Prisons for Profit


LUCKY SEVERSON, correspondent: In the United States there are more than two million citizens locked up behind razor wire and prison bars.

MARK MAUER: We lock up our citizens at far greater rates than any other industrialized nation or any other kind of nation in the world.

SEVERSON: Mark Mauer is the executive director of The Sentencing Project. He says that when it comes to lock ups, Louisiana is easily the toughest state in the nation.

MAUER: Louisiana has been at the top of the pack and just incarcerating people at rates that are just unimaginable any place else in the world.

SEVERSON: Richard Crane is the former chief counsel to the Louisiana Corrections Department. He says there was a push nationwide in the early 1980s to crack down on crime, and Louisiana took it seriously.

Richard CraneRICHARD CRANE: You could always get votes by increasing sentences, and Louisiana more than any other state just went wild with that.

SEVERSON: Today there are about 40,000 people behind bars in Louisiana. That’s one out of 86 adults. The prison population doubled in the last two decades, and the state prison system simply couldn’t keep up. So in the early 1990s the state gave local sheriffs an incentive to build their own prisons. Cindy Chang first reported about prisons-for-profit for the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper.

CINDY CHANG: In Louisiana, you’ve got all these prison entrepreneurs who are mostly local sheriffs who have built these prisons. The prisons function just like hotels—that they get a payment per person per day, and if they don’t keep the beds full they’re going to lose money.

SEVERSON: The Louisiana Secretary of Corrections Jimmy Le Blanc:

JIMMY LE BLANC: We didn’t have the means; we didn’t have the funding to accommodate building prisons. We didn’t have the money so that partnership, that cooperative endeavor of agreement together was a means to build additional prisons and have the beds that we needed to house prisoners.

SEVERSON: It works this way: County or parish sheriffs get about $25 a day for inmates that would have otherwise ended up in state prisons. Some of that money goes to house and feed the prisoners. What’s left over goes to the underfunded sheriffs’ departments to use for much needed equipment and for manpower.

(to Crane): At one point that was a real good thing, because they didn’t have bulletproof vests; they had bad or old or used equipment.

CRANE: Well yes, you know, but is that the way to finance those things, you know by increasing sentences for the sole purpose of filling of up local jails. Is it ethical to incarcerate people for the sole purpose of making money?

SEVERSON: Burl Cain, warden of one of the country’s biggest prisons, Angola, says he has reservations about profiting from incarcerations.

WARDEN BURL CAIN: Yes, the profit motive bothers me when the profit motive is the motive to not provide the necessary essentials for the inmate. You feed them with a thimble, is a term I use. You try to cut them to 1800 calories a day, and so those things bother me, and they do that in the private sector more than the public, because they measure every little thing they give you. They’re cutting costs, they’re cutting dollars, and when they cut your quality of life by doing that, that’s wrong.

SEVERSON: The approximately $25.00 payment the sheriffs receive per inmate per day is less than a third of the average daily prison costs nationally, so there is very little or no money left over for rehab or education programs.

Cindy ChangCHANG: The term that’s often used is warehousing, that these people are just being warehoused during their sentence.

MAUER: Going back to Philadelphia in the late eighteenth century, the Quakers and other religious reformers invented the penitentiary system from the word “penitence,” and their idea was you could take sinners, lock them in a prison cell, give them a Bible or have someone read the Bible to them and they would repent for their sins. So it was well-intended; it didn’t work out very well in practice. What’s sort of striking is that the model of incarceration has not changed that much 200 years later.

SEVERSON: One reason for Louisiana’s huge prison population is that the state leads the country in the percentage of inmates sentenced to life without parole. Life without parole for a young inmate who lives to be 72 years old can cost Louisiana taxpayers more than a million dollars.

Mark MauerMAUER: More than one-in-ten people in prison in Louisiana are serving life without parole. The only way you can get out is getting a pardon from the governor, and that is something that rarely happens.

SEVERSON: Here at Angola, 97 percent of the over 5,000 inmates sentenced here will die here, no matter how young they were when they arrived.

LE BLANC: We probably have more than our share of lifers in Louisiana, and there are some nonviolent lifers, I mean, like three strikes and you’re out. We have quite a few of those, and those are the ones in my opinion that we need to be looking at.

CAIN: They should not necessarily be released, but they should have a hearing. They should be reviewed, and our situation and in a lot of states there’s no hearing.

SEVERSON: Louisiana did recently close down a prison and transferred the 900 inmates, who were in for lesser crimes, to Angola. It turned out to be a positive move, because the warden can use the lifers as mentors for the short-timers in the prison’s re-entry program.

John Sheehan has served 26 years of his life-without-parole sentence for second-degree murder. He’s the lead mentor for automotive students. Heyward Jones, also in for life-without-parole for second-degree murder, is a social mentor.

JOHN ANTHONY SHEEHAN: They can look at us different than other men that come in. You can have a church group that comes in and tells them one thing, but you have somebody like Heyward here and myself that have a life sentence that’s actually living here all the time, and tell them if they don’t do the right thing they can wind up here. Our message comes across a lot realer to them than what messages of other people do.

SEVERSON: But the re-entry program the warden is so proud of is not in the budget. The funding comes from the annual prison rodeo. The Louisiana Corrections Department, like those in other states, relies on churches to provide many re-entry programs. Still, Louisiana spends almost $700 million a year for corrections, money that could go toward other programs in a state that has some of the worst poverty and schools in the country.

