Louisiana Jails: Prisons or Plantations?

Louisiana Jails: Prisons or Plantations?
By William Jelani Cobb, AOL Black Voices Columnist,
Posted: 2006-08-22 06:01:31
BV News

Prison Labor in LouisianaVictoria Yee, Jupiter Images

The current use of prison labor in Louisiana is one of those bitter circumstances of history repeating itself. It is no coincidence that Louisiana’s Angola Prison – which is still in operation – and Mississippi’s Parchman Prison both owed their origins to Southern plantations that turned to inmate labor after Emancipation. Under the old system, individuals and businesses could “rent” prisoners whose wages were then paid directly to the local sheriffs and judges who literally profited from incarceration.

In the extended wake of Hurricane Katrina, the disaster continues to morph into smaller crises that make the fault lines in this country even more brutally evident. A full year after the storm hit, vast swaths of the city remain virtually unchanged in their dilapidation, two-thirds of the black population has yet to return and the city continues to be plagued by a labor shortage. And it may be the latter that has the most disturbing implications, and could signal a return to a labor arrangement that echoes some of the bitterest stretches of American history.

Louisiana has the highest per capita incarceration rate in the country with 723 inmates per 100,000 people. According to the most recent Justice Department statistics, some 13 percent of black men, between ages 18 and 24, were currently incarcerated. Nationally, blacks constitute nearly 40 percent of all prison inmates (and just 12 percent of the population.) There is a statistical ugliness to black America’s relationship to the criminal justice system. But you already knew that.

The sad twist is that incarceration now has implications for the regions damaged by Hurricane Katrina. The massive amount of repair work to be done makes the chronic shortage of labor even more acute. (When I visited New Orleans a few months ago, the city was still visibly short-handed. Some 24-hour pharmacies were open only a few hours a day and dozens of storefronts had help wanted signs posted.) But amidst this crisis, there is one population of readily available labor that has not diminished: prison inmates.

New Orleans has Opportunities Industrialization Center program, which trains inmates to work in trades that will make them employable upon release. Many of them are learning crafts in precisely the areas where labor will be most needed post-Katrina.

There is a paradox here because, in the current rush to incarcerate, rehabilitation programs have been all but become an afterthought. Teaching a trade is important part of preparing someone for the transition into life on the outside. But here’s the angle: Inmates are assigned to work details for companies on the outside. In mid-July it was reported in the New Orleans Times Picayune that a team of OIC participants was assigned to do repair work in the home of a local judge – a violation of the guidelines of the program. (There are no such prohibitions in other parts of the state.) In New Orleans, however, perfectly legal to “lend” inmates to local construction companies whose industry is booming with post-Katrina demand for repairs. Nor is this an isolated concern – a recent New York Times report highlighted the widespread use of inmate labor in East Carroll Parish, Louisiana.

What appears to be a rehabilitative program on the surface, illustrates the profit incentive in incarceration. Damon Hewitt, an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund which has been handling legal issues surrounding Katrina and displaced residents says, “At every level of the prison industrial complex there’s a financial interest in keeping people locked up. And that in turn raises question about the exploitation of inmate labor.”

Add into that equation the cruel coincidence that the regions hit hardest by Katrina are the very same regions that originated the convict leasing systems in the 19th century, and the reason for concern grows exponentially. In the wake of the Civil War, the devastated Southern economy faced a similar labor shortage. The Emancipation Proclamation and 13th Amendment had eliminated slavery and with it the labor force at the corner of Southern agriculture. In short order Southern states – most notably Louisiana and Mississippi – took advantage of a loophole in the 13th Amendment, which forbade involuntary servitude in any circumstance other than for persons who had been convicted of a crime. In short, black inmates could be forced to perform the same tasks that slaves had done prior to the war.


It is no coincidence that Louisiana’s Angola Prison -- which is still in operation -- and Mississippi’s Parchman Prison both owed their origins to Southern plantations that turned to inmate labor after Emancipation. Under the old system, individuals and businesses could “rent” prisoners whose wages were then paid directly to the local sheriffs and judges who literally profited from incarceration.

The current use of prison labor in Louisiana is one of those bitter circumstances of history repeating itself. “The prisoners must be paid minimum wage, but by the time the sheriffs finish taking out fees and charges, they’re actually working for pennies an hour,” Hewitt points out. “This is constitutionally legal, but morally reprehensible,” he adds.

It goes almost without saying that a society that is financially committed to incarceration and morally committed to justice has a conflict of interest. A year after the first dark clouds blew in from the gulf, Hurricane Katrina continues to make it clear which one of those is the greater priority.

About the Author
William Jelani Cobb is an Assistant Professor of history at Spelman College and author of the forthcoming 'Antidote To Revolution: African American Anticommunists and the Struggle for Civil Rights.'