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May 26, 2012

Effective op-ed on "Plantations, Prisons and Profits" in Louisiana

26blow-ch-articleInlineThe title of this post is drawn from the headline of this new op-ed in the New York Times by Charles Blow, which gives justified praise to the recent local newspaper series about Louisiana's criminal justice system (which I have spotlighted in prior posts here and here).  Here are excerpts:

“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 triple Iran’s, seven times China’s and 10 times Germany’s.”

That paragraph opens a devastating eight-part series published this month by The Times-Picayune of New Orleans about how the state’s largely private prison system profits from high incarceration rates and tough sentencing, and how many with the power to curtail the system actually have a financial incentive to perpetuate it.

The picture that emerges is one of convicts as chattel and a legal system essentially based on human commodification.... [S]ome facts from the series:

  • One in 86 Louisiana adults is in the prison system, which is nearly double the national average.

  • More than 50 percent of Louisiana’s inmates are in local prisons, which is more than any other state.  The next highest state is Kentucky at 33 percent.  The national average is 5 percent.

  • Louisiana leads the nation in the percentage of its prisoners serving life without parole.

  • Louisiana spends less on local inmates than any other state.

  • Nearly two-thirds of Louisiana’s prisoners are nonviolent offenders.  The national average is less than half.

In the early 1990s, the state was under a federal court order to reduce overcrowding, but instead of releasing prisoners or loosening sentencing guidelines, the state incentivized the building of private prisons. But, in what the newspaper called “a uniquely Louisiana twist,” most of the prison entrepreneurs were actually rural sheriffs. They saw a way to make a profit and did. It also was a chance to employ local people, especially failed farmers forced into bankruptcy court by a severe drop in the crop prices.

But in order for the local prisons to remain profitable, the beds, which one prison operator in the series distastefully refers to as “honey holes,” must remain full.  That means that on almost a daily basis, local prison officials are on the phones bartering for prisoners with overcrowded jails in the big cities.

It also means that criminal sentences must remain stiff, which the sheriff’s association has supported. This has meant that Louisiana has some of the stiffest sentencing guidelines in the country.  Writing bad checks in Louisiana can earn you up to 10 years in prison.  In California, by comparison, jail time would be no more than a year.

There is another problem with this unsavory system: prisoners who wind up in these local for-profit jails, where many of the inmates are short-timers, get fewer rehabilitative services than those in state institutions, where many of the prisoners are lifers.  That is because the per-diem per prisoner in local prisons is half that of state prisons. In short, the system is completely backward....

Louisiana is the starkest, most glaring example of how our prison policies have failed.  It showcases how private prisons do not serve the public interest and how the mass incarceration as a form of job creation is an abomination of justice and civility and creates a long-term crisis by trying to create a short-term solution.   As the paper put it: “A prison system that leased its convicts as plantation labor in the 1800s has come full circle and is again a nexus for profit.”

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May 26, 2012 at 03:11 PM | Permalink


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My conclusion is that Afghanistan would do well to emulate Louisiana, to invite Louisiana prison officials as consultants. It is totally out of control. Contract off those Taliban terrorists to cotton farmers, making them wear ball and chain. Give them harmonicas for blues songs.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | May 26, 2012 10:24:09 PM

My question is why these "Op-Eds" always concentrate on the "system" rather than the "criminal"?

It is the equivalent of jumping off a roof and blaming the ground for breaking your leg.

Posted by: TarlsQtr | May 26, 2012 11:52:59 PM


How can one hope to improve something if one never talks about it?

Posted by: Guy | May 27, 2012 3:25:24 AM

Guy --

The question is not what's being discussed, but what's being (intentionally) omitted from the discussion.

Posted by: Bill Otis | May 27, 2012 8:33:04 AM


Bill is correct. I would also add that "talking about it" never focuses on improving the system, but dismantling it.

The "system" may be responsible for 5% of Louisiana's inmate population. The other 95% is caused by the feral human beings inhabiting the prisons, yet we only talk about and put the entire blame on "the system."

Posted by: TarlsQtr | May 27, 2012 10:07:32 AM

If you don't believe there's a systemic problem, then do you believe Americans (or Louisianans) just inherently commit more crimes than others in the world?

Posted by: anon | May 27, 2012 10:13:28 AM

Anon, you hit the nail on the head. Other countries imprison fewer people for less time and have lower crime rates. The U.S. does not have special people that are inherently more likely to commit crimes than others. Instead, it has a justice system--and many other systems--designed by people that simplistically see "good" and "evil." Bill and other may try to frame it as "blame the system" vs. "personal responsibility," but that is unfair. Other countries do not denigrate personal responsibility, and they have better results. There is much room to critique a broken system that is wasting lives and an incredible, scandalous, amount of money. No matter how long that system fails in comparison to our peer nations, there is no shaking this worldview. Like the religious beliefs that typically inspire it, it is impervious to any amount of reason.

