A sheriff in Louisiana has been railing against the state’s new prisoner release program, saying many of those “good” inmates need to stay behind bars for the free labor they provide.
Last week, Caddo Parish Sheriff Steve Prator blasted the state’s Justice Reinvestment Package, a series of bills passed in June that could reduce Louisiana’s prison population by 10 percent and save more than $260 million over the next decade by slowly releasing nonviolent offenders. The legislation is set to go into effect on Nov. 1 and would authorize the early release of 1,400 prisoners across 21 parishes in the state.
Just 35 prisoners would be immediately released in Caddo Parish, but that seems to be too many for Prator, who said the state needs them to “wash cars.”
“In addition to the bad ones ... they’re releasing some good ones that we use every day to wash cars, to change oil in the cars, to cook in the kitchen, to do all that where we save money,” he continued. “Well, they’re going to let them out ― the ones that we use in work release programs.”
Marjorie Esman, executive director for the ACLU of Louisiana, told HuffPost that Prator’s desire to keep prisoners purely for their free labor is “essentially slavery.”
“The purpose of the criminal justice system is to keep the community safe and to make sure that nobody is incarcerated any longer than necessary,” Esman said. “It’s certainly not to provide free labor for law enforcement officials ― that is essentially slavery. It is obviously not only ludicrous but a gross violation of people’s rights.”
“It's almost as if he forgets that he's talking about human beings -- like he's speaking about animals or cattle.”
Prator went on to say that the state is “risking our safety for bragging rights and to save money.”
The “bragging rights” Prator might be referring to is Louisiana’s desire to relinquish its spot as the U.S. state with the highest incarceration rate.
“Louisiana is somewhat of a special case just because it has such a substantial proportion of its state prison population being held in local jails,” Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, told HuffPost. “This has been going on for a very long time, and many of the local sheriffs welcome it because it’s bringing more money into their jurisdictions. It’s one of a number of factors that have contributed to Louisiana being a national leader in its use of imprisonment, and that’s nothing to be proud of.”
Angel Harris, assistant council for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said she was “shocked” that an elected official like Prator would make such a “callous” and “disturbing” comment.
“[Prator] is talking directly about economic exploitation of human beings, which is one of the biggest issues in our criminal justice systems,” Harris told HuffPost. “It’s almost as if he forgets that he’s talking about human beings ― like he’s speaking about animals or cattle.”
“It brought on images of slavery, quite frankly,” she said. “You think about the demographics of who is he actually talking about. It is overwhelmingly black and brown bodies ... [who] are being housed in his jail and in those prisons.”
In a statement from the Caddo Parish Sheriff’s Office, spokeswoman Cindy Chadwick doubled down on the sheriff’s statements while criticizing Intercept reporter Shaun King for tweeting that Prator “likes keeping ‘good’ Black men in jail.”
“It is a fact that state inmates serving a hard-labor sentence can be required to work as part of their court-ordered sentence in Louisiana,” the statement read in part. “Those jobs may include picking up trash on parish roadways, preparing meals for inmates at the jail, or working for non-profits and public agencies in our community. The term ‘good’ inmates was in reference to state prisoners who are eligible to work but have lesser felony charges compared to others facing release who have criminal histories including murder, domestic violence, and battery.”
At least 66 percent of Louisiana’s prison population is black, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. Mauer said there were “disturbing parallels” between today’s prison labor practices and a 19th century system in the South called “convict leasing,” in which African-Americans were rounded up by police and charged with minor offenses like loitering so they could be “sold” to plantation owners as cheap labor.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) said Prator has misunderstood what the program hopes to accomplish.
“The sheriff is incorrect in his assessment of the Justice Reinvestment Package,” Edwards said in a statement to HuffPost. “The goal of this bipartisan package is to reduce the incarceration rate, make communities whole, and promote public safety by reducing the rates of recidivism with investments in treatment and jobs training programs.”
Edwards said he would meet with Prator next week to discuss the plan further. Prator did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.
This story has been updated with a statement from Angel Harris and Caddo Parish Sheriff’s Office.