Posts Tagged ‘Louisiana Prisons’
Private Firms Reap Profit While Sheriffs Reap Jobs and Cash From Louisiana Prisons — Part 2 in a 7 Part Series
Criminal Defense Attorney New Orleans
Elizabeth B. Carpenter, Esq. – Serving clients in Orleans, Jefferson, Terrebonne, Tangipahoa, St. Bernard, St. Charles, St. Tammany, St. John, Assumption and Plaquemines Parishes.
Louisiana Is The World’s Prison Capital
North Louisiana Family Is a Major Force
In The State’s Vast Prison Industry
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.
This incarceration bonanza evolved with the wholehearted encouragement of the Louisiana Department of Corrections as a cheap, ad hoc solution to overcrowding in the state prisons. The state spends $182 million a year to house inmates in local prisons. While rural sheriffs and private investors reap the benefits, the negative consequences are most acute in New Orleans and other urban areas that produce more criminals than they can house in their own local jails.
South Louisiana’s crime problems fuel north Louisiana’s incarceration industry. The dollars that might have been scraped together to pay for inmate rehabilitation go instead to upgrading a rural sheriff’s vehicle fleet.
Annual profits in good years range from about $200,000 for an average-sized operation to as much as $1 million for parishes with several prisons.
“For the sheriffs, that became like heroin, that became a regular source of income for them,” said Burk Foster, a former University of Louisiana-Lafayette professor and an expert on Louisiana prisons. “The way they save money is not because the sheriffs are more efficient but because they have fewer staff and almost no services in terms of medical care or psychological assistance or rehab or educational classes.”
‘I Get The Patronage’
The drive down U.S. Route 167 to the Jackson Parish Correctional Center on a cold, drizzly December day is bleak and beautiful. For mile upon mile, pine trees mingle with bare branches and the last of the season’s dying leaves in a panorama of green, gray and red. Near Jonesboro, the parish seat, a factory spews white clouds, infusing the air with a sickly sweet smell as cardboard boxes made from local lumber take shape inside.
For as long as anyone can remember, north-central Louisiana has been timber country. These days, it is also prison country. Although Jackson Parish came relatively late to the prison game, the correctional center and its 130 jobs are as vital to the local economy as the Smurfit-Stone cardboard plant.
Inside, prisoners in black-and-white striped jumpsuits nap on bunk beds. It is 9 a.m., and breakfast was served hours ago. There is nothing to do until lunch. Some watch television in a corner of the dormitory, which houses about 80 men. At least there is a cafeteria and daily yard time. At some local prisons, inmates eat in their dorms and only breathe fresh air a few times a week.
An orange uniform denotes trustee status — about 100 of these inmates mop floors and prepare food inside the prison. Another 100 leave the premises each day for jobs in the free world as part of a work-release program. Two dorms are devoted to a Christian-themed substance-abuse program called Celebrate Recovery. The rest of the 1,100 men, the lowly black-and-white stripes, must figure out how to amuse themselves.
When Sheriff Andy Brown was elected in 2004, Jackson Parish’s only jail was on the top floor of a 1930s-era courthouse so Old South it retains a long-defunct hook and trapdoor for hangings. Inmates enjoyed plugging up the toilets so the whole building, including the sheriff’s office, would flood. Brown ran on the promise of a new jail for local residents incarcerated while awaiting trial.
The best way to finance the operation, Brown realized, was to scale it up by also keeping prisoners from other parishes who would bring in the $24.39 state per diem. Could he raise enough cash from his rural electorate to build such a large prison, and did he want to branch out from law enforcement to feed, house and secure hundreds of inmates from tough urban areas?
The sheriff decided to bring in Billy McConnell’s company, LaSalle Corrections, which is based in nearby Ruston and runs a dozen prisons in north Louisiana and Texas. LaSalle poured $15 million into the one-story warehouse-like structures a few miles from Jonesboro’s quaint, semi-abandoned downtown.
The company owns and manages the Jackson Parish Correctional Center, but it needs the sheriff as much as the sheriff needs it: Only government entities can receive inmates from the state. In return, Brown’s department gets a guaranteed $100,000 a year.
Brown now has a decent place to house his pretrial inmates. The regular payments from LaSalle certainly come in handy. But for him, the real cake is the jobs. He made sure the prison’s 100-plus employees would be sheriff’s deputies with full government benefits, instantly tripling his workforce. LaSalle pays their salaries, while Brown has the final say on hiring and firing. His constituents are always asking about openings. For a parish of only 16,000 residents, a 1,147-bed prison is an economic powerhouse. Last fall, Brown won re-election unopposed.
“There’s a lot of patronage here by hiring all these people. It’s good for a rural community,” Brown said. “We were able to bring a facility to this community without using any tax dollars. We employ X number of people and don’t spend any money, plus the $100,000 a year sponsor fee. I get the patronage.”