Posted by: Barkely | May 27, 2012 1:12:04 PM

I always find it suspicious when articles such as this one refer to countries like Iran to demonstrate that the USA imprisons too many people. After all, in Iran, there really is swift, certain and severe punishment. If I risk losing my hand for stealing or my life (almost immediately) for murder, then I'm deterred.

Perhaps Iran and other countries like it are a testament that swift, certain and severe punishment lead to FEWER inmates in prison.

Posted by: Steve Erickson | May 27, 2012 1:27:31 PM

Naturally, Bill Otis and TarlsQtr find agreement in defending the Louisiana prison industry --- a collaborative effort between government and contractors that is far more pervasively pernicious than the Louisiana inmates.

Never mind the facts that two-thirds of the inmates in question are non-violent, that hundreds of them are actually innocent, that thousands of them are serving lengthy sentences for mere possession of drugs, and that the government of Louisiana is a historical paradigm of corruption.

Posted by: Calif. Capital Defense Counsel | May 27, 2012 1:53:11 PM


"Naturally, Bill Otis and TarlsQtr find agreement in defending the Louisiana prison industry."

Could you kindly quote the post of mine in which I have even mentioned, much less argued one way or the other, about the Louisiana "prison industry?"

You're not about to, there being none. You lie about my position just as easily, and frequently, as you lie about so many other things.

Get a grip.

Posted by: Bill Otis | May 27, 2012 2:28:45 PM

Barkely --

"Bill and other may try to frame it as 'blame the system' vs. 'personal responsibility,' but that is unfair."

Actually, that's not what I'm doing, which is why you write my position for me rather than quote me.

What is actually going on, in this thread and in many other places on the blog, is that the talk is EXCLUSIVELY about the "system" and seldom or never about personal responsibility. Any attempt to redress this absurd imbalance gets the defense side furious. This (not too surprisingly) mirrors what goes on in court, namely, that defense counsel wants to focus on everything and anything except what his client was up to.

Tarlsqtr and I, among a few others, attempt to look at the the side of the coin the druggies, hoodlums, strong-arms, child molesters, killers et al. demand that we ignore. I did not bow to this demand to wear blinders when I was an AUSA and I'm not going to now.

P.S. I have made many suggestions for changes to the system, if a point be made of it. These include videotaping confessions, higher pay for PD's, Blakelyizing the Guidelines (in exchange for a return to a mandatory system, as Congress intended), mandatory drug and vocational training in prison, and others.

Might I ask what changes you have suggested to emphasize personal responsibility?

Posted by: Bill Otis | May 27, 2012 2:44:38 PM

Louisiana puts people in a corrupt prison system for ten years for bouncing a check, and Bill Otis wants to talk about the individual responsibility of the check bouncer.

Posted by: Calif. Capital Defense Counsel | May 27, 2012 5:38:35 PM


I don't think any of the changes you suggest are anything other than cosmetic. I doubt any will actually reduce the prison population by any significant amount.

As for personal responsibility, I don't need to suggest any changes to emphasize personal responsibility. Right now, there is a gross imbalance against any societal or systemic responsibility. Long prison sentences and harsher criminal legislation are annual features of electoral politicking, often without any study or debate whatsoever. CP legislation is a good example. Whatever one thinks of the issue, Congress and state legislatures have proposed legislation with no debate and no empirical study whatsoever (one example is the residency restriction, which no study has found to be helpful in preventing crime and multiple studies have found hazardous because offenders are forced into homelessness). We have an abundance of personal responsibility in the lenghtiest prison sentences in history and almost anywhere in the world. We have nearly no legislative or systemic responsibility.

Moreover, prison sentences, supervised release, and lifelong severe collateral consequences already cover personal responsibility. I never suggested we get rid of punishments. I've only suggested that we get rid of our wasteful way of inflicting an extraordinary amount of punishment. England, Canada and Sweden all have justice systems with punishments and prison that obviously implicate personali responibility, yet they get far better results with far less punitive sanctions and far less money wasted. How many countries have to do a better job on this before we decide that our system needs to be fixed?

Posted by: Barkely | May 27, 2012 6:25:12 PM

Barkley --

"I don't think any of the changes you suggest are anything other than cosmetic. I doubt any will actually reduce the prison population by any significant amount."

