An eight-part series by New Orleans’ Times-Picayune describes how Louisianans became the most incarcerated people anywhere in the world: “Louisiana’s incarceration rate is nearly triple Iran’s, seven times China’s and 10 times Germany’s.” As Charles Blow explains, much of the blame for this result rests at the feet of prison privatization:
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. . . .
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.
This is hardly an unusual story from the for-profit prison industry. The industry spends millions lobbying lawmakers to put more people behind bars. Two Pennsylvania judges were recently convicted of a “cash for kids” scandal where they took bribes from corporate prisons in return for sentencing juveniles to lengthy sentences for very minor offenses. Meanwhile, corporate prisons pad their profits by skimping on basic services for inmates or by hitting prisoners with inflated fees. A prison corporation in New Mexico was recently hit with $1.1 million in fines for understaffing its facilities, and another corporate prison in Georgia charges inmates $5 a minute for phone calls — while paying them only $1 a day for their work.