In the murky swamp waters of Louisiana, there lies an experiment that has been cooking up for the past 20 years. Created and conducted without the public’s consent, it is an experiment, which if successful, could serve as the prototype for other states and other countries. However, the problem with criminal justice, is that it’s a field in which very different ideas are held about what constitutes success. To the Louisiana sheriffs who consistently block attempts at reform, the announcement that their state is now the incarceration capital of the world, was probably occasion for the popping of Champagne corks. Because Louisiana would not have been awarded this title had it not been for the idiosyncratic for-profit prison industry it launched at the start of the 1990’s, and in these austerity times, the age of ‘deference to the deficit’, others struggling with the prison budgets are surely taking note.
Louisiana: the world’s prison capital, is the heading to a fantastic series by the Times-Picayune which reveals the results of this experiment and the statistics detailed make for stomach churning reading. The State now imprisons 1 out of every 86 adult residents. That is the highest incarceration rate found anywhere in world, coming in at 5 times the rate of theocratic Iran and 13 times that of totalitarian China. Those who wonder how such wholesale denial of freedom can occur in the ‘land of the free’, must not ignore the relationship between those statistics and the only freedom still truly sacred in America: the freedom of the market. In the 1990’s a scheme to save money was drawn by the Louisiana Department of Corrections. It would incentivise local parish prisons to house state inmates in their facilities by paying them a per diem of $24.39 a day per inmate. Local sheriffs and wily investors saw they had been given a licence to print money and began to not only fill up existing prison beds but to create new ones as a private prison building frenzy took hold. The state now spends $182 million a year to house 53% of their inmates, not at state penitentiaries but at these half-sheriff, half-private, all-profit institutions. Any surplus made is kept by the owners, with annual profits as high as $1 million in many parishes. For the local sheriffs and the investment companies like LaSalle Corrections, the good times had indeed come.
I’ve spent the past few months working with a Law firm in New Orleans and saw first-hand the effect that this ‘incentive’ has had on the criminal justice system there. In Louisiana, the sentences are so draconian they make even neighbouring Texas look like Sweden on 4/20. You can get 12 years for cat burglary as opposed to 1 year; 10 years for a bad cheque when you would only get a fine in the lone-star state. Attempts to reform these laws will be resisted by the for-profit prison industry, which needs its beds full least it should lose money. New Orleans provides the majority of the spare parts that fill up these rural jails, where sometimes, as in Richland Parish, Mangham, prisoners actually outnumber town residents. The means 1 in 7 black males in New Orleans is currently in jail, on parole or on probation. The rural sheriffs trade them with each other like baseball cards so to make sure empty beds across the State are kept to a minimum and once there, the inmates are fed on as little as $1.50 a day and stagnate for years in these facilities where education and rehabilitation programmes are judged to be an unnecessary expense. Paradoxically, those programmes are only available at the infamous Angola (Louisiana State Penitentiary), where 4 out of 5 inmates are on sentences of life without parole. Those kept in the for-profit industry are simply warehoused until they can be released to repeat their mistakes while the lifers are given the Cassandra-esque curse of gaining knowledge and talents but never being able use them in society.
We now live in an age where the idea that the market will always be both more efficient and productive than the state is presented as irrefutable. Questions over evolution, over global warming continue to colour our public discourse but never questions over the Chicago-School economics that permeate every facet of society. Even in the aftermath of 2008’s failure of neoliberalism, the answer to every social problem remains the same: shortfall in pensions? Marketize it! Health Care is struggling? Marketize it! More competition, more private ownership equals better results is the mantra and with conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic complaining of rising prison costs, calls for the ‘outsourcing of this burden’ are sure to soon cry out. In the U.K, which led europe with the first private prisons in 1992, the political will for more private prisons is there, but without the same profit margins as in the U.S available, there has not been too much interest from investors. One private prison, Buckley Hall, was transferred back to the public sector in 2000 due to financial and organizational problems. But from Louisiana, the land where African poly-rhythm married with European melodies giving birth to jazz, where tribal superstitions fused with Catholic ritualism to form Voodoo, comes this ingenious combination of the law enforcement with the financiers to form a commercial dream team. This union removes the risk element for investors as it makes those responsible for arresting criminals and keeping the supply of inmates high their financial partners. In Louisiana, the sheriffs lobby would actually obstruct political initiatives that could lower the crime rate! It is understandable; it’s what the market demands of them. But it is also exposes the absurdity of a system which completely inverts the traditional purpose of both prisons and police officers: to prevent crimes from happening!
For me, the Louisiana prison system is the perfect demarcation line for illustrating the divide in perspectives in the early 21st century. For the class of the venture capitalist, it most likely looks like a case-lesson in how to save taxpayers money while encouraging private industry. The financial deficit has been solved, jobs have been created and as for the social problems that the rest of us see: the world record prison population, the destruction of citizen confidence in the system, well, they simply don’t factor into the bottom-line calculations. For most, just the idea that a private corporation can own and control its own prison is uncomfortable but as Michael Sandel noted, we in the west are now changing from ‘having a market economy to being a market society’ where everything is up for sale, even human undesirables. Any politician who questions this is dismissed as a socialist, especially President Obama, who in November faces a challenge from a candidate who presents himself as the finest capitalist since the monopoly man. Would it be too much to expect Obama to publicly hold up the Louisiana prison system as an example of the extreme damage markets mechanisms can do to our society? I guess it is much easier to just ignore this problem. Yet under the noses of the public, the idea that criminals are now tradable commodities has become so ubiquitous that it is even the basis for a computer game series: Prison Tycoon, which you can download as an app for your iphone. If unopposed, private prisons will only become more popular, especially in this time of economic uncertainty. For as a prisoner told me ‘in Louisiana, there are three ways to make big money: put a black man up on stage, put a black man in a kitchen or put a black man in a jail. But to be honest, ain’t a lot of people feeling jazz right now and since people tryna eat all healthy and shit, if I was a rich man nowadays, I’d build me a jail!’
(This article was originally published in 2012)