† Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm.
The PIC – Old School/New School
by nancy a heitzeg
Editors Note: For the past several years now, I have taught courses on dismantling racism that encourage a critical examination of the prison industrial complex via direct on – site observation. First in the State of Louisiana and the City of New Orleans — the incarceration capitals of the world. There is No Where to better explore the deep and undeniable connections between the old system of plantation slavery and its’ current manifestations in the contemporary prison industrial complex.
It is all revealed in brutal starkness at LSP Angola. This is the nations’ largest maximum security prison and the only prison with its own zip code, houses more than 5200 inmates, all serving sentences of at least 30 years, most serving life. Otherwise known as The Farm, Angola is located on the site of an old 18,000 acre plantation, converted after Reconstruction into a state penitentiary. Angola depends on neo-slave inmate labor starting at 2 cents per hour. The highest available wage for a few rare jobs is 20 cents per hour.
This year, we examined that the epicenter of the contemporary PIC – California, which until recently imprisoned in sheers numbers more than any state. More prisoners than Louisiana, than Florida, probably still more than Texas even if we count those transferred to county jails — nearly a quarter million locked away. Numbers so excessive they made the SCOTUS blink and declare that the extreme over-crowding must be reduced by as many as 46,000 inmates. This over-crowding is especially egregious at the Central California Women’s Facility at Chowchilla, the world’s largest prison for women, which is currently housing nearly double capacity. (For those of you in California, please join the California Coalition for Women Prisoners Chowchilla Freedom Rally on January 26 or support this in any way you can. More on that next week.)
It is California – the Golden Gulag - that brings us the expansion of the modern pic – driven by a draconian three strikes law ( just recently revised), the proliferation of gang legislation, correctional spending that far outstrips educational investments, excessive use of solitary confinement and SuperMax conditions, and a powerful police officer and prison guard union that stands in the way of any meaningful efforts to reduce mass incarceration.
The contrasts and connections between these two “leaders” in incarceration is instructive, as is an examination at the multitude of grassroots efforts at resistance. Because, yes, wherever there are cages –there are those seeking to open them.
You can read 10 million books, but there is no substitute ever for Being There. So in the next few weeks, CI will take a closer look at the Old School version of the prison industrial complex as exemplified by Louisiana and the New School configuration as evidenced in California. We will “be there” and see what lessons are revealed for all of us as we continue to challenge both the premises and practices of mass imprisonment.
I was reminded again recently of a provocative post by our comrades at Prison Culture: What Should We Make Of Prison Tourism? Always mixed feelings and a deep sense of obligation about visiting prisons both defunct and especially active. At least this: if you have been there you must report back. You must add your voice to the rising opposition.
One of my students — a woman who herself had done time in prison – put it best, with these remarks after a “tour” of Angola.
“Prisoners don’t have a voice,” she said”, “At least now they have 20 more.”
We Need a Million More.
Please join us.
Old School: Hard Time in the Big Easy*
The City of New Orleans and the State of Louisiana are microcosms of the issues that plague our approach to “corrections” — race and class disparity, brutalizing conditions, exploitation of inmate labor, lack of adequate inmate services or educational programs, and a system that emerges directly as an outgrowth of slavery..
“New Orleans is in the Deep South. During slavery, it had two dozen slave auction houses and several times a year the ballrooms of its two grand hotels were used as showrooms for human merchandise. Today, Congo Square, where slaves were auctioned off, has been renamed Louis Armstrong Park…Jim Crow, chain gangs, and KKK justice is a living legacy in New Orleans. And the present-day effects of this whole oppressive history are especially and brutally alive in the whole system of unjust courts, brutal cops and inhumane jails.”
Today CI will high-light the issues with Louisiana and New Orleans “justice” — extreme incarceration rates and the death penalty, excessive incarceration of juveniles, the horrific conditions of the Orleans Parish Prison, corrupt courts and police abuse. And finally, we will note the mounting resistance to this culture of incarceration and offer some hope for change.
Mass Incarceration and Death
The Louisiana statistics are stunning even for a nation that leads the world in mass imprisonment. The US incarcerates at a rate of 756 per 100,000, that is 1 in every 100 adults is in prison and 1 in 31 under some sort of correctional supervision. Louisiana outstrips even this rate in both pace and racial disparity — One in seven African-American men in Louisiana end up in the prison system, while only 1 in 35 end up in college.
Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate of any state at 847 per 100,000 – with 1 in 55 behind bars and 1 in 26 “under control” of the justice system, either in prison or on parole or probation. Just over half of Louisiana’s approximately 38,000 inmates are assigned to the state’s twelve correctional facilities. 70% of all those imprisoned in the state are black. The remaining offenders are assigned to parish facilities and work release centers. DOC’s Probation and Parole division supervises an additional 63,000 offenders. More than 100,000- a good sized city – under hard scrutiny in the shadow of The Big Easy.
