The New Orleans Times Picayune has published Louisiana Incarcerated: How we built the world’s prison capital, an exceptionally thorough series of articles, videos, grafts and photographs about how Louisiana established the highest incarceration rate not only in the United States, but in the world (Louisiana’s incarceration rate is nearly five times Iran’s, 13 times China’s and 20 times Germany’s). One in 86 adults in Louisianian is in prison, 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. About 5,000 black men from New Orleans are doing state prison time, compared with 400 white men from the city. Louisiana has a higher percentage of inmates serving life without parole than any other state. Its courts impose severe sentences on petty offenders as well as violent criminals.
As reported in the series, Louisiana encouraged its parishes to construct prisons in the 1990s and they did. Today, 53 percent of the state’s prisoners are serving their time in local prisons. Most are serving sentences of 10 years or less on nonviolent charges such as drug possession, burglary or writing bad checks. Even those these prisoners will return to the community, the local jails have virtually no programs to give them a chance to become useful and productive citizens upon their release. People convicted of the most serious offenses, such as murder and rape, are sent to the state prisons where they learn trades like welding, auto mechanics, air-conditioning repair and plumbing even though they may never be released.
Sheriffs, politicians and some communities have a financial incentive to keep people locked up and powerful interests conspire to prevent reform of the state’s draconian sentencing laws. A state notorious for convict leasing after the Civil War, “has come full circle and is again a nexus for profit.” Louisiana spends about $663 million a year to maintain its system with 40,000 prisoners. Nearly a third of that money – $182 million – goes to for-profit prisons, whether run by sheriffs or private companies.