Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate of anywhere in the US, which means that it has the highest incarceration rate of anywhere in the world. (Exception: North Korea does not technically report its incarceration rate.) One out of every eighty-six Louisianans is currently in prison. A random Louisianan is five times more likely to be incarcerated than a random Iranian and thirteen times more likely than the average Chinese person.
…So, uh, who’s the police state now?
Why? The proximate cause is multifaceted. Louisiana has the harshest sentencing laws in the nation; for instance, all life sentences in Louisiana are without parole. 82% of Louisianians in prison are in prison for nonviolent offenses, mostly drugs, which suggests that Louisiana is more likely to put nonviolent offenders in prison than other states are.
The ultimate cause, however, is simplicity itself: money.
Louisiana spends $663 million a year on imprisonment; of this, $182 million goes to for-profit companies or contracted sheriffs. It is perfectly normal for a town to use its prison to fund its law enforcement. In addition, these prisons (whether for-profit or run by the state) give local workers jobs that, without the prisons, may not exist. It’s no exaggeration to say that huge parts of Louisiana’s economy are dependent upon the prison system.
Why does this matter? First, bloody hell, more than 1% of the Louisianian population is currently in prison. That’s expensive for the state (which, in its wisdom, it has solved by making the prisons very very cheap) and it removes people who could be working from the pool of potential employees. Even once they get out of prison, prisoners are less likely to be hired for jobs, making them a drain on the state economy for years after. And do you think that this disproportionately affects people of color, people with mental illnesses, poor people, and men? Yes. Of course it does.
Second, the state has dealt with the whole “expensive imprisonment” problem by simply deciding they weren’t going to pay much for prison; in fact, Louisiana pays less per prisoner than any state in the US. Since these are for-profit prison companies, they can do that. However, since the profit takes some money out of the already tiny amount of money the prisons are getting for each prisoner, the prisons end up cutting basic services. For instance, local for-profit prisons in Louisiana have scant or nonexistent job training and GED classes; quality of life concerns like hobbies and ability to practice one’s religion are ignored. What about mental health treatment? Drug withdrawal? Protection against prison rape? Don’t make me laugh.
I mean, God forbid we give people the things that may keep them out of prison in the future. There goes our revenue source!
Some people will probably respond to this with “why should prisoners get hobbies and GED classes and therapy funded by the state? They’re criminals; they hurt people. Better we keep them out of the general population and make prison unpleasant so people don’t commit crimes.” Remember, 82% of the people in prison are for nonviolent offenses, many of them drug-related; a substantial portion of the population never did violence to another. Isn’t it enough to take away their freedom, do we have to take away everything that makes their lives meaningful too?
Remember also that nonviolent crimes are (usually) not just the random acts of inexplicable EVILLLLL people; they’re logical acts taken from terrible circumstances. People steal because they’re poor; people do drugs because they’re addicted, often because of underlying mental health concerns. Therapy, drug addiction treatment, and job-training classes prevent the problem, which lowers recidivism rates. And isn’t lower crime rates exactly what you want?