By Eric W. Dolan
Tuesday, May 15, 2012 22:52 EDT
Tuesday, May 15, 2012 22:52 EDT
is the world's
prison capital Louisiana
May 13, 2012, 5:00 AM Updated: Sunday, May 13, 2012,
The hidden engine behind the state's well-oiled prison machine is cold, hard cash. A majority of
inmates are housed
in for-profit facilities, which must be supplied with a constant influx of
human beings or a $182 million industry will go bankrupt. Louisiana
Several homegrown private prison companies command a slice of the market. But in a uniquely
twist, most prison
entrepreneurs are rural sheriffs, who hold tremendous sway in remote parishes
like Madison, Avoyelles, East Carroll and Concordia. A good portion of Louisiana law enforcement is
financed with dollars legally skimmed off the top of prison operations. Louisiana
If the inmate count dips, sheriffs bleed money. Their constituents lose jobs. The prison lobby ensures this does not happen by thwarting nearly every reform that could result in fewer people behind bars.
Meanwhile, inmates subsist in bare-bones conditions with few programs to give them a better shot at becoming productive citizens. Each inmate is worth $24.39 a day in state money, and sheriffs trade them like horses, unloading a few extras on a colleague who has openings. A prison system that leased its convicts as plantation labor in the 1800s has come full circle and is again a nexus for profit.
In the past two decades,
's prison population
has doubled, costing taxpayers billions while Louisiana continues to lead
the nation in homicides. New Orleans
One in 86 adult Louisianians is doing time, nearly double the national average. Among black men from
, one in 14 is
behind bars; one in seven is either in prison, on parole or on probation. Crime
rates in New Orleans are relatively
high, but that does not begin to explain the state's No. 1 ranking, year after
year, in the percentage of residents it locks up. Louisiana
, a two-time car
burglar can get 24 years without parole. A trio of drug convictions can be
enough to land you at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Louisiana for the rest of
your life. Angola
Almost every state lets judges decide when to mete out the severest punishment and when a sympathetic defendant should have a chance at freedom down the road. In
automatically receive life without parole on the guilty votes of as few as 10
of 12 jurors. Louisiana
The lobbying muscle of the sheriffs, buttressed by a tough-on-crime electorate, keeps these harsh sentencing schemes firmly in place.
"Something has to be done -- it just has to be done -- about the long sentences," said
Warden Burl Cain.
"Some people you can let out of here that won't hurt you and can be
productive citizens, and we know the ones who can't." Angola
Every dollar spent on prisons is a dollar not spent on schools, hospitals and highways. Other states are strategically reducing their prison populations -- using tactics known in policy circles as "smart on crime." Compared with the national average,
has a much lower
percentage of people incarcerated for violent offenses and a much higher
percentage behind bars for drug offenses -- perhaps a signal that some
nonviolent criminals could be dealt with differently. Louisiana
Do all of
's 40,000 inmates
need to be incarcerated for the interests of punishment and public safety to be
served? Gov. Bobby Jindal, a conservative Republican with presidential
ambitions, says the answer is no. Despite locking up more people for longer
periods than any other state, Louisiana has one of the
highest rates of both violent and property crimes. Yet the state shows no signs
of weaning itself off its prison dependence. Louisiana
"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," said Burk Foster, a former professor at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette and an expert on
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." Louisiana
Keeping the beds full
In the early 1990s, when the incarceration rate was half what it is now,
was at a
crossroads. Under a federal court order to reduce overcrowding, the state had
two choices: Lock up fewer people or build more prisons. Louisiana
It achieved the latter, not with new state prisons -- there was no money for that -- but by encouraging sheriffs to foot the construction bills in return for future profits. The financial incentives were so sweet, and the corrections jobs so sought after, that new prisons sprouted up all over rural
The national prison population was expanding at a rapid clip.
's grew even faster.
There was no need to rein in the growth by keeping sentencing laws in line with
those of other states or by putting minor offenders in alternative programs.
The new sheriffs' beds were ready and waiting. Overcrowding became a thing of
the past, even as the inmate population multiplied rapidly. Louisiana
"If the sheriffs hadn't built those extra spaces, we'd either have to go to the Legislature and say, 'Give us more money,' or we'd have to reduce the sentences, make it easier to get parole and commutation -- and get rid of people who shouldn't be here," said Richard Crane, former general counsel for the Louisiana Department of Corrections.
Today, wardens make daily rounds of calls to other sheriffs' prisons in search of convicts to fill their beds. Urban areas such as
and New Orleans have an excess of
sentenced criminals, while prisons in remote parishes must import inmates to survive. Baton Rouge
The more empty beds, the more an operation sinks into the red. With maximum occupancy and a thrifty touch with expenses, a sheriff can divert the profits to his law enforcement arm, outfitting his deputies with new squad cars, guns and laptops. Inmates spend months or years in 80-man dormitories with nothing to do and few educational opportunities before being released into society with $10 and a bus ticket.