I am more interested in reducing the number of crime victims -- which our country has done with spectacular success over the last 20 years -- than the number of inmates. To that I plead guilty. One important reason for this, although not the only one, is that crime victims have no choice, but the victimizers have plenty. When, by one's anti-social conduct, one assumes the risk of punishments known sometimes to be severe, one is poorly positioned to complain that the risk turned into reality.

On another thread, I set forth ten easy things a person can do to stay out of prison. Living by these standards is just not that hard no matter what your race, income, family status or vocation:

1. Don't steal stuff.
2. Don't lie to or mislead people with legitimate authority (or, preferably, anyone).
3. Get a normal job and keep at it even if occasionally annoying.
4. Stay away from drugs you know are illegal.
5. If you're in school, stay there until you graduate.
6. Get married before you have kids.
7. Be honest even if it makes you look bad. Only that builds trust.
8. Resolve your disputes without violence.
9. Pay your own bills and expect others to pay theirs.
10. Quit nursing grudges and complaining. Everybody has problems.

If people just lived that way -- which the huge majority does -- the prison population would wither to next to nothing without changing a single law.

I expect people to put their own house in order before griping about how everyone else's house looks.

Posted by: Bill Otis | May 27, 2012 9:05:16 PM

"I am more interested in reducing the number of crime victims -- which our country has done with spectacular success over the last 20 years -- than the number of inmates."

Of course I am interested in reducing the number of crime victims. I am also interested in reducing the number of those committing crimes in the first place. It really is the same thing. You chose to focus on the incarcerated, as though I want to reduce imprisonment but not crime. That, of course, is unfair. And on this point my argument remains valid. As good a job as our country has done at this--and at enormous cost--other countries have done it far better and for far less. Other countries have less victimization, less incarceration, and more evidence-based, cost-effective legislation. So even if you frame your interest as such, systemic reform is necessary, and we have a lot to learn.

You forgot one other item on your list of ways not to be a criminal. Don't suffer from mental illness, as so many of our prisoners do. If only more of them would make that wise choice.

Posted by: Barkely | May 27, 2012 10:36:02 PM

Also - being born into a white, privileged family is a wise "choice" that one can make to avoid imprisonment.

Posted by: Calif. Capital Defense Counsel | May 28, 2012 11:41:24 AM

♭One of these things ♩ is not like the others ♬
♫ One of these things ♫ just doesn't belong
♬ Can you tell which thing is not like the others
By the time I finish my song? ♬

Sorry, #6 is close, but not the answer we had in mind.

Posted by: Bill K | May 28, 2012 1:07:08 PM


It must be nice to live in a world where you can absolve all individuals of moral culpability based on their upbringing.

Posted by: de Maistre | May 28, 2012 1:08:01 PM

Words can't say how much I appreciate what you've mentioned here... Thanks a lot for this info.

Posted by: GED Online | May 29, 2012 6:17:35 AM

'I did not bow to this demand to wear blinders when I was an AUSA and I'm not going to now.'

but that's the biggest problem affecting your creditability here your just too thick headed to realize that you are wearing them

Posted by: commenter | May 29, 2012 2:09:35 PM

I spent a rainy Memorial Day rereading Systems of Survival, written in the early '90s by Jane Jacobs, the author better known for single-handedly destroying the 1950s freeway+highrise mania with the image of primary school girls skipping rope on a sidewalk in a mixed-use neighborhood of cigar stores, furniture builders, and artists.

Her premise is that healthy societies consist of two main moral paradigms, a commercial class (obvious) and a guardian class, whose duty is to protect the commercial class's interests, provide them with a level playing field (not a thing in 1992, as the kids say), and protect law-abiding people from criminals (that's you, BillO). Moral breakdown occurs when the separation between the two paradigms deteriorates. She gives the Wall Street raiders that were helping to destroy the Rust Belt cities she loved as an example of a commerical paradigm adopting guardian morals, and the propensity for police forces to hire MBAs who were wrongly focusing on numbers rather than having cops on the beat preventing crime as an example of a guardian paradigm polluted with commercial morals (season 3 of The Wire pointed out the bogosity of ComStat as illustration).

Although the book was written before the rerise of the private prison industry, it jumps out as the primary morally repugnant aspect of our society. Let me restate that. Jacobs was decrying phenomena like increasingly ineffective police forces, thoughtless privatization of activities better done by governments, but also inappropriate government support of commercial activities (at times The National Review loved Jane Jacobs, and she was fundamentally a small-r republican). Prisons were off the radar back then. But once you get about 25% through this short book, the moral problems of a privatized prison system are unavoidable.

Posted by: Bill K | May 30, 2012 12:47:38 PM

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