As a person with familial ties to North Carolina, I am embarrassed for the state that it passed Amendment One last week. I am disgusted 6 out of every 10 voters there would cling to their bigotry, as if their actions were somehow noble or Biblical in basis. The state is more than tobacco-chewing rednecks slobbering over NASCAR drivers making left turns but outsiders wouldn’t know this based on their anti-gay marriage stance.
I come from a pretty backwoods, er backswamp, place myself. Lest I forget this, an article in Sunday’s New Orleans Times-Picayune reminded me in bold letters.
“Louisiana is the world’s prison capital,” the article’s headline and first sentence read. What came afterward made me curse under my breath and out loud, shake my head vigorously, and decry my home state’s fucked up way of treating its people — both criminals and non-criminals. (NOTE: The state’s court system is no better, as I detailed last April.)
If anyone wondered whether Louisiana were a third world country masquerading as a state in the first world they only need to read Cindy Chang’s piece to put aside their doubts. She did an excellent job reporting and writing the piece and the graphics that accompany it are fantastic too.
It’s hard to pick out the most damning piece of information in the Times-Picayune’s initial article of its eight-part “Louisiana Incarcerated” series.
Perhaps, it is the fact 1 in 86 adult Louisiana residents are behind bars — double the national average. Or, perhaps, it is 1 in 7 black men in New Orleans are jailed, on probation or parole.
How can anyone argue with a straight face there is not a racial component to the way Louisiana incarcerates its residents? They can’t. It is some shameful shit, as fictional TV character Clay Davis would say on HBO’s “The Wire”.
Then, there is this sentence: “Every dollar spent on prisons is a dollar not spent on schools, hospitals and highways.”
The sentence, in and of itself, is not unique to Louisiana, but given Louisiana’s prolific approach to locking up its own, it takes on added significance. Remember: The article definitively shows that the powers that be have a vested financial interest in continuing to cycle in more and more inmates. Violent offenders, non-violent offenders, it doesn’t matter.
What happens to those people once they are locked up? Well, it’s predictably ugly.
“Louisiana specializes in incarceration on the cheap, allocating by far the least money per inmate of any state,” Chang wrote. That means few, if any, programs for people in local jails, in order to cut costs. So, if convicts can receive parole, then they are ill-prepared for the world beyond confinement walls.
Louisiana, of course, doesn’t believe in giving many chances. Three drug convictions can lead to life at Angola Penitentiary, which is laughable except that it is also pathetic and sad.
There is something seriously wrong with a few people — sheriff’s, private companies, etc. — making boatloads of cash ($182 million) at the expense of the state’s citizens. There is no incentive to keep people out of jail. Doing so would lower profit margins. God forbid that.
Yes, there is something to be said for keeping people safe. But at what cost? Chang’s article illustrates how many Louisiana inmates are not violent inmates. Perhaps, they possessed or sold marijuana, or made the mistake of doing it a second or third time because they had no other job prospects.
Ironically, police can arrest you for second offense DUI in Louisiana and you will be released from jail the same day under most circumstances. The alcohol lobbies have the power; the people don’t.
I am not naive enough to believe calls for change will actually be answered. This is Louisiana we’re talking about. Its president, um governor, Bobby Jindal, has his eyes fixed on Washington, D.C. No point, then, in focusing his attention on his own people, especially if they are wearing prison stripes.
Maybe around the same time Jindal becomes president Louisiana will become America’s first penal colony. I mean, the state is going in that direction anyway, right?