Far From Home
Among the inmates from New Orleans in Jackson Parish Correctional Center on that chilly December day are Michael Heine, 26, serving five years for burglary; David Adams, 45, transferred from a state prison because of his skill in painting cars; and Tyrone Dupleche, 39, with five years left on drug charges.
Since Hurricane Katrina, Orleans Parish Prison has not had room for all the low-level convicts sentenced at Tulane and Broad. About one in five of those with sentences of fewer than 10 years ends up at a local prison in another parish. In Jefferson Parish, nearly all the convicted burglars, swindlers and drug dealers are sent hundreds of miles from home to be fed on as little as $1.50 a day.
Jackson gets about a quarter of its inmates from the New Orleans metro area, with more than 200 typically hailing from Jefferson Parish. LaSalle houses many more south Louisiana natives at its other prisons, which form a swath roughly paralleling Interstate 20 — Catahoula, Claiborne, LaSalle, Richwood, Lincoln, Concordia. In Richland Parish, the company has a financial stake in the prison but does not manage it.
Few Louisianians have heard of LaSalle Corrections, but its reach is broad: A quarter of local prison inmates are incarcerated in a LaSalle-affiliated facility.
Dupleche, a 9th Ward native, is lucky to have a job in the prison cafeteria. At least there is something to take his mind off the distance from his family in New Orleans. He applied for a geographic transfer but never heard back.
“These places, you just housed. It’s a warehouse. And then to be away from home,” said Dupleche, a round-faced man with a shaved head, clad in an orange trustee jumpsuit. In nearly a year, he has not had a visit from his aunt and grandmother, who are too old and sick to make the five-hour drive from New Orleans. In a previous stint at Dixon Correctional Institute, a state prison, Dupleche learned the plastering trade, landing a job at Stucco King when he returned home. At Jackson, he simply marks time.
Adams is more philosophical about the distance. The Algiers native started his armed-robbery sentence in 1998 at Avoyelles state prison. There, he learned how to paint cars.
After 12 years, Adams was transferred to a local prison in Concordia Parish, near the Mississippi River. The reason? The Concordia sheriff needed someone to paint his patrol vehicles. Adams didn’t get along with a lieutenant there, so off he went to a LaSalle-run prison, also in Concordia. Since last June, he has been at Jackson, where the staff is making good use of his painting skills.
Adams chooses not to dwell on the series of transfers. The private prisons are less authoritarian than state facilities, he said, and there is more trust between inmates and guards. His job allows him to spend most of his time outdoors. He doesn’t mind being far from home; he is planning to leave New Orleans and its troubled streets behind anyway. When he is released in three years, he would like to open an auto body shop in Natchez, where he has family.
“You accept your surroundings. This is part of my sentence,” said Adams. “All I’m worried about is the 36 months. Prison is prison.”
Heine is similarly sanguine. He wishes the prison offered more classes, which would be “a lot more time off people’s hands and give them something to look forward to when they get home.” But for him, the distance from New Orleans is a good thing, providing him with distraction-free time to think about what went wrong and how to do better.
Incarceration Gold Rush
Two decades ago, the last thing Louisiana sheriffs wanted was more inmates. The state prison system was under a federal court order to reduce overcrowding, and there was no money for new facilities.
The backlog flowed to the sheriffs, who were outraged at having the problem foisted on them. Charles Foti, then the sheriff of Orleans Parish, famously dumped a busload of inmates in a state prison parking lot.
Richard Stalder, who took over the Department of Corrections in 1992, saw a solution. Sweeten the financial incentives, he reasoned, and sheriffs would change their tune. Sure enough, an increased per diem payment and a guarantee of 40 percent occupancy was enough to spark an incarceration gold rush. Sheriffs, seeing jobs for their constituents and new equipment for their deputies, volunteered to build the new prisons the state could not afford. The once-recalcitrant Foti expanded his prison to more than 7,000 beds.
In rural, impoverished north Louisiana, the deal was particularly alluring, not only for sheriffs but for private investors, who knocked on sheriffs’ doors, dangling financing and profit-sharing deals. Low, cinder-block buildings ringed with barbed wire sprouted along country highways across the state.
Some small-time investors merely fronted capital for construction costs, collecting monthly rent while avoiding the headaches of running a prison. Billy McConnell, with his nursing home experience, plunged into the management side. Another Louisiana company, LCS Corrections, developed a similar profile, with three prisons in Louisiana and three in Texas. Louisiana’s private prison industry is mostly homegrown: The national chains CCA and GEO each operate a state prison but no local prisons.
