Louisiana sheriff’s “good” prison laborers admission exposes an ugly truth about America’s prisons

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In an Oct. 5 press conference, the sheriff of Caddo Parrish in Louisiana expressed his disdain for the state’s new criminal justice reforms that will begin next month.

Steve Prator criticized the new measures and said it would result in the release of “good” inmates who are used on a daily basis for prison labor.

Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the nation and “on the global scale, Louisiana’s incarceration rate is more than five times higher than most of the countries in the world,” local ABC News affiliate KTBS noted.

The new measures would reduce the state’s prison population over the next decade by 10 percent and save the state $265 million, by lowering the threshold for nonviolent offenders who are eligible for parole, The Advocate reported.

But Sheriff Prator made it clear that he takes issue with that.

“The [prisoners] that you can work, the ones that can pick up trash, the work release programs — but guess what? Those are the ones that they’re releasing!” Prato exclaimed in the press conference. “In addition to the bad ones… they’re releasing some good ones that we use every day to wash cars, to change the oil in our cars, to cook in the kitchen… well, they’re going to let them out!”

The Daily Dot illuminated another reason why Prato is fighting so hard to keep the cheap prison laborers:

According to a Shreveport Times story from 2015, the Louisiana Department of Corrections requires that inmates working under voluntary work programs for non-violent offenders have at most either 62 percent or $63.50 per day (whichever is less) of their gross income siphoned to pay for their lodging, food, and transportation.

Inmates usually earn $7.75 an hour before these deductions but don’t see a majority of the funds. This recuperation financially bolstered the Caddo Parish Sheriff’s Office itself, adding $500,000 to its general fund for the 2011-12 fiscal year.

In response to one inmate’s critique that he wasn’t being fairly compensated, Prator defended the program at the time.

“The work release program is voluntary,” Prator said. “If he wants to sit in his cell, and he’s not pleased with his room and board coming out of there, then he can go back to the main compound and wait his time.”

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The comments embody a serious issue that is not unique to just Louisiana, but the entire country as prisoners are often used for labor. Prison labor is a billion-dollar industry, while the benefits for the inmates remain largely unclear.

“The idea that we incarcerate people to have indentured servitude is one of the worst possible perceptions,” said Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., in 2014, according to ThinkProgress. At the time, she was the state’s attorney general as her office argued against an early release program for inmates, arguing that they were a source of cheap labor.

She eventually apologized for her office’s action. “I feel very strongly about that,” she said at the time. “It evokes images of chain gangs. I take it very seriously and I’m looking into exactly what needs to be done to correct it.”

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