Louisiana sheriff’s comments reflect more than racism
At a press conference on October 5th, Sheriff Steve Prator of Caddo Parish, Louisiana decried the state’s new policy that would lead to the release of some prisoners in the upcoming months. Sheriff Prator’s comments that the reforms would contribute to the release of “good” prisoners as well as “bad ones” have been roundly critiqued for “evoking slavery,” and the century-old legacy in Southern states of leasing black prisoners for profit. In fact, his comments also evoked more recent history. During the 1980s and 1990s, as the prison population dramatically expanded in many southern states, officials began to market prison labor as an economic boon to rural communities. Their actions reflected the absence of any serious policy discussion about the purpose of incarceration, besides warehousing offenders, or about what prisoners should do while serving their sentences.
The tradition of using prisoners as cheap or free labor for Southern communities is a long one. It grew out of a commonly held belief, in the aftermath of the Civil War, that former slaves would not work unless compelled or coerced and from the desire by local officials to maintain a cheap supply of labor. These beliefs led to the enactment of racist laws and practices that criminalized black Americans, who could then be forced to work without compensation. What began as convict leasing to private companies, eventually turned into labor for the state — growing crops, building roads, and constructing and maintaining public facilities (including prisons themselves). As detailed in my forthcoming book, Building the Prison State, the Florida Division of Corrections classified prisoners by their ability to work, not their security level until the 1960’s. Grade 1 prisoners were physically fit for any assignment; Grade 2 prisoners had a “slight defect, such as age, but were otherwise physically fit”; Grade 3 prisoners had “extensive physical disability, able to do only light work”; and Grade 4 prisoners were physically “unfit,” unable to do productive labor.
As Southern prison systems became more centralized and bureaucratized in the mid-20th century, prisons began providing other activities for prisoners, including education, recreation, and rehabilitative programming. Not coincidentally, the proportion of white prisoners in Southern prisons also increased. Yet work assignments — whether for private industry or the state — remained a crucial part of the prison experience.
Beginning in the 1980s, as the incarcerated population in Southern states rapidly increased, prisons there became dangerously overcrowded. By the end of that decade, state legislators voted to build new prisons in order to comply with federal court orders that found Southern prison systems unconstitutional for overcrowding and inadequate medical care. Yet officials faced stiff opposition to locating new prisons in their communities from much of the public, who considered them to be “undesirable land uses.” In response to this opposition, the Florida Department of Corrections and the governor’s office began a concerted marketing campaign to “sell” prisons to economically struggling rural communities in the northern part of the state. One of the big selling points to these communities was that prisoners could complete local public works projects at practically no cost. In addition, the state minimized the cost of prison expansion to taxpayers by using inmate labor to build and maintain new prisons. The marketing worked. County commissioners, sheriffs and state legislators began to welcome new prisons. Today, local officials in many Florida communities that house prisons will point — often with pride — at the parks, roadways, buildings and other projects that prisoners helped build.
During the 1990s, states and the federal government built approximately 170 new prisons in Southern rural towns. Yet, despite this influx, there were no coinciding policy discussions (let alone consensus) among state officials about what, exactly, prisoners should be doing while serving their sentences.
This question of how prisoners should spend their time is closely related to changing notions during the past century of the purpose of incarceration. During the first part of the 20th century, progressive experiments aside, the answer in most of the country was for prisoners to “work” so as to “normalize” the offender as a productive laborer. By the mid-20th century, that consensus had evolved into theories that prisoners should combine work with education in order to increase their prospects of becoming rehabilitated. By the 1990’s, during the heyday of “mass incarceration,” many politicians, victims’ rights organizations and law enforcement groups completely rejected the notion that prisons should be used to help rehabilitate inmates. Rather, they advocated not just to lock more people up, but to make their experience in prison as miserable as possible. Congress and President Clinton stripped prisoners of the ability to receive Pell Grants. State legislators attempted to take televisions and weight-equipment out of the state prisons and defunded correctional education. However, the expectation that prisoners work has remained constant. Corrections departments across the country routinely report the high percentage of prisoners with work assignments and often recount the benefits of this work to the state.
Today, the costs of maintaining such high rates of imprisonment have become unsustainable to many states. By 2011, states spent an estimated $52 billionon their corrections systems — 1 in 14 state general fund dollars. The state prison in Sheriff Prator’s parish closed in 2012 as a result of state budget cuts. Reformers around the country are advocating for legislation that will keep some non-violent offenders out of prison. These proposed reforms effectively put rural communities and political officials who gain from prison expansion on notice because they will deplete the supply of underpaid labor. It is hardly surprising then that Sheriff Prator and others would oppose the release of prisoners — particularly those that serve the economic needs of their communities.
The efforts of criminal justice reformers advocating for a reduction in our nation’s prison population would be strengthened by a frank acknowledgement of the economic benefits derived by rural communities from the placement of prisons. While the extent of the economic impact of prisons is debated, by bringing up this history, they can encourage an important and all-too rare public conversation about the economics of prisons. It is important for legislators, and the public, to connect these economic factors to broader discussions about what prisoners should be doing when incarcerated and, relatedly, to the overall purpose of prisons today.