Fred Schoonover, deputy warden of the 522-bed
in northeast Tensas Parish Detention Center , says he does not
view inmates as a "commodity." But he acknowledges that the prison's
business model is built on head counts. Like other wardens in this part of the
state, he wheels and deals to maintain his tally of human beings. His boss, Tensas
Parish Sheriff Rickey Jones, relies on him to keep the numbers up. Louisiana
"We struggle. I stay on the phone a lot, calling all over the state, trying to hustle a few," Schoonover said.
Some sheriffs, and even a few small towns, lease their prison rights to private companies. LaSalle Corrections, based in
, plays a role in
housing one of seven Ruston prisoners. LCS
Corrections Services, another homegrown company, runs three Louisiana prisons and is a
major donor to political campaigns, including those of urban sheriffs who
supply rural prisons with inmates. Louisiana
Incarceration on the cheap
Ask anyone who has done time in
whether he or she
would rather be in a state-run prison or a local sheriff-run prison. The answer
is invariably state prison. Louisiana
Inmates in local prisons are typically serving sentences of 10 years or less on nonviolent charges such as drug possession, burglary or writing bad checks. State prisons are reserved for the worst of the worst.
Yet it is the murderers, rapists and other long-termers who learn trades like welding, auto mechanics, air-conditioning repair and plumbing.
's Bible college
offers the only chance for Angola inmates to earn an
undergraduate degree. Louisiana
Such opportunities are not available to the 53 percent serving their time in local prisons. In a cruel irony, those who could benefit most are unable to better themselves, while men who will die in prison proudly show off fistfuls of educational certificates.
With a criminal record, finding work is tough. In five years, about half of the state's ex-convicts end up behind bars again.
Gregory Barber has seen the contrast between state and local prisons firsthand. He began a four-year sentence for burglary at the state-run
-- a stroke of luck
for someone with a relatively short sentence on a nonviolent charge who might
easily have ended up in a sheriff's custody. Phelps Correctional Center
With only six months to go, the
transferred to New Orleans , a LaSalle-run
prison near Richwood Correctional Center . He had hoped to
end his time in a work-release program to up his chances of getting a good job.
But the 11th-hour transfer rendered him ineligible. At Phelps, he took a
welding class. Now, he whiles away the hours lying in his bunk for lack of
anything better to do. The only relief from the monotony is an occasional
substance-abuse rehab meeting. Monroe
"In DOC camps, you'd go to the yard every day, go to work," said Barber, 50, of state-run prisons. "Here, you just lay down, or go to meetings. It makes time pass a little slower."
tops the prison
rankings, it consistently vies with Louisiana -- the state with
the second-highest incarceration rate -- for the worst schools, the most
poverty, the highest infant mortality. One in three Mississippi prisoners reads
below a fifth-grade level. The vast majority did not complete high school. The
easy fix of selling drugs or stealing is all too tempting when the alternative
is a low-wage, dead-end job. Louisiana
More money spent on locking up an ever-growing number of prisoners means less money for the very institutions that could help young people stay out of trouble, giving rise to a vicious cycle.
spends about $663
million a year to feed, house, secure and provide medical care to 40,000
inmates. Nearly a third of that money -- $182 million -- goes to for-profit
prisons, whether run by sheriffs or private companies. Louisiana
"Clearly, the more that Louisiana invests in large-scale incarceration, the less money is available for everything from preschools to community policing that could help to reduce the prison population," said Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, a national criminal justice reform group. "You almost institutionalize the high rate of incarceration, and it's even harder to get out of that situation."
About 5,000 black men from
are doing state
prison time, compared with 400 white men from the city. Because police
concentrate resources on high-crime areas, minor lawbreakers there are more
likely to be stopped and frisked or caught up in a drug sweep than, say, an
Uptown college student with a sideline marijuana business. New Orleans
With so many people lost to either prison or violence, fraying neighborhoods enter a downward spiral. As the incarceration rate climbs, more children grow up with fathers, brothers, grandfathers and uncles in prison, putting them at increased risk of repeating the cycle themselves.
'Don't feel no pity'
don't feel no pity.
I feel like everybody deserves a second chance," said Preston Russell, a
Lower 9th Ward native who received life without parole for a string of
burglaries and a crack charge. "I feel like dudes get all this education
... under their belt and been here 20, 30 years. You don't think that's enough
time to let a man back out and give him another chance at life?" Louisiana
An inmate at
costs the state an
average of $23,000 a year. A young lifer will rack up more than $1 million in
taxpayer-funded expenses if he reaches the Angola male life
expectancy of 72. Louisiana
Russell, 49, is in good health. But as he gets older, treating his age-related ailments will be expensive. The state spends about $24 million a year caring for between 300 and 400 infirm inmates.
