Originally published at AlterPolitics

Most private prison entrepreneurs are rural sheriffs. From the collection of Dave Connor.

The $182 million private prison industry in Louisiana thrives from a system rife with conflicts of interest, not unlike the kinds found in the most corrupt third world countries. According to a scathing article this Sunday in The New Orleans Times-Picayune, the very people entrusted to enforce the law in the state have deep financial ties to the for-profit prisons, which house a majority of all Louisiana inmates.

The article states that “most prison entrepreneurs happen to be rural sheriffs,” and the “prison business model is built on head counts.”

In the early nineties, prison overcrowding had become such a massive problem for the state, that the cash-strapped government decided to forego building new state prisons, and instead encouraged sheriffs to pay for private prison construction. In return, they would, of course, enjoy a cut of all future profits. “The financial incentives were so sweet, and the corrections jobs so sought after, that new prisons sprouted up all over rural Louisiana.”

Two decades later, this now-entrenched private prison system has helped to double Louisiana’s prison population. In fact, the state wins the distinction of imprisoning more of its residents than any other legal jurisdiction on the planet.

Despite Louisiana having the highest murder rate in the country, it surprisingly “has a much lower percentage of people incarcerated for violent offenses [when compared to the national average], and a much higher percentage behind bars for drug offenses [when compared to the national average] …”

Why, you ask? Because violent criminals (murderers, rapists, armed robbers, etc) get sent to state prisons, whereas the non-violent offenders are housed at private ‘for-profit’ prisons. The sheriffs therefore have a financial incentive to find and charge non-violent offenders.

According to another recent article in the Times-Picayune, “more than half of Louisianians sentenced to state time are in the custody of local sheriffs, who must keep their prison beds full to turn a profit.” And the sheriffs are a powerful lobby force to be reckoned with. They often move to block all legislative attempts to reduce sentences for non-violent offenses, or for “shaving time” for inmates with good behavior.

But the profiteering goes even beyond the sheriffs. Sunday’s article describes the entire judicial system as being in on ‘the take’:

“You have people who are so invested in maintaining the present system — not just the sheriffs, but judges, prosecutors, other people who have links to it,” said Burk Foster, a former professor at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette and an expert on Louisiana prisons. “They don’t want to see the prison system get smaller or the number of people in custody reduced, even though the crime rate is down, because the good old boys are all linked together in the punishment network, which is good for them financially and politically.”

Even townships profit off the private prison industry, by charging them exorbitant fees to operate within their town borders. Some of the smallest rural towns in Louisiana are leasing their ‘prison rights’ to sheriffs and private companies for hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. And these prisons bring much-needed jobs to the townsfolk, who line up to become correction officers.

One of the biggest prison magnates in all of Louisiana, incidentally, happens to be an ordained minister, who has become filthy rich off of incarcerating his fellow citizens.

The task of putting bodies in private prison cells now impacts the livelihoods of many important people. Wardens and sheriffs work hand-in-hand, daily, to ensure the profits continue unabated:

Today, wardens make daily rounds of calls to other sheriffs’ prisons in search of convicts to fill their beds. Urban areas such as New Orleans and Baton Rouge have an excess of sentenced criminals, while prisons in remote parishes must import inmates to survive.

The more empty beds, the more an operation sinks into the red. With maximum occupancy and a thrifty touch with expenses, a sheriff can divert the profits to his law enforcement arm, outfitting his deputies with new squad cars, guns and laptops.

To fatten profits, inmates in these private facilities are offered little, if any, rehabilitation. Because “putting people in cells” is merely half the equation to this business model. Once they’ve found someone to incarcerate, spending as little money as possible on him becomes the next priority. In Louisiana, each inmate in a private prison fetches $24.39 a day in state money. The ones in state prisons fetch $55 a day.

This means the most violent criminals (housed at state facilities) — many of whom are incarcerated for life — take vocational classes, and prepare for careers they will never have, like auto mechanics, plumbing, electrical, welding, etc.

Non-violent criminals, on the other hand — sentenced for things like drug possession, theft, etc. — will get sent to a private prison where they will do little more than sit in an overcrowded 80-man cell for months or years on end, gaining no skills that might prepare them to qualify for law-abiding work upon release.

And though sheriffs would like to keep them locked up indefinitely, most of these non-violent criminals will eventually be released back into society. On their release date, they will reenter the community with a criminal record and no new vocational skills (making it virtually impossible to find a job), as well as ten dollars and a 1-way bus ticket from the prison.

This, of course, helps to ensure they return as repeat offenders — the bread and butter of this insidious business.