A new 8-part Times Picayune series on the prison industry in Louisiana starts off with these foreboding sentences:

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 five times Iran’s, 13 times China’s and 20 times Germany’s.

One out of every 86 Louisianans is in prison.

The motivation is money.   Most prisoners in Louisiana are in for-profit prisons.  The state spends $663 million a year on imprisonment; $182 million of that goes to for-profit correctional companies or contracted local sheriffs.  Many small towns depend on the prisons to fund their law enforcement.

Burk Foster, a criminologist who’s been studying Louisiana prisons, explains:

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.

State Rep. Joseph Lopinto (R-Metairie) agrees:

The bottom line is, if locking everybody up and throwing away the key works, then we should have the lowest crime rate in the United States. We don’t. So then you have to really look at your policies. In my opinion, it’s strictly a fiscal issue.

Those who benefit from the prison industry have pushed through some of the severest sentencing laws in the country and aggressively resist reform.  ”Few lobbies in Louisiana,” writes reporter Cindy Chang, ”are as powerful as the sheriffs association.”  As a result, Louisiana’s sentencing laws are out-of-step with the rest of the country:

All life sentences are, automatically, without any chance of parole and more than one in ten Louisiana prisoners are serving life sentences (the majority of lifers were convicted before age 30):

Harsh where other states are lenient, and harsh where other states are harsh, Louisiana has “a much higher percentage behind bars for [non-violent] drug offenses.”  In 2009, 82% of the 17,223 new admissions to Louisiana prisons were convicted of non-violent felonies.

Tomorrow I’ll follow up with a post on why there are so many for-profit prisons in Louisiana and how it’s affected the lives of prisoners both during and after incarceration.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.
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