A handful of tiny towns have even gotten in on the spoils. Richwood, a town of 3,400 near Monroe, gets more than $100,000 a year from LaSalle for the right to operate a 900-bed prison. Epps, population 854, leases its prison rights to Lafayette-based Emerald Prison Enterprises in exchange for an annual payment of as much as $200,000. The 700-some prisoners almost outnumber Epps residents, and the detention center accounts for half the village’s annual revenue.
Michael Ranatza, executive director of the influential Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association, downplays the profit motive. Sheriffs are saving taxpayers a lot of money by incarcerating a prisoner on just $24.39 a day, Ranatza said. The association is in favor of more inmate programs, but money is an issue.
“It’s not like just warehousing. We are providing a lot of programs for $24.39,” Ranatza said. “But as costs continue to rise, that’s what they’re faced with — you’re getting a lot of them operating right on the edge.”
So many prisons were built in the boom times of the 1990s that sheriffs are having trouble keeping their beds full, in a business where less than 100 percent occupancy means going in the red. Now, instead of unloading inmates, sheriffs compete with each other for the catch of the day. They trade inmates as they please — shipping some to a colleague with beds to fill, unloading a guy who complains too much or asking around for a skilled mechanic.
As the cost of food, staffing and health care rises without a corresponding increase in the per diem, some sheriffs are even thinking about selling.
“If you’re losing money, you have to do something. If you have a business and it’s losing money, you’ve got to get out of it,” said Caldwell Parish Sheriff Steve May. “Since the economy got bad and the cost of everything’s gone up, we haven’t been able to funnel money to the department. It’s been just strictly to keep the prisons going.”
A private company is more adaptable than a law enforcement agency with a single prison enterprise, and the McConnells are not worried. Their pipelines from the New Orleans metro area are so well-established that Jackson Parish Warden Tim Ducote does not call Jefferson Parish. Rather, Jefferson calls him to announce that a busload of inmates is ready to be shipped up north.
A drop in the incarceration rate could spell doom for both LaSalle Corrections and the sheriffs. The Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association lobbies extensively on its members’ behalf and funds campaigns through a related political action committee. Private prison companies have the resources to be major political donors themselves. With strategically placed contributions, they can influence legislation as well as potentially steer inmates to their own prisons.
In the past decade, LaSalle and the McConnells have donated about $31,000 to campaigns, including $10,000 to Gov. Bobby Jindal and numerous contributions to north Louisiana state legislators. LCS and its owners have thrown much more cash at politicians — about $120,000 since 1999.
Some of LCS’s donations are to urban sheriffs who have a surplus of state-sentenced inmates and can choose where to send the overflow. LCS gave East Baton Rouge Sheriff Sid Gautreaux the maximum, $5,000, in 2008, 2009 and 2010, for a total of $15,000. About 3,100 Baton Rouge residents are currently incarcerated throughout the state, while Gautreaux’s own prison has room for only 1,800.
Pat LeBlanc, one of LCS’s founders, ran unsuccessfully for Lafayette-area state representative before dying in a plane crash in 2008. His brother, Michael LeBlanc, continues as the chief executive. LCS has run into corruption allegations in Texas, but a spokesman said the Louisiana operations have not had any issues.
If worse comes to worst, the McConnells will get into the more lucrative business of housing federal and out-of-state inmates, which they have already been doing to some extent. They are quick to seize on expansion opportunities.
When Jindal floated a short-lived proposal to sell two state prisons, LaSalle’s bid included the option of closing those facilities and moving the inmates to existing LaSalle properties. The company is angling to open a 1,000-bed facility in Arizona, where the detention of illegal immigrants is a growth industry. Jindal’s new plan to privatize the state-run Avoyelles Correctional Center presents a golden opportunity for experienced prison operators like LaSalle.
Clay McConnell will not discuss LaSalle’s balance sheets, but the family business exists to make money.
“I’m not running a nonprofit,” he said.
Money For Rehabilitation
Local prisons undergo annual inspections and are required to comply with the Department of Correction’s Basic Jail Guidelines. Beyond that, they are so loosely regulated that even Secretary of Corrections Jimmy LeBlanc is having trouble getting a handle on the daily transfers of inmates among facilities.
According to a review of inspection reports for the state’s 100-some local prisons, physical conditions are usually adequate, if basic. A major exception is Orleans Parish Prison, an aging, understaffed facility where violence and substandard living conditions are endemic. Following multiple lawsuits and withering criticism from federal authorities, Sheriff Marlin Gusman recently closed one building, the House of Detention, which housed over 600 inmates.
Prisons dating from the 1990s boom are new enough to still be in good shape physically. Prison officials, inmates and former inmates say the main problem is the lack of constructive activities, which not only engenders stifling boredom but leaves prisoners ill-prepared to re-enter society when they are released. Many sheriffs say they would gladly offer more programs, but they need more money from the state to do so.
