Thursday, June 7, 2012

Rural politics, patronage and (their links to) prisons

Well, actually, this story is about jails more than it is about prisons--or perhaps more precisely about the broad and fuzzy line between prison and jail in places like Louisiana, where many prisoners--those convicted of crimes by the state, not those merely awaiting trial--are imprisoned in very capacious jails overseen by parish sheriffs rather than by the state corrections department.

Dave Davies of Fresh Air interviewed Cindy Chang of The New Orleans Times Picayune earlier this week about her expose on how parish jails--which she characterizes as prisons--have made Louisiana the world's "prison capital."  Chang reports that one out of every 86 adults in Louisiana is imprisoned, three times the rate of Iran and ten times the rate of Germany.  Then Chang explains one reason why:  Fifty-three percent of Louisiana inmates are housed in "local prisons run by sheriffs, and the state's correction system has created financial incentives for those sheriffs to keep prisons full."  Many of these jails/prisons were built by for-profit corporations, and many are located in "rural areas of the state."  Sheriffs receive almost $25/day for each inmate they house.

Two of the nonmetropolitan parishes Chang featured in her 8-part story are Jackson Parish, population 16,274, and Richland Parish, population 20,725.

Here's an excerpt from the part of Chang's series that focused on how rural parishes with lots of "prison beds" rely on prisoners form urban parishes to keep their prisons full--and therefore generating revenue for the sheriff's department.  This excerpt is about Richland Parish, which has 800 beds total in both its men's and women's facility.  The warden is Alan Cupp.
Cupp's 'honey holes,' as he calls them, are flowing nicely.  There is to need to ring up wardens in other parishes, asking, sometimes begging, if they have a few extra to send over.  
Cupp, a stocky 38-year-old with dark hair, a goatee and mischievous brown eyes, is reluctant to publicize his prime sources of inmates.  There are scores of other Louisiana wardens who could move in on his pipelines, which he has carefully tended through chummy relationships with colleagues in urban areas that have prisoners to spare.   
But a roster tells the story:  In the men's prison, 36 are form Jefferson Parish [population 432,552], 84 from Livingston Parish [population 128,026], 59 from Shreveport area [population 199,311], and a handful from New Orleans.  
Of course, the nonmetropolitan sheriffs are desperate for revenue.  As Chang notes, in Richard Parish, the only greater source of revenue than the prison hosting is a 1/2 cent sales tax.  Richland Parish Sheriff Charles McDonald can use the inmate revenue to buy patrol cars, bullet proof vests, and such.

Chang goes on to explain why this system makes a difference for the sheriffs above and beyond what it enables them to purchase for their departments.  Essentially, the sheriffs leverage larger inmate populations to keep themselves in office, and they do so with jobs.  Here's an excerpt from the Fresh Air interview.
"We went to Jackson Parish ... and what the sheriff there gets is a guaranteed $100,000 a year, whether the prison is making a profit or not," [Chang] says.  "But what he really gets--and he was not shy about using this word--is patronage.  Because his department, prior to this, had 50 employees, and now it has 150 employees.  In a place like that, 100 jobs with benefits is huge.  And what he means by patronage, of course, is that he'll get re-elected if he keeps supporting these [prison] jobs."  
This reminds me of how the patronage system operates in Newton County, my own home county in Arkansas.  I have written about this topic before.  One particular carrot that the county judge--the county's chief administrator, an elected official--has there is road maintenance.  Some of the plum jobs he (and it has always been a "he") has to dole out are road grader jobs--because so many county roads are unpaved.  And the judge can use road grading to keep constituents happy--and to re-pay their loyalty at the ballot box.  I was reminded of this when I came upon this sight in rural Searcy County, population 8,195.  In case you can't read it, the sign on the road grader says:  "Vote 4 Experience.  I'm grading my way to the Judge's Office :-)."  Some signs on the side of the grader identify the candidate as Duane Griffin. The heavy equipment was parked next to the volunteer fire station in remote Witts Springs.

This USDA map shows counties whose economies are dominated by state and federal government jobs.  Newton County is on it; Searcy County is not.  I wonder if, for purposes of this map, "state" jobs includes county jobs since counties are simply administrative arms of the state.  Neither Jackson nor Richland Parish is on the map, though some northern Louisiana counties just to the west of them are.

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