The world’s prison capital is not the United States, per capita, although it leads the world for its overall prison population. One state far outdoes America itself and incarcerates nearly double the national average.
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. (Source)
The U.S. prison business has become the essence of predatory corporatism: it privatizes profits and socializes losses. This combination has led to a situation where correctional facilities have very little incentive to correct the behavior of those who reside within their walls, but every incentive to ensure that new bodies arrive as fast as possible, and keep them in a state of indentured servitude.
Naturally, this is exactly what is happening in Louisiana, as the vast majority of inmates are not housed in state-run prisons, but in those owned by private corporations. The social fallout has been profound.
Corrections Corporation of America has led the charge toward creating a sound business model for those who would profit from crime and punishment since it won the first private prison contract from Tennessee in 1984. CCA has expanded nicely, recently submitting letters to 48 states with an offer to buy their prisons: “In exchange … for a 20-year management contract, plus an assurance that the prison would remain at least 90 percent full.” (Source)
America already holds 25% of the world’s prison population, with the number of these prisoners held in private prisons rising dramatically over the past 10 years from 2,000 housed in 5 private prisons, to more than 60,000 housed in 100. It is a number expected to rise to 360,000 prisoners over the next decade. (Source) Moreover, as the economy declines, there has even been a revival in debtors prisons, formally abolished in the early 1800s. Perhaps more troubling is the heightened criminalization of children for behavior which previously was considered merely a nuisance, not something worthy of handcuffs and the big house.
A human product clearly has been created and fostered by a system which values the worth of potential inmates as greater than their worth as free human beings. This has led to a captive population that can be put to work creating goods for a multitude of industries for as little as 25 cents per hour, effectively creating a growing resurgence in open slavery; all while a misinformed majority believe that more people under lock and key translates to safer neighborhoods, towns and cities.
The above trends all have converged in Louisiana, and yet have dispelled the myth that more prisoners leads to more safety for the wider society at large. In a comprehensive article for the Times-Picayune of New Orleans, Cindy Chang writes:
In the past two decades, Louisiana’s prison population has doubled, costing taxpayers billions while New Orleans continues to lead the nation in homicides.
This is the exact type of incongruent outcome that has been noted across the board even economically, where the supposed cost-saving measures of a streamlined private enterprise should theoretically trump bloated state government bureaucracy. However, this is only to assume that we are looking at a real free-market system. What we see instead is collusion between state governments that respond to the lobbying efforts of a prison industry dominated by select mega corporations.
The states write the legislation that paves the way for more criminals to be guaranteed lengthier stays within prison walls where corporate profits can be reaped for shareholders. It is the worst of both worlds.
And for those who care about the treatment and rehabilitation of the inmates who are set for release back into society, the belief that private industry can do a better job is a belief that also falls flat. Despite state-run prisons being generally short-staffed, overcrowded, and underfunded, Louisiana’s per-day value on its human commodity within the private prison model is $24.39 – far lower than its state-run counterpart. A focus on maximizing profits has led to a bare-bones, near concentration-camp existence where cost cutting is paramount. This has tremendous social implications, as private prison inmates are mostly serving non-life terms for mostly non-violent offenses, whereas state prison inmates are the most violent, often serving life terms:
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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.
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.
In addition to the above, the history that Chang documents of how Louisiana became the world’s prison capital through the expansion of the for-profit prison network perfectly illustrates the corporatist mindset:
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.
With the highest percentage of its citizens locked up in a for-profit system, Louisiana should be a safe, economically prosperous state if this model is effective in aggressively removing all of the bad elements that threaten society. What we see, however, is the exact opposite: Louisiana is one of the most poverty stricken, uneducated, and dangerous states in the union. The next generation is effectively punished as well by having one or both parents locked away, while the funding needed to potentially break the cycle is diverted toward building more lockups:
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.
A nation that still purports to be the Land of the Free simply cannot continue to say that slogan with a straight face when it has literally invested in slavery. A predatory system — even if some believe it only preys on other predators — can only lead to a ruined social landscape like that of Louisiana; a state which should be more properly viewed as a canary in the coal mine for what lies in wait for the rest of America should it fully embrace the monetary value of a prison society.
You can find Cindy Chang’s must-read article with additional graphics here:
Read other articles by Joe Wright HERE