TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our guest, investigative reporter Cindy Chang, writes that Louisiana is the prison capital of the world. The state imprisons more of its people per capita than any state in the nation and any country on Earth. Louisiana's incarceration rate is nearly five times Iran's and 13 times China's.
In a series in The New Orleans Times-Picayune, Chang and her colleagues report that the state's high prison population is no accident. An approach which began as an effort to cope with prison overcrowding has led to a system where more than half of the state's inmates are housed in for-profit facilities with financial incentives for local sheriffs to keep prisons full. The state's prison sentences are among the harshest in the country, Chang writes, and both private prison operators and the Louisiana Sheriffs Association lobby the legislature to keep it that way.
The series also finds that the state's meager spending on inmates leaves many inmates with few educational (technical difficulties) as they serve their time.
Cindy Chang is a special projects writer for The Times-Picayune. She spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.
DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: Well, Cindy Chang, welcome to FRESH AIR. And Louisiana, as you described it, the prison system is different from a lot of places. A lot of places, state inmates, those who get longer sentences, are in big state-run institutions, you know, kind of often far from the homes of prisoners. What's different about Louisiana?
CINDY CHANG: The big thing is that in Louisiana over half of state inmates are housed in local prisons, which are usually run by sheriffs. And what we tend to think of as county jails are for people who are awaiting trial and just can't make bail or weren't allowed to have bail so they're just waiting for their court date. But in Louisiana, the system has grown so that sheriffs house a lot of inmates who are serving state sentences. And the reason the sheriffs are willing to do that is because they get money in return for doing that.
DAVIES: So they're kind of these prison entrepreneurs in a way?
CHANG: Exactly. And how that came about was in the '90s there was an overcrowding problem and the Department of Corrections decided to solve that problem by offering incentives for sheriffs to build their own prisons.
DAVIES: So you had county sheriffs who are - are they elected? We call them parishes.
CHANG: Right. They're elected.
DAVIES: So they're elected sheriffs in their county or parish, as it's called in Louisiana, right?
DAVIES: And so they looked around and said, hey, I can start a prison. I can get - what is it, like about 25 bucks a day they get from the state?
CHANG: Right, per inmate.
DAVIES: And so then there is an incentive once they build the prison to keep it full. Is that right?
DAVIES: And how do they keep it full?
CHANG: Well, it's very much under the radar and not regulated. Once somebody gets sentenced, say, in New Orleans, if they have a sentence of 10 years or more, they'll probably end up in a state prison. And everyone who has ever been through the system would much rather be in a state prison than a local sheriff run prison because the state prisons have lots of programs. You can learn a trade like welding or plumbing. If you're not taking classes, you have a job. You know, if you're serving time, you'd rather at least a busy every day and trying to improve yourself.
But what happens if you have a sentence of less than 10 years is that your sheriff will likely send you to another sheriff, which tends to be in a rural area, because that's where this prison industry is really centered. And we spent a lot of time in Richland Parish in Northeast Louisiana. What the warden of the prison there does almost every day is, he calls his buddies in Jefferson Parish, which is a suburb of New Orleans, say, and says, hey, do you have a few to send over?
DAVIES: So it's like hotels selling their extra beds on Priceline or something.
CHANG: It really is exactly like a hotel. The sheriffs have invested in building these prisons often with the help of private investors. And once you build a prison or hotel, how do you keep it running? You have to keep the beds full. So that's a real - instead of the downward pressure on the incarceration rate, which a lot of states are feeling now with budget pressures, Louisiana has an upward pressure because they've got to keep the beds full.
DAVIES: OK. So we have a local sheriff who's built a prison. He has fixed costs of maintaining the place and keeping the lights on, so he gets the revenue by keeping it full and getting the 25 bucks or so per day per prisoner that the state sends, right?
DAVIES: Does the sheriff in effect earn a profit if the beds are filled and he gets - more than covers his costs?
CHANG: That's the whole idea. That's how they were encouraged to go into this business in the first place. You're talking about rural parishes that before this were so underfunded that they were buying used patrol cars from Oklahoma, they were driving around in these cars with 200,000 miles on them, they were sharing bulletproof vests. So any margin that they can skim off - and let me be clear, it's not going back into the sheriff's own pocket to buy him a mansion or anything. This is going back into his own department to buy often just real basic equipment for his deputies.
DAVIES: Right. But there is then a budgetary incentive for them to keep the prison full and create a surplus, which they can then use to better equip their staff, hire more people, provide better services.
CHANG: Right. Right. For sure.