LE BLANC: I’ll give you a good example. Our prison intake is 15,000 a year. Our high school drop out is 15,000 a year. I mean, that tells you the story of what is happening to us. They’re coming out of these schools and coming to prison.

CAIN: And you shouldn’t pay more for corrections than you do for education, but you are, and you’re keeping the wrong people in prison because you’re keeping everybody.

MAUER: I think it’s a very disturbing development that the world’s wealthiest society, the United States, a society that prides itself on its democratic traditions, is also the world’s leading imprisoner. There’s something fundamentally wrong, I think, with that picture.

SEVERSON: The picture is slowly changing, in part because states can no longer afford to imprison so many people. Legislatures are gradually reducing sentences for nonviolent crimes and turning more to rehabilitation programs. That includes Louisiana to a lesser degree, partly because of push-back from local sheriffs, whose budgets rely on keeping their jails as full as possible.

For Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, I’m Lucky Severson in Angola, Louisiana.

  • Bodhana Carr

    excellent report; how sad that we as a.society choose to throw away so many lives.

  • Frank

    Louisiana built four prisons, over 20 years ago, purportedly as an “experiment.” One was given to CCA to operate, another to GEO Group, ostensibly to see if there were truly savings to be had, compared to the two operated by professionals working for the state.

    That was never the idea, though. In fact Governor Edwin Edwards was propelled on the path to indictment when he took a bribe of almost $300,000 to permit a for-profit prison in Jena, though he was ultimately convicted of taking a larger one from Eddie de Bartolo, owner of the S.F. 49rs, who wanted to secure a riverboat license.

    These prisons have been terribly run, regularly needing shakedowns by teams of professionals from state prisons, who invariably find a huge amount of contraband including drugs and escape tools.

    Piyush Jindal, with assistance from Jimmy Leblanc, has been trying to privatize further, trying in part to sell state prisons in order to balance the budget he has immensely strained by virtue of giving immense and unnecessary tax breaks to out of state corporations. Outraged, he has been punishing state employees and communities that resisted the closings of better run prisons, by closing those more efficient facilities.

    Jindal also long ago sold whatever soul he may have possessed to his prime patrons, the billionaire Koch brothers and is a willing stooge in the propagation of their privatization agenda. The continued high rate of incarceration in Louisiana, counter to a national trend, and the ongoing inept operations of the privatize prisons, reflects in no small part that corruptive partnership.

    He is the antithesis of Huey Long, who when faced with massive unemployment during the Great Depression, rescued the working people of Louisiana by expanding infrastructure, putting them to work building bridges and hospitals and schools, and leaving a legacy of public institutions. Piyush and his owners, the Kochs, are determined to destroy those common assets, along with K-12 education and a well-managed retirement system.

    To ignore these issues and instead to focus on sheriffs is like talking about New York’s prison problems in the absence of a discussion about the manufacture of that state’s permanent underclass, budgetary insanity and political restructuring brought about by the Rockefeller drug laws.

  • Michael Reynolds

    Land of the Free, eh? Then why do we have more laws and more people in prison than any other nation in the world? We certainly are not a “free” nation by any stretch of the imagination. This, of course, varies based on your race and socio-economic status. Unless we want to say that African-American men are genetically pre-conditioned to commit crime at a higher rate than men of other races, we must admit that there is prejudice and discrimination in our system.

    Here in California, Folsom Prison used to be a model for prisoner rehabilitation. It had the nation’s lowest recidivism rate due to its extensive education and vocational programs. However, the “tough on crime” wave that swept the nation during the 80’s led to the elimination of most of these programs in the name of punishment. Here’s a link from an NPR story sometime back that details this issue:

    Bottom line: Prison guard unions.

    You can’t expect the people who profit from incarceration to make objective decisions about what’s best for inmates and our society. So why do we allow them to be the loudest voices in policy-making on this issue?

    Unfortunately, the NPR story on Folsom was done over 3 years ago and things have not gotten any better. As with everything in our country at this time, there is PLENTY of rhetoric and posturing but little or no focus on productive solutions.

    “…on and on and on and on it goes…” (Jack Johnson)

    Until individuals put forth more effort to engage public officials, we’ll get what we’ve been getting.


  • Faye

    There are many private jail/prisons in this country. They all deny basic rights to whom ever is unfortunate enough to be there. Anyone, picked up, and put in a private jail, will go months without seeing a judge. And, unless you are in law enforcment and get in trouble, you will be denied bail. They get very little food, and food you would not feed a wild animal. They are locked in cells, 20 plus hours a day The water is turned off for hours each day. No heat in the winter time. No education of any kind. Very hard for family members to see someone, and then through a veido. You must buy most of you clothes/shoes. Clothes that get lost when laundered, so you must buy more. The Rappahanock jail in Stafford, VA, made a profit of $17,000,000, in 2011. Many of these private jails/prisons are owned by judges, prosecutors, and other people in law enforcement. Owned by them to become as wealthy as they possible can.Our people are wasting away in jails/prisons for non-violent crimes. This must be STOPPED. Politicians don’t care, and don';t want to be involved. Most religious organzations don’t care. They are left with NO one to help. Do something to stop this.

  • Faye

    What happened to the comment I left today.