(The City of New Orleans has a higher incarceration rate still — 1,480 prisoners per 100,000 residents, double the national average. At the height of its population, pre-Katrina, there were 6,375 prisoners in Orleans Parish Prison. 90% were black.)
LSP Angola, the nations’ largest maximum security prison and the only prison with its own zip code, houses more than 5200 inmates, all serving sentences of at least 30 years, most serving life. 90% of inmates will die there. 83% of these inmates are black and nearly all of whom were poor, under-educated and dependent on a public defender at trial. Otherwise known as The Farm, Angola is located on the site of an old 18,000 acre plantation, converted after Reconstruction into a state penitentiary. Angola depends on neo-slave inmate labor starting at 2 cents per hour. The highest available wage for a few rare jobs is 20 cents per hour.
Once known as “the bloodiest prison in the US”, Angola now claims to be “reformed under the the watch of Warden Burl Cain. But despite claims of a new day at Angola, nearly 25% of the population is on 23 hour a day lock down, including the two remaining members of The Angola 3, who have been kept in solitary for nearly 40 years.
LSP Angola is also home to Louisiana’s death row, which houses 86 inmates– 60% of them black. Louisiana ranks 11th in the nation in executions, the only correctional statistic in which it does not lead. Angola’s death chamber is of course the site of many actual and fictional film executions including Dead Man Walking and Monster’s Ball. Although Louisiana began using lethal injection in 1991, the museum displays Gruesome Gertie, the most recently used electric chair. The Red Hat, now a Louisiana state historical site, was built in the 1930s and was used for disciplinary purposes and public execution. The original electric chair with its old generator and battery is there. This is the chair that failed to kill Willie Lee Francis the first time in 1947, so yes, they had to “execute” him twice. And in the most restrictive of death chamber arrangements, Louisiana does not allow an inmate’s family to witness an execution and Warden Cain edits and reads the inmate’s last words.
Angola owns everything, even this.
Juveniles Doing Adult Time
Despite the fact the Louisiana has recently reduced the number of juveniles detained in youth prisons, the state still leads the nation sentencing juveniles to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The racial disparity here is greater still – 80% of all juvenile detention are black as are 90% of those tied and sentenced as adults.
“Some researchers estimate that as many as 200,000 youth are prosecuted as adults every year in the United States. Here in Louisiana, there are currently 394 youth incarcerated for crimes committed before their 18th birthday. The youngest of these 394 entered an adult prison at the age of 12… Of the 394 juveniles in adult criminal custody, over half (an estimated 159) are serving life without the possibility of parole. Along with having the highest incarceration rate in the country, Louisiana also sentences youth to life without the possibility of parole at a higher rate than any other state. Sentencing a juvenile to life without the possibility of parole is the most extreme manifestation of the problem of placing juveniles in adult criminal court. Compared to other nations with similar criminal justice systems, The United States stands alone in its practice of sentencing juveniles to life in prison.”
A recent Supreme Court decision, Graham v. Florida, held that is was violation of the cruel and unusual punishment provision of the 8th Amendment to sentence juveniles to life without parole for crimes other than homicide. 66 of Louisiana’s 159 juveniles sentenced to life without parole meet these criteria. They will have to individually petition for release. One such inmate, Robert Johnston, was recently released from LSP Angola. He had served nearly 50 years for an armed robbery committed when he was 16.
Excesses and Abuse at The Orleans Parish Prison and the Youth Study Center
While Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate of any state at 847 per 100,000 – with 1 in 55 behind bars and 1 in 26 “under control” of the justice system, The City of New Orleans has a higher incarceration rate still — 1,480 prisoners per 100,000 residents, double the national average. The equivalent of a county jail, OPP is the eight largest correctional facility in the United States. OPP is also the largest correctional institution in Louisiana, housing about 1,700 more people than the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. At the height of its’ population. pre-Katrina, there were 6,375 prisoners in Orleans Parish Prison, a sprawling compound located near the Super Dome. 85 percent of people detained in New Orleans are too poor to hire their own lawyers and need to be represented by a public defender. And 90% are black.
Orleans Parish Prison has a long history of abuses. OPP has been under one of the longest federal court-ordered consent decrees in U.S. history. For over 35 years, a federal court has been monitoring OPP as a result of a 1969 case, Hamilton v. Morial. The prison is run under guidelines from various federal consent decrees that mandate upgrades in medical treatment, among other areas.
Whether the consent decrees have been effective is another matter.