DAVIES: Now, do the sheriffs run the prisons themselves or - I mean there are companies now, private prison companies, that will build and operate a prison for you. Do they do that?
CHANG: Right. Right. It's a mixture. Some of the sheriffs run their own prisons, others have partnered with private companies. There's two main companies. One is called LaSalle Corrections and one is called LCS, and they're both actually homegrown. They're not those national empires like CCA that most people have heard of. And there's a variety of arrangements. Like we went to Jackson Parish, which there prison is operated by LaSalle, and what the sheriff there does is he gets a guaranteed $100,000 a year, no matter whether the prison is making a profit or not, he just gets that money. But what he really gets - and he was not shy about using this word - what he really gets is the patronage, because his department prior to this had maybe 50 employees and now it has like 150. So it's three times as large. And in a place like that, 100 jobs with benefits is huge. And what he means by patronage, of course, is that he'll get reelected if he keeps on supporting these jobs.
DAVIES: Uh-huh. So the sheriff then contracts with private prison operator, they put up the money and build it, but then the sheriff gets to decide who gets hired, right?
DAVIES: And jobs are a real currency when it comes to politics.
CHANG: That's right.
DAVIES: Now, you said a moment ago that in their efforts to keep their prison beds full they sometimes - they call each other. Let's just cover that in a little more detail. How did these sheriffs go about finding inmates? If they've got 10 or 15 beds available for the next month, where do they find more prisoners?
CHANG: Well, often it's the warden, not the sheriff, who actually does this grunt work. But, for example, we visited Tensaw Parish, which is also in Northeast Louisiana. And the warden there, he pulled out a sheet of paper and it looked like it had been thumbed over any number of times. It was all wrinkled and everything and it was a list of all of the other sheriffs in the state. And naturally an urban area, like New Orleans or Baton Rouge is going to unfortunately produce more criminals. And even though in New Orleans our sheriff houses a good number of state inmates himself, he doesn't have room for everyone who's getting sentenced in New Orleans Parish. So the warden in Tensaw Parish knows that there are certain places, like Baton Rouge, that he can call and might have a surplus that day to send him.
CHANG: And there's also trade between sheriffs on any given day. And I've talked to a lot of inmates who have been transferred multiple times and they don't know why. It's not necessarily because they were a troublemaker or they didn't get along with people. Sometimes it's just even between the rural sheriffs trading. And it can be that one sheriff needs a skilled mechanic and the other sheriff maybe ended up with two, so...
DAVIES: So they're like commodities.
DAVIES: Now the conditions in the local jails run by these sheriffs where they have this incentive to keep them full for their own budgets, how did those conditions differ from the big state institutions?
CHANG: The term that's often used as a warehousing. And if you've ever visited one of these places I think it's an apt term. And I called pretty much every sheriff has this type of industry going, a lot of them didn't respond. These prisons are not like what you think of with cells and maybe one or two people per cell. They're usually dormitories and typically about 80 men or women, whatever the case may be, sleeping in a large room in bunk beds.
And the difference is that in the sheriff's prison you go in there and people are just lounging around that dorm. They're lying in bed in the middle of the day or watching soap operas. They will literally sit there, day after day, year after year until their sentence is over. While in a state prison, which is where most states house almost all of their inmates, you're busy whether you like it or not. You have a job or you take classes, or you're learning a trade, like welding or plumbing that will help you get a job when you get out.
DAVIES: And the fundamental issue here is that a system has been set up - and this was done in the 1990s when there was an overcrowding problem - a system was set up in which local sheriffs were encouraged to build or get these prisons built on the notion that they could take care of them for 20, a little under 25 bucks a day, and it seems like as long as you do that there simply isn't going to be the money to really rehabilitate people and give them skills, is there?
CHANG: Right. So now we've gotten this situation where we have the highest incarceration rate in the country, so we have lots of prisoners but they're being housed real cheaply so it's kind of a vicious cycle: how do you reduce? If you can reduce the prison population then hopefully you'll have more money left over to give the ones who are in the system more help.
DAVIES: And the fact is that the financial incentives for local sheriffs is not to reduce the prison population, but to keep it high.
CHANG: Absolutely. And the Sheriffs Association is one of the most powerful lobbies in the state and they have consistently opposed any sort of change that would reduce the prison population. Although, this year in the legislature there was a slight shift. I think that the budget problems, as in other states, have gotten so bad that there is pressure on the sheriffs and the district attorneys - who also traditionally oppose these things - to, at least, stand down on some of these cost-saving measures.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Cindy Chang. She just completed a series on prisons in Louisiana for The New Orleans Times-Picayune.
