May 14, 2012 04:20
The Times-Picayune's two in-depth reports on the state of Louisiana's prisons offer a troubling explanation of how the state became the prison capital of the world - and why Louisiana has maintained the title for so long. Only in Louisiana will you find prisoners convicted of nonviolent crimes wasting away in jail cells for upwards of 10 years with almost nonexistent rehabilitation services, while murderers, rapists and other prison lifers receive job skills training and even the chance for an undergraduate degree.

More than half of the state's prison population is housed in local prisons, as state-run prisons are reserved for "the worst of the worst,"  according to The Times-Picayune's must-read Sunday and Monday coverage on the state of Louisiana's prison system. Whether those local prisons are owned by local law enforcement agencies or north Louisiana businessmen who have private prisons to thank for their vast wealth, 11,000 of the 15,000 prisoners unleashed from local prisons in Louisiana every year have had no form of educational or transitional training. Roughly 50 percent of them will be back within five years.

It's a "cruel irony," the Times-Pic reports, symbolic of a prison system that "specializes in incarceration on the cheap" and offers financial incentives to private companies and rural sheriffs who manage to keep their prison beds full.

Louisiana has long housed more inmates per capita than any other state in a country that ranks No. 1 in the world for incarceration. And though high poverty, poor public education and other key quality of life factors contribute to the state's world prison capital title, the T-P's Cindy Chang takes a hard look at the most significant piece of Louisiana's prison puzzle - the bottom line:
The hidden engine behind the state's well-oiled prison machine is cold, hard cash. A majority of Louisiana 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.

Several homegrown private prison companies command a slice of the market. But in a uniquely Louisiana 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.

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.

"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 Louisiana prisons. "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."

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.
Read more here and here.
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