How Louisiana became the prison capitol of the world

The share of Louisiana's population that is locked up in jails or prisons is triple that of Iran and seven times that of China. In last two decades, Lousiana's incarceration rate has doubled, with one out of 86 Louisianans doing time -- double the national rate.

How did this happen?

In an in-depth piece in the New Orleans Times-Picayune this weekend, writer Cindy Chang looks at one of the key driving factor behind the world's lock-up capital: "cold, hard cash."

In Louisiana, it's not just big for-profit prison companies -- it's small-town entrepreneurial sheriffs who lock people up to make money:

[I]n 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. [..]

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.

The incentive to lock up more people is coupled harsh sentencing laws and a stingy parole system. The result is a network of players in the criminal justice system that have little interest in change:

"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."

While it's an $182 billion industry, inmates who could benefit from services see little of that money:

Louisiana specializes in incarceration on the cheap, allocating by far the least money per inmate of any state. The $24.39 per diem is several times lower than what Angola and other state-run prisons spend -- even before the sheriff takes his share. All local wardens can offer is GED classes and perhaps an inmate-led support group such as Alcoholics Anonymous. Their facilities are cramped and airless compared with the spacious grounds of state prisons, where inmates walk along outdoor breezeways and stay busy with jobs or classes.

The story only touches on the disparate racial impact of Louisiana's for-profit lock-em-up culture. Data from the Sentencing Project, a criminal justice reform group, shows that in 2005 the white imprisonment rate was 523 people per 100,000 people; the African-American rate was nearly four times that, 2,452 per 100,000.

What are the prospects for change? Chang notes that while even get-tough states like Texas have explored alternatives for non-violent offenders, even small changes have been met with resistance in Louisiana -- and will continue to be as long as so many are literally invested in the current system.

In Louisiana, that [political] 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.