by Cindy Chang

“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 five times Iran’s, 13 times China’s and 20 times Germany’s.

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“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.

“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.

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“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.

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“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.

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“Ask anyone who has done time in Louisiana whether he or she would rather be in a state-run prison or a local sheriff-run prison.  The answer is invariably state prison.

“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.  Angola’s Bible college offers the only chance for Louisiana inmates to earn an undergraduate degree.

“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.

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“About 5,000 black men from New Orleans 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.

“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.

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