A major political contributor to Lincoln Parish Sheriff Mike Stone has made the big-time. LaSalle Corrections is the subject of a front-page story in Monday, June 14 issue of The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune. It is part of an eight-day series titled “Louisiana Incarcerated.”
Clay McConnell is an unlikely scion for a prison empire. An ordained minister, his curly brown hair is fashionably rumpled, and he gets flustered when speaking in front of a video camera. His father, Billy, is the brains behind LaSalle Corrections, the one who expanded the family business from senior citizens to criminals.
When a prison-building boom swept north Louisiana in the 1990s, Billy McConnell got in on the financing and construction ends. Then he thought, why not run the prisons, too? He already ran nursing homes, and the bottom line was the same. His experience feeding and housing old folks could be applied to keeping drug pushers and petty thieves behind bars.
“We realized that prisons are like nursing homes. You need occupancy to be high. You have to treat people fairly and run a good ship, but run it like a business, watch food costs, employee costs,” said Clay McConnell, 37.
Today, the McConnells are a major force in Louisiana’s vast prison industry, playing a role in the incarceration of one in seven prisoners. The family’s fortunes have risen hand in hand with those of rural sheriffs who are the best-known face of Louisiana Incarceration-for-Profit Inc. More than half of the state’s 40,000 inmates are housed in local prisons run by sheriffs or private companies like LaSalle for the express purpose of making a buck.
Local prisons specialize in incarceration on the cheap. State prisons are built on huge acreage, offer an array of vocational classes and require able-bodied inmates to work. While the average daily price tag for an inmate at a state prison is $55 a day, local prisons only get $24.39 — and try to wring a few extra dollars from that.
Louisiana locks up more people per capita than any other state. One in 86 of its adult citizens is behind bars. Of those Louisiana inmates, 53 percent are housed in local prisons — by far the highest percentage in the country.
The two statistics are inextricably linked. Prison operators, who depend on the world’s highest incarceration rate to survive, are a hidden driver behind the harsh sentencing laws that put so many people away for long periods. Then, there are the regime’s losers: the ex-convicts who have not received any rehabilitation in local prisons and the innocent citizens who become their victims.
This incarceration bonanza evolved with the wholehearted encouragement of the Louisiana Department of Corrections as a cheap, ad hoc solution to overcrowding in the state prisons. The state spends $182 million a year to house inmates in local prisons.
“For the sheriffs, that became like heroin, that became a regular source of income for them,” said Burk Foster, a former University of Louisiana-Lafayette professor and an expert on Louisiana prisons. “The way they save money is not because the sheriffs are more efficient but because they have fewer staff and almost no services in terms of medical care or psychological assistance or rehab or educational classes.”
Louisiana is the world’s prison capital. The state imprisons more of its people, per head, than any of its U.S. counterparts. First among Americans means first in the world. Louisiana’s incarceration rate is nearly triple Iran’s, seven times China’s and 10 times Germany’s.
The hidden engine behind the state’s well-oiled prison machine is cold, hard cash. A majority of Louisiana inmates are housed in for-profit facilities, which must be supplied with a constant influx of human beings or a $182 million industry will go bankrupt.
Several homegrown private prison companies command a slice of the market. But in a uniquely Louisiana twist, most prison entrepreneurs are rural sheriffs, who hold tremendous sway in remote parishes like Madison, Avoyelles, East Carroll and Concordia. A good portion of Louisiana law enforcement is financed with dollars legally skimmed off the top of prison operations.
If the inmate count dips, sheriffs bleed money. Their constituents lose jobs. The prison lobby ensures this does not happen by thwarting nearly every reform that could result in fewer people behind bars.
Meanwhile, inmates subsist in bare-bones conditions with few programs to give them a better shot at becoming productive citizens. Each inmate is worth $24.39 a day in state money, and sheriffs trade them like horses, unloading a few extras on a colleague who has openings. A prison system that leased its convicts as plantation labor in the 1800s has come full circle and is again a nexus for profit.
In the past two decades, Louisiana’s prison population has doubled, costing taxpayers billions while New Orleans continues to lead the nation in homicides.
See here our news story from last December on Stone’s ties to LaSalle.