Filed Under:  OpEd, Opinion

Give us free

6th November 2017   ·   0 Comments

By Edmund W. Lewis

Last week, the State of Louisiana, commonly referred as “the world’s prison capital,” embarked on a journey to do away with its negative image by releasing 1,900 prison inmates early. It remains to be seen what the state and local governments will do for these released inmates to fully integrate them into society or whether elected officials will take any substantive steps to stop criminalizing, vilifying, under-educating and mass incarcerating Black, Brown and poor residents.

Not everyone has been happy about the early release of hundreds of prison inmates, most notably district attorneys and law enforcement officials.

Make no mistake about it — the criminal injustice system in Louisiana has proven to be highly profitable for everyone from prosecutors, judicial officials, bail bondsmen, local sheriffs, jailers and those who do business with them.

To illustrate that point, the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office announced recently that it will no longer allow inmates and their relatives to take part in-person visits. Instead, inmates will be allowed to “visit” with their families via a new video system that utilizes personal mobile phones and computers.

The new policy, the first of its kind in the state, took effect Oct. 10.

Inmates have a 12-hour block each day during which they can enjoy up to three 20-minute visits at a cost of $12.99 each.

While JPSO officials say the new system will significantly reduce the number of personnel needed to oversee in-person visits and improve safety and security, it will also rake in a boatload of cash that will not likely be monitored by elected officials.

The video system, an update on the highly profitable telephone system that makes families pay ridiculously high rates to speak to loved ones behind bars, will likely be implemented in other parishes once word catches on about how much dinero stands to be made.

Apparently, there is also a great deal of money to be earned by vendors selling things like potato chips, cookies and Twinkies to inmates, who are not allowed to receive snacks from loved ones and are forced to depend on these unhealthy, overpriced snacks to sustain them as they endure prison food that is anything but delicious.

There are, of course, exceptions like prison facilities in Caddo Parish where “good” inmates prepare delicious meals for free.

Caddo Parish Sheriff Steve Prator made it clear last month that he is not a fan of Louisiana’s efforts to implement prison and sentencing reforms. “They are releasing some good ones that we use every day to wash cars, to change the oil in our cars, to cook in the kitchen—to do all that where we save money,” Prator told reporters.

He added that the good prison inmates are “the ones you can work. That’s the ones that you can have pick up trash or work the police programs. But guess what? Those are the ones that they are releasing.”

Attorney Katie Schwartzmann, co-director of the MacArthur Justice Center of New Orleans, told The Associated Press that Sheriff Prator and other Louisiana sheriffs have exploited inmates’ labor to build “prison empires.”

“Sheriff Prator’s sentiments are blatantly discriminatory and horrifying,” she said. “Unfortunately, they reflect the ugliness at the heart of the Louisiana prison system, a criminal justice system shaped by dehumanization and discrimination.”

While many were appalled by the sheriff’s remarks, I was grateful that he was honest about how he felt and how much he depended on the free labor inmates represent to him. His remarks provide irrefutable proof that much work remains to be done to reform and “constitutionalize” Louisiana’s penal institutions.

Besides, it’s always good to know what you are up against. Knowing, after all, is half the battle.

The “good ones,” the inmates that have proven that they have been rehabilitated and can be trusted to work hard and obey the rules, are precisely the ones who deserve a second shot at life.

But that second shot needs to entail more than just setting them free without a safety net or substantive recidivism programs that aid them in turning their lives around.

With state prison officials refusing to grant civil rights and justice advocates full access to prison inmates, there is no reason to believe that the prison experience will be any less oppressive or exploitative for those left behind by the recently passed prison reform package.

There will still be prison wardens who harness their “slave labor” to generate hugh profits and sell various products and services to prison inmates and their families at incredibly high prices.

Nobody is asking Louisiana’s Department of Corrections to release unrepentant killers and violent criminals. What the people of Louisiana would like to see is a just and equitable criminal justice system that gives prison inmates a fair shot at building productive lives for themselves and contributing to the state economy.

We shouldn’t have to waste a lot of time and energy worrying about prison officials abusing the rights of inmates, correctional institutions keeping inmates beyond their release dates to collect additional funds or bail bondsmen overcharging suspects to get out of jail because they have gotten away with it for so long.

We need justice, fairness, equity and transparency.

And we need state lawmakers, judges and other elected officials to do away with all the laws, customs, practices and policies that tear down families and prevent them from carving out productive lives for themselves and their children. That in and of itself would go a long way toward making it unnecessary to spend so much time and energy trying to right the wrongs of the past or do away with Louisiana’s dubious reputation as the world’s prison capital.

Give each and every resident of Louisiana an opportunity to be all he or she can be.

It sounds pretty simple but it is not something the state of Louisiana has been able to do thus far over the course of its history.

To get there, we need to be honest about who we are and what our priorities are and should be, and ask ourselves and those we elect to lead and represent us some serious questions. Among those questions should be the following:

Will New Orleans police give more than a passing thought to the recently passed City Council ordinance aimed at reducing the arrest rate for Black youths and giving them a fair chance to turn their lives around after making a mistake? Will the City of New Orleans allow Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro to continue to do everything he can to maintain the city’s reputation as the “mass incarceration capital” and work around the clock to fill the vacancies at Louisiana prisons caused by the early release of hundred of inmates?

Will the U.S. Department of Justice and local, state and federal elected officials make a commitment to bringing constitutional jailing to all jails and prisons and ensuring that inmates who do not qualify for early release in Louisiana be treated like human beings who still have constitutional rights?

Will there ever be a serious effort across the state to create a safety net for those released from jails and prisons and to do away with all of the unjust practices that led many inmates down the path to criminal activity and incarceration in the first place?

Will the local, state and federal courts continue to allow police, bail bondsmen, prosecutors and grand juries to get away with doing whatever they damn well please to Black, Brown and poor people? Will the U.S. Department of Justice continue to pretend not to notice when district attorneys routinely railroad defendants of color or hide critical evidence in criminal cases from defense attorneys? Will the State of Louisiana and its legislators ever make a commitment to fully funding public defenders’ offices?

Will law enforcement agencies, officers of the judicial system, state lawmakers, prosecutors, correctional institutions and others in positions of authority ever commit to upholding the United States Constitution and protecting the constitutional rights of every man, woman and child who calls Louisiana home?

Will the City of New Orleans finally do away with economic injustice and bring an end to educational apartheid, housing discrimination, unconstitutional policing, prosecutorial misconduct and all the other policies and practices that undermine local families and create a steady supply of future prison inmates for the ever-growing prison-industrial complex?

Only time will tell.

This article originally published in the November 6, 2017 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

Readers Comments (0)

You must be logged in to post a comment.