How do you bankrupt a brimming system of incarceration that is perversely incentivized to grow? According to New Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman, “you have to go to the source, and whether the source is education or whether it’s legislation, you really have to go to the source.” Gusman provided an upstream suggestion at the Loyola University New Orleans’ event, Louisiana Incarcerated: An Evening with Cindy Chang on June 26, 2012. However, many of the panelists pointed specifically to job training and employment as essential parts of the solution.
The event was centered around an acclaimed 8-part Times-Picayune series titled “Louisiana Incarcerated,” by reporter Cindy Chang. For the series, Chang talked with the formerly incarcerated and criminal justice reformers to get a complete story of the juvenile and criminal justice systems. The town hall styled symposium provided opportunities for panelists to offer their thoughts on the sources of Louisiana’s incarceration problems as well as potential solutions.
Concurring with Gusman’s perspective of root causes, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana Jim Letten said, “the most important part of our jobs is education and prevention. I wouldn’t have told you that 13 years ago.” Letten iterated what several panelists expressed during the panel sessions, which took place over the course of two hours.
Whereas discussants spoke theoretically about the causes that compel individuals to commit crimes, they provided much more detail on what should happen after someone is released from incarceration. Letten said, “I think we have to build into every discussion elimination or reduction of recidivism which means reentry [programs], aggressive reentry the first time so individuals don’t end up in those situations.”
Letten clarified that we will always need jails and prisons for those who commit heinous crimes. However, Letten made room for individuals who have been locked up for significant periods of time for relatively minor crimes. “We have a duty to the victims of society to release them as productive members of society,” he said.
The daily per-prisoner expenditure for an inmate at a Louisiana state prison is $55 a day, but local prisons only receive $24.39 per inmate. Sheriffs need to create a profit margin so they can purchase equipment and hire personnel for their departments, which means that local prisons have little money for reentry and rehabilitation programs.
That’s where other panelists joined in. State Representative Wesley Bishop said, “We’re releasing people from prison and they are no better once they get out than they were when they got in [because we aren’t rehabilitating them and preparing them to reenter society].” In addition, formerly incarcerated people face significant barriers when they apply for a job to become productive members of society.
Bishop explained that the formerly incarcerated, “face the dreaded box 13 on the back of every single application, whether it’s to a college or it’s to a job that says have you ever been convicted before. Once they check yes, most employers check no.”
Norris Henderson, who was wrongly incarcerated for 27 years and is now the Executive Director of Voices of the Ex-Offender (VOTE), clarified the national movement of which Bishop referred to. “If our city steps up and ban the box it would encourage everyone that contracts with this city to band the box,” he said.
Darren Aldridge expressed the perils of life after incarceration. “Every time I try to fill out an application they ask have you been convicted and what for, and I check yes and tell them what it’s for. It’s like you don’t hear no feed back, no call, no nothing,” he explained.
Fighting the incarceration problem will require job programs as a preventative measure and as a rehabilitative tool. Judge Jules D. Edwards, III said, “Eighty percent of the people that were incarcerated that have jobs, don’t reoffend and it makes sense.”
But during a lively question and answer session many challenged the panelists about the source of the incarceration problem. Notable activist Dyan French, affectionately known as Mama D bellowed form the line, “racism is going to have to be dealt with.” Other audience members pointed out that the business of incarceration in Louisiana is conveniently falling on the backs of black people. Alex Mikulich of Loyola’s Jesuit Social Research Institute asked, “when and how will whites be called to responsibility to end disproportionate sentencing and incarceration of people of color?”
If racism is part of the source of our incarceration problem, then rehabilitation will also have to occur among people who have not been incarcerated. It will take an effort on the part of many groups across New Orleans to tackle the problem of over-incarceration and under-rehabilitation.
Andre Perry, Ph.D. is a scholar, commentator and activist. He is the Associate Director for Educational Initiatives for Loyola Institute for Quality and Equity in Education. A native of Pittsburgh, Pa., Perry earned his Ph.D. in education policy and leadership, with an emphasis in higher education from the University of Maryland College Park. His research and teaching interests are college access and retention, charter schools and immigrant educational rights. He has published numerous scholarly and popular articles in those areas.