Louisiana consistently ranks as one of the states with the highest poverty levels, infant mortality rates, and one of the worst school systems. Periodically hit by natural and man-made disasters, the state’s widespread homelessness and unemployment only gets worse year after year. As in most places in the world, the gap between rich and poor only continues to widen with each new social crisis. The gulf state has become a veritable ground zero for modern day capitalism, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the New Orleans-based Times-Picayune’s recent series exploring the prison system of Louisiana.
The United State imprisons more of its citizens than any other country on the planet, including many all-out police states. Nearly one percent of our population is in prison (the wrong one percent, one might say). Yet, Louisiana’s rate trumps the national average, with one out of every 86 adults behind bars. According to the Times-Picayune, the state’s rate of incarceration is “nearly five times Iran’s, 13 times China’s, and 20 times Germany’s.” The history of this build-up is well worth recounting.
In the 1970s, the United States entered a period of rising prices, rising unemployment, and stagnant wages. As this stagflation hit towns and cities across the country, the American ruling class saw an increase in the war on drugs and crime as a way of dealing with the developing crisis. Added to this was the fact that many former industrial centers were now being abandoned by businesses moving overseas or to the low-union-density South. This led to a much larger, mostly urban “underclass.” With the political turmoil of the sixties still fresh in their minds, new policies of mass incarceration and the creation of a beefed-up police force were put in place to stave off the possibility of future urban insurrections.
The prison build-up in Louisiana grew to such levels that by the early nineties, under a federal injunction, the state was ordered to cut down on prison overcrowding by either decreasing the prison population by a sizable chunk or by building more prisons. As the Picayune reports, Louisiana “achieved the latter, not with new state prisons—there was no money for that—but by encouraging sheriffs to foot the construction bills in return for future profits. The financial incentives were so sweet, and the corrections jobs so sought after, that new prisons sprouted up all over rural Louisiana.”
While in the last two decades the private prison industry was nationally one of the fastest growing industries, Louisiana’s private prison industry grew at an even sharper rate. Its growth partially coincided with a dramatic drop in cotton prices which bankrupted many farming communities and left many people unemployed. For many of the economically vulnerable communities of northern Louisiana, the private prison industry was a godsend.
But besides employing a number of recently ruined farmers, the private prison industry has a number of other tempting features. For one, it’s cheaper for the state. The sheriffs who run these prisons are given a state per diem of $24.39 per prisoner—much lower than the rate for the state prison system. Out of the money left over from feeding, clothing, and providing other basic services for the prisoner of the private institution, the sheriff gets to keep the money left over to make up for his initial investment, or he can use it to further build up his police force.
It should be no surprise, therefore, that the sheriff tries to cut down on prison expenses as much as possible. In state institutions, prison guards are trained and unionized. Those working with the private system are paid little, trained little, and are held to little accountability. For prisoners, those in state institutions are given a chance at least of earning a degree or learning a useful trade or task. Prisoners in the private prison system are given no such opportunities. The image the Times-Picayune gives of inmates of the private system is one of inertia and lethargy: “Inmates spend months or years in 80-man dormitories with nothing to do and few educational opportunities before being released into society with $10 and a bus ticket.” Needless to say, it doesn’t take long for many of those released to wind up in prison again.
Like hotels, for-profit prisons can’t operate at a loss. Inmates are traded around from prison to prison to fill up empty beds in private networks set up by the sheriffs. Prisoners from cities such as New Orleans may be shipped hours away, far from their families and friends. If a prison needs a prisoner with a particular skill set, requests are sent out across the state networks until the niche is filled. Prisoners go on to provide the community with cheap labor. In the state prison system, convict labor is used to do routine maintenance work in state buildings, and within Angola Penitentiary, a former slave plantation turned state penitentiary, basic household commodities are made cheaply on a massive industrial scale.
A large proportion of those incarcerated in Louisiana are nonviolent offending African Americans. This fact, along with the near-slavelike labor which occurs widely across the state, has inspired many—such as writer Michelle Alexander—to call the politics of mass incarceration “The New Jim Crow.” Racism is an inherent part of the capitalist system and is used to divide, conquer, and weaken the working class.
Simply put, the capitalist system cannot make productive use of a growing portion of the U.S. population. The capitalist-created social crisis of the last few decades has led to a growing layer of declassed lumpenproletarians. Jailing (or threatening to jail) this mostly urban underclass is a way of containing those whom the ruling class sees as extraneous. The private prison industry is a just another way the capitalist system strives to make a profit, no matter what the social consequences. The working class can do far better: with socialism.
To read the Times-Picayune’s full series, visit www.nola.com/prisons