The horrific conditions at OPP came to national attention in the days following Hurricane Katrina. The failure of officials to evacuate OPP before the storm, the chaos the ensued and the months long limbo that ensued for prisoners who were jailed for such minor offenses as unpaid traffic tickets, sleeping on the street and reading Tarot cards without a permit.. The ordeal is extensively chronicled in an ALCU Report, “Abandoned & Abused: Orleans Parish Prisoners in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina”:
When the levees broke in New Orleans, floodwaters flowed into Orleans Parish Prison (known to locals as “OPP”). During and after the storm, some prisoners were locked in first-floor cells as the waters slowly rose. Meantime, the eighth largest penal institution in the United States became even more crowded as smaller parish jails carried out emergency evacuations and sent their inmates to OPP. Guards were nowhere to be found. Prisoners spent days with little or no food and water. Many stood in sewage-filled water up to their waists or necks. Adults and juveniles were detained together, forcing youth to compete for resources with larger, stronger adults. After eventually being rescued, or in some cases breaking free from their cells and tiers, the prisoners were moved to a nearby overpass to sit in the hot sun. From there, most prisoners–convicts imprisoned for violent offenses and pre-trial detainees alike–were transported almost 70 miles to the Hunt Correctional Facility in St. Gabriel, La., and deposited in an open field, some of them for two or three days. From Hunt Correctional, the prisoners were randomly placed in at least 35 facilities around the state, including other parish jails, private prisons, and state prisons. (See also Doing Katrina Time: Torture in New Orleans Prison Parts 1, 2 and 3)
Since Katrina, conditions at OPP have hardly improved. The death rate at the jail ranks near the top in the nation, and recently, the US Justice Department Report found that “conditions at the Orleans Parish jail “violate the constitutional rights of inmates.”
“We find that OPP fails to adequately protect inmates from harm and serious risk of harm from staff and other inmates; fails to provide inmates with adequate mental health care; fails to provide adequate suicide prevention; fails to provide adequate medication management; fails to provide safe and sanitary environmental conditions; and fails to provide adequate fire safety precautions.”
The report pointed to a climate of excessive staff on inmate violence, toxic environmental hazards, post-Katrina, inadequate and often moldy food, lack of sanitary living conditions including the infestations of cockroaches and mice, and problems in medical services at the jail, especially mental health care. The use of restraints on the tier reserved for mentally ill inmates was singled out for criticism, as well as procedures for suicide prevention and dispensing medication to inmates. Over one year later OPP has failed to sufficiently respond to these complaints.
Currently the City of New Orleans is embroiled in a debate over the proposed construction of new facility for OPP. The current proposal would reduce the size, allowing for 1,483 beds. Sheriiff Marlin Gusman is demanding more.
Of course he is.
Like other local jails that profit from housing state prisoners, OPP is a miniature prison industrial complex unto itself. By agreement, the City of New Orleans pays the Orleans Parish criminal sheriff $22.39 per day for each local prisoner OPP houses–roughly $100,000 per day. In turn, private citizens and companies have long hired prisoners to perform work at minimum wage. From these wages the sheriff deducts living expenses, travel expenses, support of the prisoners’ dependents, and payment of the prisoners’ debts, with any remaining money — pennies on the dollar – going to the prisoner. Recently OPP built an aquaculture facility–run entirely by prison labor–to raise about 600,000 to 700,000 pounds of tilapia per year. And of course, it was OPP prisoners sent in to the toxic sludge to assist with the BP Deephaven disaster “clean -up:.
The infamous and deceptively named Youth Study Center is the local prison for juveniles. Like OPP, it too is under federal consent decree after abuses were detailed by the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana (JJPL) and Friends and Families of Lousianas’s Incarcerated Children( FFLIC).
“The lawsuit alleged unconstitutional conditions at the Youth Study Center, where, it claimed, detained juveniles were subject to long hours of confinement and offered only sporadic schooling, spotty medical care and inadequate meals…
Youths detained in the dank Milton Street building, which was damaged by Hurricane Katrina, consistently complained about inhumane conditions there. The lawsuit alleged the center was moldy and vermin-infested and that young people were confined in cells for 20 hours a day…
The consent decree spells out improvements in staff qualifications and training, fire and building safety, use of shackles, food, intake, medical exams, use of lockdown, and access to a secure, outdoor courtyard.
Other details include:
- Facility staff will create a new policy and procedures manual, to replace the one that was lost after the facility flooded.
- Administrators will move back into a to-be-rehabbed part of the damaged building so that they will be able to work from inside the secure facility instead of out of a trailer parked in front.
- The city will add a social worker with a master’s degree as clinical director and expand the recreational and medical services for the facility, which can hold up to 32 boys and four girls.”
Having seen the YSC first-hand, the descriptions of abuses hardly capture the scene. The conditions of cells were the most abominable I have ever seen and the facility was more than 3x over capacity, with youth left in solitary for weeks on end and fed at one point from a “kitchen” that consisted of one useable burner on a FEMA trailer stove. And much like the other state-wide juvenile detention facilities and the OPP, conditions have scarcely improved in spite of federal oversight. Recent reports suggest on-going abuse, inedible food and excessive use of medication as a tool of social control. In addition, youth now “diverted” from YSC due to limits on population size may now find themselves directly sent the equally onerous OPP.
