Louisiana: “Some people got lost in the flood”
Louisiana’s Angola state prison has long been among the country’s most notorious and iconic correctional institutions. Historian David Oshinsky — who knows notorious Southern prisons from his research on Mississippi’s Parchman Farm — summed up the symbolic value of Angola in a recent book review for the New York Times. (The book under review is Wilbert Rideau’s new memoir, In the Place of Justice.) The review opens:
An hour’s drive northwest from Baton Rouge sits the Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as Angola, the largest maximum security prison in the United States. On the site of a former slave plantation, it currently houses close to 5,000 inmates and covers more ground, at 18,000 acres, than the island of Manhattan. Surrounded on three sides by the Mississippi River, its stunning physical isolation and distinctive antebellum feel have provided the backdrop for numerous feature films and documentaries, including “Dead Man Walking,” “Monster’s Ball” and “The Farm.” For Southerners, especially African-Americans, Angola is both a prison and a state of mind, a relic from before the civil rights era, when white supremacy was the custom and racial segregation was the law.
Since the mid-1970s, when the federal courts stepped in, many of Angola’s worst abuses have been discontinued, and violence among inmates has fallen. Today inmates have the option of enrolling in a full, four-year seminary program — even though most are serving life sentences and will never be preachers on the outside, they run “inmate churches” whose congregations add up to over half the prison population. Just this past weekend, USA Today held up Angola as a national model for its programs aimed at helping inmates become better fathers. (See Solitary Watch for a skeptical take on all this.) Yet traces of the the old Angola persist: in the three inmates who’ve spent the last 37 years in solitary confinement; in the annual spectacle of the Angola prison rodeo; and in all the other prisons and jails around the state that are crowded and mean places. Louisiana’s juvenile jails do not meet national standards (although new legislation would seek to change that); the overcrowded Caddo Parish jail has recently agreed to a federal audit; and New Orleans is tussling with the ACLU over how big the new jail it’s building ought to be.
According to the Sentencing Project, Louisiana has the highest per capita incarceration rate in the nation — and, therefore, in the world — at 853 per 100,000 citizens. For black Louisianans, that figure is a staggering 2,452 per 100,000 (although shocking as it is, this is actually in the middle of the range for states by black incarceration rate; Wisconsin, for instance, incarcerates 4,416 per 100,000 of its black citizens). By way of comparison, the United States in total incarcerates 751 per 100,000 citizens; Russia incarcerates 627 per 100,000; China incarcerates 119 per 100,000; and most countries in Western Europe, as well as Canada and Australia, incarcerate somewhere in the range of 75 – 150 per 100,000. John McQuaid recently observed that “since Europeans first settled there 300 years ago, Louisiana has borne the brunt of catastrophic misjudgments over exploitation of the land and natural resources.” As a descendant of Europeans who settled in Louisiana, I have shared in Louisianans’ rage at the federal government’s dilatory response to Katrina and BP’s cavalier disregard for Gulf Coast wildlife and livelihoods. Catastrophic misjudgments imposed from without have not been the only source of Louisianans’ suffering.