Now in his 13th year at
, Russell breaks
into tears recounting how he rebelled against the grandmother who raised him,
leaving home as soon as he could. First he smoked weed, weed became crack, then
he was selling drugs and burglarizing stores in between jobs in construction or
The last time he stole, Orleans Parish prosecutors tagged him as a multiple offender and sought the maximum -- the same sentence given to murderers. In the final crime that put him away for life, he broke into Fat Harry's and stole $4,000 from the Uptown bar's video poker machines.
Tough fiscal times have spurred many states to reduce their prison populations. In lock-'em-up
, new legislation is
steering low-level criminals into drug treatment and other alternatives to
, even baby steps
are met with resistance. Jindal, who rose to the governor's office with the
backing of the sheriffs' lobby, says too many people are behind bars. Yet
earlier this year, he watered down a reform package hammered out by the
Sentencing Commission he himself had convened. The commission includes sheriffs
and district attorneys, so its proposals were modest to begin with. Louisiana
Measures like those in
, which target a subset of nonviolent
offenders, are frequently lauded but may not be enough. To make a significant
dent in the prisoner numbers, sentences for violent crimes must be reduced and
more money must be invested in inner-city communities, according to David Cole,
a professor at Texas . Such large-scale
change -- which has not been attempted in any state, let alone Georgetown Law School -- can only happen
through political will. Louisiana
, that will appears
to be practically nonexistent. Locking up as many people as possible for as
long as possible has enriched a few while making everyone else poorer. Public
safety comes second to profits. Louisiana
"You cannot build your way out of it. Very simply, you cannot build your way out of crime," said Secretary of Corrections Jimmy LeBlanc, who supports reducing the incarceration rate and putting more resources into inmate rehabilitation. "It just doesn't work that way. You can't afford it. Nobody can afford that."
|North Louisiana family is a major force in the state's vast prison industry|
|By www.nola.com - Cindy Chang, The Times-Picayune|
JONESBORO -- Clay McConnell is an unlikely scion for a prison empire. An ordained minister, his curly brown hair is fashionably rumpled, and he gets flustered when speaking in front of a video camera. His father, Billy, is the brains behind LaSalle Corrections, the one who expanded the family business from senior citizens to criminals.
When a prison-building boom swept north Louisiana in the 1990s, Billy McConnell got in on the financing and construction ends. Then he thought, why not run the prisons, too? He already ran nursing homes, and the bottom line was the same. His experience feeding and housing old folks could be applied to keeping drug pushers and petty thieves behind bars.
"We realized that prisons are like nursing homes. You need occupancy to be high. You have to treat people fairly and run a good ship, but run it like a business, watch food costs, employee costs," said Clay McConnell, 37.
Today, the McConnells are a major force in Louisiana's vast prison industry, playing a role in the incarceration of one in seven prisoners. The family's fortunes have risen hand in hand with those of rural sheriffs who are the best-known face of Louisiana Incarceration-for-Profit Inc. More than half of the state's 40,000 inmates are housed in local prisons run by sheriffs or private companies like LaSalle for the express purpose of making a buck.
Whether a sheriff uses the revenue to buy shotguns or whether LaSalle uses it to build a gleaming new headquarters, the result is the same. If you are sentenced to state time in Louisiana, odds are you will be placed in a local prison -- a low-budget, for-profit enterprise where you are likely to languish in your bunk, day after day, year after year, bored out of your skull with little chance to learn a trade or otherwise improve yourself. A coveted spot at a state prison like Angola, Hunt or Dixon is a long shot for anyone not convicted of a violent crime such as murder, rape or armed robbery.
Local prisons specialize in incarceration on the cheap. State prisons are built on huge acreage, offer an array of vocational classes and require able-bodied inmates to work. While the average daily price tag for an inmate at a state prison is $55 a day, local prisons only get $24.39 -- and try to wring a few extra dollars from that.
Yet these are the very inmates, convicted of minor crimes such as drug possession and writing bad checks, who will soon be back in society. While lifers at Angola learn welding, plumbing and auto mechanics, 11,000 of the 15,000 people released from Louisiana prisons each year come out of local facilities and have had no such opportunities.
Louisiana locks up more people per capita than any other state. One in 86 of its adult citizens is behind bars. Of those Louisiana inmates, 53 percent are housed in local prisons -- by far the highest percentage in the country.
The two statistics are inextricably linked. Prison operators, who depend on the world's highest incarceration rate to survive, are a hidden driver behind the harsh sentencing laws that put so many people away for long periods. Then, there are the regime's losers: the ex-convicts who have not received any rehabilitation in local prisons and the innocent citizens who become their victims.