Facing South
Facing South

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.

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I think the federal govt

I think the federal govt needs to set a limit on how many years you can work on jobs like the parole board, the d.a office and limit the amount of years for judges.. Its the same group of people that been working for the board for years.. When they all die out they pass there positions to there kids or friends who all are involved in the same colt... We need leaders role models to educate the youth.

Louisiana is a very crooked

Louisiana is a very crooked state... I've done seven years in these for profit prisons you are talking about , for nothing more than smoking weed, who does that long in prison for smoking weed ???? Wtf anyways I'm a white male here in shreveport,la the don't care what color you are they try to lock everybody up ... and if they don't like you they'll plant a little weed on you and give you ten or fifteen years for that, and who's ever going to believe that the cop planted the weed on you cause you'll be nothing but a another criminal in everybody else eyes....so who ever will believe a criminal over a cop ???? That's how it is here ..... get caught with a joint or blunt three times life without parole, you got prisons full of people with life habitual offender for minor drug charges ???? Who really does that??? And the bad thing is everybody knows and nobody cares to help ,this should be illegal the way they do you ..... I really wish someone would come save louisiana .....but its to deep now to much money being made can't nobody stop them now, but like I say nobody will try cause the world doesn't care anymore....... it is what it is..... no name cause it ain't safe to do that.....


Having lived in Louisiana, I saw how the system worked as long ago as the '80s. Sheriffs had prisoners working at privately owned fish processing plants, etc.

Louisiana is the most corrupt state I have ever seen, and I have lived and traveled all over the U.S. Until the people of Louisiana decide they want change nothing will change.


Here in North Carolina they want to release CONVICTED inmates 'cause they say the only reason they are in prison is because they are black. Did you get the convicted part? I'm not saying that every prisoner is guilty but most of them are & the reason there's more blacks in jail is because A) they commit more crimes & B) they get caught more. If you want to do something about the number of blacks in jail convince them that A)there are legal ways to make money & B) education is better than entertainment to have a successful life

Black ppl don't commit that

Black ppl don't commit that much crime, majority of them in there for drug charges so get it right.

Thanks Chris for all the good

Thanks Chris for all the good work you all are doing over there. Thanks for the link to Chang's article and incredibly detailed work on this issue.

Great Story

Great Story Chris and folk at Southern Studies, Howard M.Romaine, LSU Law '79, Institute for Southern Studies, cofounder, Board, 1971 - 1985, Supporter, now and again !!FAN, always, or just about...

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