As many have noted, the rise of the American carceral state has coincided with the demise of slavery, leading many others to note that burgeoning prison populations have replaced forcible servitude based on race. In some ways, this is framed as a positive and redemptive story, like California inmates being paid $1 an hour to fight forest fires. In other, worse ways, it looks more like work at the end of a whip, like extorted labor from inmates at private immigration detention centers.
Either way, few law enforcement officials have so nakedly admitted to wanting to retain inmates as a source of cheap labor as Louisiana Sheriff Steve Prator. In the face of the Bayou State passing a set of criminal justice reforms aimed at reducing the prison population, Sheriff Prator expressed his interest in keeping "good prisoners" incarcerated: "In addition to the bad ones, and I call these bad, in addition to them, they're releasing some good ones that we use every day to wash cars, to change oil in our cars, to cook in the kitchens, to do all that where we save money."
So which inmates should we be interested in releasing, and should the amount or value of their labor factor into that decision?
"A Necessary Evil"
"I don't know anything about how to rehab a prisoner," Prator admitted during a press conference last week, belying the "penitent" in "penitentiary." "That is not why I got elected." Instead, Prator was laying bare a state system whereby sheriffs earn money from inmates in two ways: by housing them during their sentences, and by hiring them out through work release programs.
As the Times-Picayune reports, Prator's office houses 330 male offenders and 25 female offenders for the state prison system and runs a work release program with 57 inmates. "I don't want state prisoners," Prator said. "They are a necessary evil to keep the doors open." Prator essentially admitted that new Louisiana sentencing and parole laws would reduce the revenue his office needs to function.
"That Is Slavery"
"Jails are not supposed to incarcerate people just because they need work done," Marjorie Esman, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana told the Times-Picayune, "that is slavery."
While nearly every jurisdiction is looking to reduce the strain of overpopulation of its prisons by releasing those prisoners least likely to be a danger to the community, Prator is arguing for the opposite. "Don't release nonviolent offenders early," Prator said. "Among those are the ones that you can work, that's the ones that can pick up trash, the work release programs."
Prator is expounding a very different theory of corporeal punishment than most politicians would admit to, but sadly it's one that our modern prison system is well familiar with.