A Sad Legacy: Louisiana’s Prison EconomyPosted: May 15, 2012
This is the stuff that creates documentaries and sad movies. It is the prison state that is Louisiana.
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.READ THE
ENTIRE SERIES from NOLA.Com.
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.
It is a shameful situation. Here are some stories from Angola. It’s probably the most infamous prison in the world. It’s known for its rodeo and its harsh treatment of prisoners who basically are subjected to “Faith-Based Slavery”. It seems that when a state can’t produce real jobs that it produces prisons.
“Unique” is one way Warden Burl Cain likes to describe his prison, and it would be impossible to argue otherwise. With grazing cattle and rolling hills in the distance, it’s hard not to admire its strange, sprawling beauty, even as the towers come into view. The prison itself is absent from my GPS’s “points of interest,” yet Angola’s Prison View Golf Course—the first public golf course on the grounds of a state penitentiary—is not. At Angola’s official museum, opened by Cain in 1998, a retired electric chair and rusty prison contraband are displayed adjacent to a gift shop selling mugs and tote bags reading: “Angola: A Gated Community.”
Angola is the largest maximum security in the country, sitting on 18,000 acres of farmland and home to 5,200 men. Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate of adult prisoners in the United States; thanks to the state’s unforgiving sentencing laws, at least 90 percent of Angola’s prisoners will die there. It’s a large-scale embodiment of a national phenomenon: elderly inmates are the country’s fastest growing prisoner population.
Yet Angola is also lauded as a revolution in corrections, its story told many times: Angola was once the “bloodiest prison in America,” where inmates slept with magazine catalogs strapped to their chests to protect themselves from stabbings. Things began to turn around in the 1970s, when a federal judge ordered a major overhaul. But most of the credit has gone to Warden Cain for imposing order through a new model of incarceration.
Like all of Angola’s wardens, Cain has continued the tradition of hard labor: most inmates work in the fields eight hours a day, five days a week, harvesting hundreds of acres of soybeans, wheat, corn, and cotton—picked by hand and sold by Prison Enterprises, the business arm of the Louisiana Department of Corrections. But unlike his predecessors, Cain, an evangelical Christian, has also made it his mission to bring God to Angola. Inmate ministers tell new prisoners that they can either work on their “moral rehabilitation” or remain a “predator”—“the choice is yours.” The radio station plays gospel music. On the walls leading to the execution chamber are two murals: Elijah ascending to Heaven and Daniel facing the lion. One of Cain’s favorite anecdotes is the execution of Antonio James, a born-again Christian whose hand he held just before giving the go-ahead to end his life. As James lay on the gurney waiting for lethal drugs to enter his veins, Cain said, “Antonio, the chariot is here…you are about to see Jesus.”
You should really read this MJ article to get the full feel of life inside Angola. It’s called “Gods Own Warden”.
Everyone was there except the person I had come to see: Warden Burl Cain, a man with a near-mythical reputation for turning Angola, once known as the bloodiest prison in the South, into a model facility. Among born-again Christians, Cain is revered for delivering hundreds of incarcerated sinners to the Lord—running the nation’s largest maximum-security prison, as one evangelical publication put it, “with an iron fist and an even stronger love for Jesus.” To Cain’s more secular admirers, Angola demonstrates an attractive option for controlling the nation’s booming prison population at a time when the notion of rehabilitation has effectively been abandoned.What I had heard about Cain, and seen in the plentiful footage of him, led me to expect an affable guy—big gut, pale, jowly face, good-old-boy demeanor. Indeed, former Angola inmates say that prisoners who respond to Cain’s program of “moral rehabilitation” through Christian redemption are rewarded with privileges, humane treatment, and personal attention. Those who displease him, though, can face harsh punishments. Wilbert Rideau, the award-winning former Angolite editor who is probably Angola’s most famous ex-con, says when he first arrived at the prison, Cain tried to enlist him as a snitch, then sought to convert him. When that didn’t work, Rideau says, his magazine became the target of censorship; he says Cain can be “a bully—harsh, unfair, vindictive.”
“Cain was like a king, a sole ruler,” Rideau writes in his recent memoir, In the Place of Justice. “He enjoyed being a dictator, and regarded himself as a benevolent one.” When a group of middle school students visited Angola a few years ago, Cain told them that the inmates were there because they “didn’t listen to their parents. They didn’t listen to law enforcement. So when they get here, I become their daddy, and they will either listen to me or make their time here very hard.”
