Louisiana: Number One with a Prison

Louisiana has the largest incarcerated population in the world, but the high cost of that system and the State's budget woes may finally result in genuine change.

When a police officer or sheriff's deputy in Louisiana make a stop of an individual or executes a warrant for an arrest, he or she begins a complex process that is roughly described as the "criminal justice system." In Louisiana, the reality is that the word "justice" can often be substituted with "incarceration." Despite the fact that Louisiana is ranked at exactly the midpoint of state populations, at 25th, the state ranks number one in state prison population.

In fact, it is far worse than that. Louisiana has the largest incarcerated population of any entity in the world. The state imprisons at 2.21 times the U.S. national average, more than three times the rate in what are often thought of as repressive nations like Russia, and 13 times the rate in China. While you may think this is a good thing, for the taxpayers of the state, it is not.

Money for nothing?

Many believe tough-on-crime laws serve as a deterrent and improve public safety. In Louisiana, the opposite is true. The state has maintained a draconian incarceration system for decades, yet the state often ranks high in many crime rate statistics. For instance, in 2014, it ranked sixth in the nation for violent crime.

This means that Louisiana spends more that $600 million every year on the prison population spread throughout the state. If that expense bought a low crime rate and improved the state of "public safety," it would likely be viewed by many as worth the cost. However, the fact that it appears to do little to improve public safety while squandering vast sums of the state's limited resources may finally have forced the issue to the attention of the legislature and governor.

Odd priorities

For all that spending, the state spends remarkably little per prisoner. In 2016, Louisiana spent an average of $38.22, as compared with the average of $58.24 of other states in the South. This is due in part to the fact that most of Louisiana's prisoners are held in local jails, which are designed to do little more than feed and house an individual. This leads to little or no preparation for the release of inmates back to society.

Additionally, the state has fought strange legal battles, such as refusing to provide air conditioning in the state's death row. This led to the absurd result of the state spending many time the cost of such a system litigating to prevent such a system's court ordered installation.

Last summer, Associated Press found that the Corrections Department and the Attorney General's office spent at least $1,067,000 defending their refusal to install air conditioning in the death row unit of the state prison in Angola.

The cost of installing the air conditioning had been estimated to be $225,000, which led even the federal judge overseeing the case to wonder about the motivation of the state officials.

Lawsuits in Louisiana and Texas on this matter have been met with aggressive opposition from prison officials, as they treat air conditioning in a prison as a "luxury" item. The nonsensical element of this argument is that it presumes air conditioning would coddle prisoners, but in many newer buildings, such as where the death row is housed, the structure was designed to include air conditioning, as there is no natural air movement via windows or doors. It becomes uninhabitable without such forced air movement.

Even odder incentives

While the spending of large sums, apparently in an attempt to further punish those who have been sentenced to the ultimate punishment, the prison system in Louisiana has many odd incentives that have led to the massive incarcerated population. The sheriff's whose jails house the majority of prisoners make money off the state by keeping their beds full.

Not only does this create a large disincentive for those departments to work to reduce prison populations, but also it creates a systemic problem. Those jails hold many who will be released within a few years. Because they have no facilities and provide no services beyond a place to sleep and eat, those incarcerated will be released back to society without training, skills or counseling on how to "make it" outside the confines of a cellblock.

Can the system be changed?

With few skills and fewer prospects, many return to the only thing they know and quickly return to the incarceration feedback loop. This process destroys lives and communities, in addition, costs the state dearly in direct expenses.

Some business groups are beginning to be interested in this process. They and others are recognizing that every dollar spent on incarceration is a dollar that cannot be spent in other areas. Schools, parks, job training, all have to be cut or eliminated as the prison system and the criminal justice system eats more of the state's tax dollars.

There are hopeful signs that reform may include more than just providing training and assistance for those released and may address larger issues of sentencing, with a view towards reducing the total time individuals are separated from their communities. It should also include changes in how many drug offenses are handled, to provide treatment or other alternatives to prison incarceration.

These changes are not being proposed out of some overly sympatric view of the incarcerated, but as much by the fact that the overly punitive system Louisiana has relied on for decades has failed the state and failed it miserably.