Inmates aren’t just free labor for the state

The Observer editorial board

An inmate trustee makes sand bags in Stephensville, La., in anticipation of a flood in 2011.
An inmate trustee makes sand bags in Stephensville, La., in anticipation of a flood in 2011. AP

Steve Prattor, sheriff of Caddo Parish in Louisiana, thought he was making a strong case against a criminal justice reform about to take hold in the state with the country’s highest imprisonment rate. Instead, he inadvertently explained in the clearest terms by any prison official in recent memory why reform is so necessary.

“I don’t want state prisoners. They are a necessary evil to keep the doors open, that we keep a few, or keep some out there. And that’s the ones that you can work,” Prattor said earlier this month. “That’s the ones that can pick up trash, the work release programs. But guess what? Those are the ones that they are releasing. In addition to the bad ones … they are releasing some good ones that we use … to wash cars, to change oil in our cars to cook in the kitchen to do all that where we save money.”

In other words, if we reduce a prison population that has exploded over the past few decades and one that has not been strongly correlated with violent crime rates, the state will lose out on an invaluable source of virtually free labor. Under such rationale, prisons aren’t built to keep the public safe, but simply to keep prisons operational. It’s a mindset, a divorcing of the criminal justice system from its purported purpose – to administer justice and keep communities safe – that has shown up in several other ways. The Observer documented how the system forgetting its mission in North Carolinia created ugly realities inside prisons, including a rise in prison employee deaths.

Small towns and cities have become so dependent upon fines from minor criminal violations, that law enforcement and public officials have created a strong incentive to fine as many people as possible to keep their budgets flush. It hits poor people the hardest, creates distrust between those in uniform and the communities they patrol, and was one of the underlying causes of recent outbreaks of sometimes violent unrest.

In addition, rural areas in places such as Georgetown County, S.C., compete to attract new prisons as though they were tourist attractions because of the promise of new jobs. Private prisons have sometimes demanded occupancy minimums to ensure they could make a profit.

Prattor’s admission may have been the most disturbing because it came as his state committed to a plan reducing the prison population by 10 percent over the decade and using the savings “to reduce recidivism and support victims of crime,” its sponsors say. It expands probation to more non-violent offenders and those convicted of lower-level violent crimes and increases alternatives to incarceration. The Justice Reinvestment Act also provides options for offenders who can’t afford to pay fines and no longer bans drug offenders from receiving public assistance when they return home.

The legislation is designed to redesign the system to be truer to the justice system’s purpose – to make communities safer, provide justice to victims and rehabilitate men and women so they become contributing members of society. It’s the kind of reform that needs to be embraced throughout the country.