We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: If you're just joining us, We're speaking with Cindy Chang. She is an investigative reporter for The New Orleans Times-Picayune, where she has just completed a series on prisons and the prison system in Louisiana.
Do you know what the prison's budget in Louisiana is and how it compares with other places?
CHANG: It's about $600 million or so. And the comparisons are difficult because, as I said, the $24.39 is incarceration on the cheap. In Louisiana State prisons, they spent $55 an inmate, so the average in Louisiana comes out to about $38 per day per inmate, which is the lowest in the country. So if you look at the budget - the size of the budget, it's a little misleading because we're able to incarcerate many more people - I mean often two people to every one person in another state, because we spend so little on them.
DAVIES: One of the interesting things about this is that, you know, I think Louisiana has for years had a reputation of a state with a lot of corruption, particularly rural corruption. What's interesting about the system as you describe it is that it came out of the problem in the 1990s where there was overcrowding, and it was the kind of solution, which at the time, you know, a lot of political scientists were embracing, you know, reinventing government, thinking outside the box, creating a different set of incentives, embracing the innovation of private enterprise. And they've set up something, which just has a lot of perverse effects.
CHANG: Right. I think at the time it may have seemed like a reasonable ad hoc solution. You didn't have money to build another state prison and you're sitting there as the head of the Department of Corrections. You can't make the legislature reduce sentences or devise alternative programs to reduce the population. I mean, the prisoners just keep coming into the system so what are you going to do?
And Richard Stalder who was the head of the Department of Corrections at the time, he actually is a trained economist. So he very consciously said, well, what can I do to get the sheriffs to want to house these inmates instead of complaining about it? And of course the solution was money.
DAVIES: How do criminal sentences in Louisiana compare with other states?
CHANG: They're pretty harsh. In Louisiana, right now, all life sentences are without parole. Louisiana leads the country in the percentage of its inmates who are serving life without parole. That means that you never get before a parole board and say, hey, I've changed. Give me another chance.
So at Angola, which is where most of these people go, they have so many older inmates who are really on their deathbed who are costing the state so much money but there's very few mechanisms to release them. And on the lower end too, sentences are pretty harsh.
For example, recently in St. Tammany Parish which is a suburb of New Orleans, there was a guy who got 24 years without parole for a car burglary. It was his - actually third offense, although he was prosecuted as a second offender, but we have pretty strict habitual offender law here as well.
DAVIES: You can get 10 to 20 years for writing bad checks?
CHANG: And people regularly do. I mean, yeah. They'll give five or 10 years for something like that. And it's usually not their first offense, but you rarely see something like that in another state.
DAVIES: So what does the sentencing system do in terms of the mix of violent and non-violent offenders in these county jails?
CHANG: Well, Louisiana has a much higher percentage of non-violent offenders in its prison population than the national average. And we have plenty of violent crime in this state. New Orleans leads the nation in murders. So that implies that our sentencing structure is putting more non-violent - particularly drug offenders - in the system, and those are the very offenders that tend to end up in the for-profit sheriff's prisons.
DAVIES: Now, there's clearly a public appetite for harsh sentences. I mean, people are angry about crime. But you also have people - prison operators and local sheriffs - who seem to have a financial incentive for keeping the prison population high. Is there any evidence that either the prison operators or the sheriffs themselves play a role in keeping sentences harsh?
CHANG: Sure. I mean, on the level of political donations the two big private prison companies - which are LaSalle and LCS - are pretty big donors to sheriffs, to the governor, to state legislators. And as I mentioned before, the Louisiana Sheriff's Association, as well as the District Attorney's Association, are very powerful lobbies.
DAVIES: Did you talk to any sheriffs who look at the system and say this isn't exactly what we ought to be doing?
CHANG: I think a lot of them are conscious of some of the moral issues that are raised. And we spent a lot of time in Richland Parish in northeast Louisiana and the sheriff there, he will tell anybody who asks him about the prison: we hate to make money off of the backs of unfortunate people but the fact is it's been good for the parish.
You know, there are those jobs with benefits. The department has better equipment. He's about to retire but he's been in the department for, what, 30, 40 years? I mean, he was telling me about the old days when they used to share a bulletproof vests, when they used to drive these old clunky cars. And you've got to cover a lot of miles when you're patrolling a rural parish.
DAVIES: Well, Cindy Chang, I hope you do get to continue this kind of work, and I want to thank you so much for speaking with us.
CHANG: Thank you.
GROSS: Cindy Chang spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. She's a special projects writer for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. You'll find links to the paper's series "Louisiana Incarcerated" on our website freshair.npr.org.
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