Another former prisoner, John Thompson—who spent 14 years on death row at Angola before being exonerated by previously concealed evidence—told me that Cain runs Angola “with a Bible in one hand and a sword in the other.” And when the chips are down, Thompson said, “he drops the Bible.”
We’ve talked about Angola’s horrible legacy before. Here’s a recent UK Guardian Story on two men that have spent 40 years in solitary confinement. This is the stuff that causes insanity. Every human rights group actively opposes this kind of treatment.
“I can make about four steps forward before I touch the door,” Herman Wallace says as he describes the cell in which he has lived for the past 40 years. “If I turn an about-face, I’m going to bump into something. I’m used to it, and that’s one of the bad things about it.”
On Tuesday, Wallace and his friend Albert Woodfox will mark one of the more unusual, and shameful, anniversaries in American penal history. Forty years ago to the day, they were put into solitary confinement in Louisiana‘s notorious Angola jail. They have been there ever since.
They have spent 23 hours of every one of the past 14,610 days locked in their single-occupancy 9ft-by-6ft cells. Each cell, Amnesty International records, has a toilet, a mattress, sheets, a blanket, pillow and a small bench attached to the wall. Their contact with the world outside the windowless room is limited to the occasional visit and telephone call, “exercise” three times a week in a caged concrete yard, and letters that are opened and read by prison guards.
A new documentary film takes us into that cell, providing rare insight into the personal psychological impact of such prolonged isolation. Herman’s House tracks the experiences and thoughts of Wallace as he reflects on four decades banged away in a box.
Our own Governor wants to turn our Prison Economy into a privatized, money-making scheme for corporate donors. Fortunately, his bill didn’t get very far. But, this is because so many local politicians make money off of renting out prisoners to their own local donor base. They also get to use them for services that would normally go to paid workers. No wonder no one can find these types of jobs unless you are in prison.
A bill strongly backed by Gov. that would have allowed for the sale of the Avoylles Correctional Facility has been abandoned, as support for it was limited, according to the Associated Press. Now, the prison may be run under a new plan. Here is some more information.
* The original bill would have allowed for the Avoyelles Correctional Facility to be sold for $35 million to a private firm that would be responsible for operating it, according to the Town Talk.
* The state would then pay the company that buys it a daily fee to operate it.
* Rep. (R- Haughton) sponsored the bill, House Bill 850.
* Opposition from the privatization of the prison stems from the fact that 296 jobs would be lost in the sale.
* One group, the , made a plea to representatives to vote against the bill, saying that if the prison was run privately, the company could demand an exorbitant amount of money from Louisiana taxpayers to run the prison, and that the sale would actually cost Louisiana residents more.
* The bill was rewritten on Wednesday to allow for a private firm to be contracted to run the facility, but not to buy it.
* The contract would be for 10 years and the approval of the contract would be by the House and Senate budget committees.
* On Wednesday, the House voted 62-43 to pass the new amendment to the bill, according to Gambit.
* The bill was not sent to the Senate for approval, however, as Burns says that he is giving legislators time to look over the new bill, according to the Capitol News Bureau.
* There is still a lot of disapproval of the new bill as well, as opponents still cite the decreased wages for employees that are working for private companies as opposed to wages for state employees as unacceptable.
* Safety is also a concern, as Rep. Robert Johnson cited the lower wages as attracting lower quality workers to guard the prison, which would mean an unsafe environment, according to The Times-Picayune.
* The privatization of Avoyelles is a part of a larger plan by Gov. Jindal to privatize more prisons in Central Louisiana and close the and move those prisoners to Avoyelles, according to the Town Talk.
* Alexandria Mayor Jacques M. Roy has come out against the plan, saying that it would decrease public safety and would not save the state any money.
Any one in Louisiana lives among this prison legacy. Prisoners clean up our roads. They are brought out to shore up levees. They make our license plates. They are visible everywhere doing jobs that would usually be given to parish employees. No place is this more true than in small communities where sheriffs can make a good living off of renting them out to local business. Kinda makes you proud of that old entrepreneurial spirit doesn’t it? Take some time to read the series at the Times Picayune. I think you will find out more about my part of the good ol’ USA than you really would like.