In part because of their religious bent, the McConnells are more focused on rehabilitation than many local prison operators and are willing to set aside a portion of their profits for that aim. The relationship is sometimes symbiotic: Offering the Blue Walters substance-abuse rehab program, as LaSalle does, fills beds with inmates even as it only consumes 60 hours of their lengthy stays.
Clay McConnell may want to show his charges the right path, but there is no disguising that these are bare-bones operations. The $24.39 per diem is by far the lowest that any state spends on prisoners. Out of that, LaSalle must not only turn a profit but divvy up the money with its public-sector partners. At Richwood Correctional Center, a row of classrooms is shuttered, awaiting teachers and books.
One of LeBlanc’s signature initiatives is the 100-hour job and life skills curriculum known as re-entry, which is offered to all inmates leaving state prisons. He said he hopes the 53 percent of inmates serving their time in local prisons will someday go through the program, too.
But at a time when budget cuts have forced him to leave guard towers at the Angola state penitentiary unmanned, finding money is like squeezing the proverbial blood from a stone. Lowering the incarceration rate would free up some cash, but the political winds do not seem to be blowing in that direction.
LeBlanc, always careful to praise the sheriffs as important “partners,” said he would like to see a smaller prison population, with more resources devoted to those who remain behind bars. Under that scenario, sheriffs would continue to house state prisoners, receiving higher payments in return for providing more rehabilitation.
LeBlanc has also hinted that he might implement a centralized system for distributing inmates among local prisons, ending the daily horse trading that goes on below the radar.
In the past few months, Department of Corrections officials have begun to regulate the locations of inmates from Orleans and Jefferson parishes.
“You have to understand that, politically, it has a lot to do with the politics side,” LeBlanc said of the sheriffs. “Economically, it means a lot to their parish. They use that money for patrols. It helps their parish and public safety to have extra funds. You can’t knock them for that, and that’s why we’ve got to do it in partnership.”
Criminal Defense Attorney New Orleans
Elizabeth B. Carpenter, Esq. – Serving clients in Orleans, Jefferson, Terrebonne, Tangipahoa, St. Bernard, St. Charles, St. Tammany, St. John, Assumption and Plaquemines Parishes.
Louisiana Is The World’s Prison Capital
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 triple Iran’s, seven times China’s and 10 times Germany’s.
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.
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, Louisiana’s prison population has doubled, costing taxpayers billions while New Orleans continues to lead the nation in homicides.
One in 86 adult Louisianians is doing time, nearly double the national average. Among black men from New Orleans, one in 14 is behind bars; one in seven is either in prison, on parole or on probation. Crime rates in Louisiana 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.
In 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 Angola for the rest of your life.
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 Louisiana, murderers automatically receive life without parole on the guilty votes of as few as 10 of 12 jurors.
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 Angola 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.”
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, Louisiana 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.
Do all of Louisiana’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.
“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.”
Keeping The Beds Full
In the early 1990s, when the incarceration rate was half what it is now, Louisiana 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.
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 Louisiana.
The national prison population was expanding at a rapid clip. Louisiana’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.
“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 New Orleans and Baton Rouge have an excess of sentenced criminals, while prisons in remote parishes must import inmates to survive.
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 Tensas Parish Detention Center in northeast Louisiana, 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.
“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 Ruston, plays a role in housing one of seven Louisiana 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.
Incarceration On The Cheap
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.
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.
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 Phelps Correctional Center — 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.
With only six months to go, the New Orleans native was transferred to Richwood Correctional Center, a LaSalle-run prison near Monroe. 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.
“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.”
While Louisiana tops the prison rankings, it consistently vies with Mississippi — the state with the second-highest incarceration rate — for the worst schools, the most poverty, the highest infant mortality. One in three Louisiana 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.
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. Louisiana 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.
“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.”
Louisiana’s prison epidemic disproportionately affects neighborhoods already devastated by crime and poverty. In some parts of New Orleans, a stint behind bars is a rite of passage for young men.
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.
‘Don’t feel no pity’
Angola is home to scores of old men who cannot get out of bed, let alone commit a crime. Someone who made a terrible mistake in his youth and has transformed himself after decades in prison has little to no chance at freedom.
Louisiana has a higher percentage of inmates serving life without parole than any other state. Its justice system is unstintingly tough on petty offenders as well as violent criminals. In more than four years in office, Jindal has only pardoned one inmate.
“Louisiana 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?”
An inmate at Angola 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 Louisiana male life expectancy of 72.
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 Angola, 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 shipping.
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 Texas, new legislation is steering low-level criminals into drug treatment and other alternatives to prison.
In Louisiana, 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.
Measures like those in Texas, 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 Georgetown Law School. Such large-scale change — which has not been attempted in any state, let alone Louisiana — can only happen through political will.
In 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.
“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.”