An inmate serving a jail sentence rests his hand on a fence. REUTERS/Joshua Lott
A recent U.S. Justice Department report on a decade-old practice in Louisiana of deliberately keeping people in jail for months, sometimes years, past their release date reads as though officials are actively working to reclaim the mantle of “world’s prison capital.”
Louisiana had the highest incarceration rates in the country over the last decade, by fairly wide margins. The state’s population is roughly 62% white and 33% Black, but those numbers nearly flip behind bars, where 34% of inmates are white and 64% Black – almost double Black people’s representation in the general population.
The state, dubbed the “world’s prison capital” in a 2012 investigation by The Times Picayune, among other news outlets, now holds another dubious distinction: It is the only jurisdiction in the U.S. known to systematically keep people in jail well past their release dates, even though officials have been aware of those violations of the Constitution — and human rights — for more than a decade, according to the Justice Department’s Jan. 25 report.
At the same time, Louisiana is remarkable for its use of the forced labor of incarcerated people. In Louisiana, mostly Black prisoners pick cotton, at gunpoint, on former slave plantations. They have cleaned up the 2010 BP oil spill, have staffed “prison rodeos,” where vulnerable inmates are charged by a bull for public entertainment, and have cleaned and cooked meals in the state Capitol.
Last year, residents in five states voted to remove constitutional language that allows forced labor as punishment for crime, but Louisiana was the lone holdout.
Taken together, Louisiana’s mass incarceration practices reflect the deep roots of racial bias and the exploitation of Black labor in U.S. law enforcement.
Indeed, those who wish to prolong Louisiana’s system of unpaid slave labor have said as much, describing it as a necessary evil — “similar to the claims made two hundred years ago by plantation owners,” legal scholar Michele Goodwin observed in a 2019 law review article. Goodwin is a professor at the University of California, Irvine School of Law.
The Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections Secretary James M. Le Blanc didn’t respond to requests for comment for this column.
Since at least 2012, more than a quarter of the people set for release from the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections’ custody each year are instead held past their release date, a violation of the Constitution’s due process protections, the Justice Department said.
Between January and April 2022, 26.8% of people released were overdetained. Louisiana also spent at least $850,000 reimbursing local jails for housing state prisoners during that period alone, the Justice Department said (The practice of sending some state prisoners to local jails is unusual.)
The problem is due in part to antiquated time-computation processes (or an apparent lack of any such system) and an obsolete offender management database. The DOJ also pointed out that parish “jails have no financial incentive” to address the problem because” the Department of Corrections “pays the jail for each day of overdetention” — and doesn’t inquire much about their practices.
Lydia Wright, associate director of civil litigation at the Promise of Justice Initiative, told me that even advocates who were well aware of the problem were shocked by the data about the systemic nature of overdetention — data that other parties had been unable to access. The group is currently litigating two class actions against Louisiana over the overdetentions.
“It’s absolutely stunning to see, the numbers themselves are egregious and even worse than we thought,” Wright said.
In 2017, a legislative audit found that the Louisiana corrections department had no policies, manuals or standardized guidance for calculating release dates. A second audit in 2019 also concluded that the Department lacked adequate supervisory review processes.
The failures were numerous and glaring.
One state inmate was imprisoned 960 days past his release date, the New Orleans Advocate reported in Feb. 2019.
In 2015, the corrections department unveiled a new, $3.5-million-dollar offender management system that experienced complete system failure just six weeks later.
An audit into Angola Prison also showed that the prison rodeo made about $6.3 million between 2014-2015, none of which was deposited with the state treasury or included in the DOC budget as required by law.
Then, in 2020, documents filed in a lawsuit showed that the department had known that thousands of people were being overdetained for much longer – since 2012, according to the DOJ.
The latest investigation concluded that “the problem continues unabated,” and the department remains “unable or unwilling” to address it.
Although the DOJ report only touches on the matter in a footnote, the findings over the years raise obvious, unanswered questions about officials’ financial incentives as well.
Roughly 800,000 incarcerated people work in prisons nationwide, and they produce more than $2 billion a year in goods and upwards of $9 billion in services — most of which benefits state officials and government budgets, according to a 2022 report by the University of Chicago Law School and the ACLU.
Some private companies that use prisoner labor have also stated openly that it’s just easier and cheaper to use a captive workforce without benefits (and virtually no rights), according to a July 2022 investigation by the Arizona Republic.
In Louisiana, the Sheriff of Caddo Parish complained in 2017 about losing non-dangerous inmates entitled to release because they use those people “to change oil in our cars, to cook in the kitchen,” and so on, the Washington Post reported in October 2017.
Steve Prator told me his remarks were “taken completely out of context.” Prator also said that jails hold state inmates, “but we do not determine when a person is released,” the Department of Corrections does.
Louisiana’s official intransigence on these issues speaks to how deeply entrenched racial biases and the notion of unpaid servitude has become in the state’s government.