< /head > Colorado Coalition for Human Rights: Prisoners as a Labor Force in Louisiana

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Prisoners as a Labor Force in Louisiana

From a human rights standpoint, how prisoners are treated matters greatly, even though they are put behind bars for punishment. How a country treats its prisoners reflects greatly on how much people in that country value the idea that all human beings have basic rights. Yesterday the New York Times had an article that I found quite disturbing. The article titled, "With Jobs to do, Louisiana Parish Turns to Inmates." I thought this article was disturbing for many reasons, one is that the sheriffs use the inmates to gain popularity come election time and in addition, use the inmates labor to enrich themselves! While the whole article is worth reading (a link is provided at the bottom of this post) here are a few sections from the article that explain Louisiana's practice of using prison inmates as a cheap, and often free labor force:

Many people here in East Carroll Parish, as Louisiana counties are known, say they could not get by without their inmates, who make up more than 10 percent of its population and most of its labor force. They are dirt-cheap, sometimes free, always compliant, ever-ready and disposable...

National prison experts say that only Louisiana allows citizens to use inmate labor on such a widespread scale, under the supervision of local sheriffs. The state has the nation's highest incarceration rate, and East Carroll Parish, a forlorn jurisdiction of 8,700 people along the Mississippi River in the remote northeastern corner of Louisiana, has one of the highest rates in the state.

As a result, it is here that the nation's culture of incarceration achieves a kind of ultimate synthesis with the local economy. The prison system converts a substantial segment of the population into a commodity that is in desperately short supply — cheap labor — and local-jail inmates are integrated into every aspect of economic and social life.

The practice is both an odd vestige of the abusive convict-lease system that began in the South around Reconstruction, and an outgrowth of Louisiana's penchant for stuffing state inmates into parish jails — far more than in any other state. Nowhere else would sheriffs have so many inmates readily at hand, creating a potent political tool come election time, and one that keeps them popular in between.

Sometimes the men get paid — minimum wage, for instance, working for Mr. Brown. But by the time the sheriff takes his cut, which includes board, travel expenses and clothes, they wind up with considerably less than half of that, inmates say.

The rules are loose and give the sheriffs broad discretion. State law dictates only which inmates may go out into the world (mostly those nearing the end of their sentences) and how much the authorities get to keep of an inmate's wages, rather than the type of work he can perform. There is little in the state rules to limit the potential for a sheriff to use his inmate flock to curry favor or to reap personal benefit.

Click here to read the full article.

--Tom Hayes


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