Housed with adults.
Organizing For Change
Whether or not Louisiana generally and New Orleans specifically can be released from the stranglehold of draconian criminal justice policies and endless endless imprisonment remains to be seen. Certainly crushing state budget deficits and the high costs of incarceration have lead many states, even Louisiana , to consider alternatives to mass imprisonment. In 2011, Louisiana announced a partnership with The Pew Center on the States: Public Safety Performance Project to examine ways to reduce the states incarceration rate. Pew was to analyze the state’s criminal justice system data to determine what’s driving the incarceration rate, determine the best use of the state’s limited resources, compare sentencing and corrections policies with the national norm and work with the Louisiana Sentencing Commission to develop recommendations in improve public safety.
This “right on crime” approach furthered by PEW and others seems to have produced little change in Louisiana. Even though it has been rightly described by CI as a sort of ” confidence man shell game” that may merely reshuffle profit, the prison profiteers were not buying. It seems the power of the local parrish fiefdoms overshadow the appeal of these other profiteering-schemes in the State of Louisiana.
But, as always, the real impetus for change has come from increased scrutiny and mounting public pressure. A glaring national spot-light and the efforts of several organizations – both grassroots and non-profits – have shifted the winds towards change. Their work is high-lighted below.
Please support it in whatever ways you can.
JJPL provides legal advocacy for youth in the State of Louisiana through direct representation and legal challenges to juvenile justice policies. JJPL ‘s actions have resulted in the closure of the infamous Madison Parish Detention Center at Tallulah, reduced the number of juvenile insecure detention, and improved conditions for those juveniles who remain in custody. JJPL additionally advccates for youth in adult facilities, LGBTQ youth , and an end to practices that fuel the school to prison pipeline. . JJPL has been an umbrella organization that works in concert with FFLIC and Safe Streets.
Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children (FFLIC) is a statewide membership-based organization that fights for a better life for all of Louisiana’s youth, especially those involved in or targeted by the juvenile justice system.
As mothers and fathers, grandparents, siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles and allies we believe in and implement a model of organizing that is people and community centered, and is explicitly anti-racist.
How to Build a Truly Safe Community
Born in the hurricane’s aftermath, New Orleans’ Safe Streets/Strong Communities Coalition has articulated the following goals for the city’s criminal justice system:
Goal 1: Transform the New Orleans Police Department
•End corruption, misconduct and abuse;
•Create a department accountable and transparent to the community it serves;
•Create a department that improves community safety, supports crime prevention, and practices effective responses to crime.
Goal 2: Transform the Orleans Parish Jail System
•Close Orleans Parish Prison and replace it with a physical structure and living conditions that are safe and humane for everyone;
•Ensure that detention is only used to protect public safety or ensure court appearance;
•Build, expand and support alternatives to incarceration;
•Ensure that the operation, control and budgeting of the jail system is transparent and accountable to the community it serves and is not used as a mechanism for political power and patronage.
Goal 3: Transform the New Orleans’ Criminal Court System
•Ensure that the indigent defender system is politically independent, is adequately and equitably funded, and operates as a model client-centered defender system;
•Ensure that courts are fair, efficient, and effective;
•Ensure that the court system prioritizes and supports effective alternatives to incarceration.
Safe Streets strongly believes that there is a way to make the streets safer without an over-reliance on punishment, jails and brutality. There can be safe streets and strong communities free from violence for everyone in New Orleans, regardless of race or economics. Safe Streets also knows that this moment is a unique opportunity for a bold transformation of a badly broken system. Working with the impressive collection of organizations and individuals who have come together to seize this opportunity, we will pursue our goals strategically and build a public safety system worthy of the people of New Orleans
The Death Penalty Discourse Network is an organization dedicated to deepening and broadening the discourse about the death penalty.
Here on our site you will find information about our organization and the projects we foster, including:
- Sister Helen Prejean’s books and talks
- The Dead Man Walking School Theatre Project (“The Play Project”)
- The Catholic Mobilizing Network to End the Use of the Death Penalty
- The Moratorium Campaign
Critical Resistance seeks to build an international movement to end the Prison Industrial Complex by challenging the belief that caging and controlling people makes us safe.
Critical Resistance New Orleans was at the fore of the Amnesty Campaign for Prisoners of Katrina and is currently challenging the efforts to increase capacity at the proposed new OPP facility.
(*For more on details on mass incarceration on Louisiana, please see the excellent 8 Part series, LOUISIANA INCARCERATED: How we built the world’s prison capital, The Times-Picayune)