of time, for non-violent offenses? With the prison population doubled, which costs more of tax payers money-leading into billions of dollars, there’s clearly a disconnect somewhere. Could it be due to the Prison Industry Complex?

The majority of Louisiana inmates are in for-profit prisons.  What makes Louisiana different? According to Chang, most prison entrepreneurs are rural sheriffs. They are the ones who “run things” in the Madison, Avoyelles, East Carroll and Concordia parishes – and their prison operations finance Louisiana law enforcement. If the inmate count falls, whether due to mandatory prison sentence reform or reduced crime rates, it will cut deeply into the sheriff’s budget, and their constituents lose jobs. 

Prison-Prisoner Cycle Never Ends

According to the Editorial Board, Nola, the criminals who commit the heinous crimes have a place in the prisons, but the people who fill the prisons are non-violent offenders. The money that is allocated to the prisons leave Louisiana poorer and no safer, and there is no leadership that is interested in rehabilitation or any type of reform.

A team of Times-Picayune reporters led by Chang exposed the results of this situation:

  • Louisiana has the highest percentage of inmates serving life sentences without the possibility of parole.
  • Some, who will die in prison, were never convicted of a violent crime.
  • An inmate who is given a life sentence in his 20s and lives to be in his 70s will cost the state $1 million. That is the cost for just one person.

Locking up these people and throwing away the key does not help the situation, nor does it serve as a deterrent to crime.  Long sentences help increase the recidivism rate which within itself is an endless cycle. When a convict finally gets out, he or she is unemployable; this person has no education, but does have a criminal record. Without hopes of getting a job, the ex-con turns (or returns) to a life of crime . Within five years, half of the state’s ex-convicts go right back behind bars.

Children lose their parents to jail, which breaks down the family unit, and are usually in a community where being locked up is the norm. Children end up repeating the cycle, as many see ‘doing time’ as a rite of passage.

Mandatory minimums change everything. Image by larryfarr

Mandatory minimums change everything. Image by larryfarr

Rehabilitation and Skills Training Reserved for Long-Term Prisoners: Sense or Nonsense?

Interestingly enough, the nonsensical measures that are in place in the prison was revealed by the Times Picayune, that rehabilitation and skills training are reserved for the murders and rapists and any prisoner doing long term sentences.  They are the ones that learn to do welding, air-conditioning repair, plumbing and mechanics.

The 53% of inmates in the local prisons who serve 10 years or less for non-violent offenses are not offered such opportunity.  They are the ones who need the benefit to better themselves, but instead, people who will never leave prison have proud certificates of achievement to show off.

Little Crime, Big Time

Authors Lauren Galik and Julian Morris of the Reasons Foundation, did a study to support their argument on sentencing reform.  Their conclusion of the study showed that a large number of crimes that carry mandatory minimum sentences in Louisiana are drug related and nonviolent in nature, and that numerous violent crimes such as negligent homicide, manslaughter, aggravated assault with a firearm,, aggravated battery, simple rape and simple kidnapping carry no mandatory minimum sentences at all.

The mandatory minimum sentences can result in dramatic differences in punishment which is seen mostly with sentencing of drug crimes, where different weight or quantity, carry varied degrees of punishment. E.g. 199.9 grams of cocaine carries a mandatory minimum of five years hard labor and $50,000 fine, and possession of 200 grams of cocaine, carries a mandatory minimum of 10 years hard labor and $100,000 fine.  The punishment is doubled for a negligible 0.1 gram more of cocaine.

The combination of mandatory minimum sentences, parole restrictions, probation and sentence suspension, can discourage the prisoners from rehabilitation. Which can explain the high recidivism rates among drug and property offenders than for released violent offenders. The Huffington Post explained that it is of no surprise that the study would find Louisiana’s sentencing laws worse than those at the federal level – which are horrible.

Wasted Time

Charles Blow of the NY Times further explained, with the per-diem per prisoners in local prisons half of that of the state prisons the emphasis is to keep them full for profit. Though the prisoners in the local prisons are certain that they will be released, they gain no skills and leave the jail with nothing more than a bus ticket and $10.00 in their hand. So these ex-cons with no rehabilitation or reentry skills and nothing to help in supporting themselves return to the same struggling communities and the cycle of crime begins again. The innocent gets caught in the middle, and many of the youths look on with admiring eyes.

Show Me The Money

Louisiana may justify their incentive for  private prisons by using them as a chance to employ local people, namely farmers who were forced into bankruptcy due to drought and crop prices, Blow sees it as a glaring example of how the prison policies have failed, and do not serve the public interest.

Louisiana spends $663 million per year on housing, food and medical care for 40,000 inmates, with a third of that $182 million going to the profit prisons run by the sheriff or private corporations.  The state’s income is limited, so the more money they spend on incarceration, the less is available for education and healthcare. According to the Education Week’s State Report Card, Louisiana is one of 3 states to receive an F for K-12 achievement in 2012 – and in 2013 faced over $220 million deficit in its $25 billion budget.

Politics and Prison Cells

Burk Foster, a former professor at the University of Louisiana and an expert on Louisiana prisons, shared with the Times-Picayune “You have people who are so invested in maintaining the present system,- not just the sheriffs but judges, prosecutors, other people who have links to it: They don’t want to see the prison system get smaller or the number of people in custody reduced, even though the crime rate is down, because the good old boys are all linked together in the punishment network which is good for them financially and politically.

Mass Incarceration: Devastating Effects

Mass incarceration leads to further breakdown of the family unit and an ongoing recidivism cycle. Fatherless households lead to poverty and crime and the cycle repeats itself. As the NOLA paper says. .. “A prison system that leased its convicts as plantation labor in the 1800s has come full circle and is again a nexus for profit.”

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