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Louisiana sheriff argues against releasing prisoners ‘you can work,’ drawing slavery comparisons

Steve Prator, the sheriff of Caddo Parish, La., spoke about the state's criminal justice reforms. (Video: Caddo Parish Sheriff's Office)

A Louisiana sheriff faced a torrent of criticism Thursday after video surfaced in which he touted the importance of keeping “good” prisoners incarcerated to perform money-saving menial labor, comments some said depicted a form of modern-day slavery.

The controversy comes as a state with a notoriously large incarcerated population begins to implement a series of prison reforms.

Steve Prator, the sheriff of Caddo Parish, which includes the city of Shreveport and some surrounding areas, described state prisoners as a “necessary evil to keep the doors open” at the jail his office runs.

Among those are “the ones that you can work, that’s the ones that can pick up trash, the work release programs,” Prator said.

“In addition to the bad ones, and I call these bad, in addition to them, they’re releasing some good ones that we use every day to wash cars, to change oil in our cars, to cook in the kitchens, to do all that where we save money,” he said.

Prator made the comments during a news conference last week on the new state laws that will reduce the number of incarcerated residents at the jail, the Caddo Correctional Center in Shreveport, La., and other prison facilities across the state: About 60 of the approximately 350 state prisoners in the jail’s custody will be released when the laws take effect in November, said Cindy Chadwick, a spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office.

A video clip of Prator’s comments resurfaced this week after it was posted by Shaun King, a columnist for the Intercept with a wide following who focuses on police and race issues, prompting criticism that the sheriff was “describing men like property.”

A statement distributed by the sheriff’s office on Thursday afternoon criticized the “rantings and lies of an uninformed blogger,” whom it did not identify. Whether prisoners were allowed to work was determined by law and not the office, according to the sheriff’s office.

“My many years of public service prove beyond any doubt that I view all persons equally,” Prator said in a statement. “To say or imply any differently is untruthful.”

The bills to reform the state’s prison system were signed into law by Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) in the summer, with the aim of reducing the state’s incarcerated population by 10 percent, through relaxed drug sentencing rules, streamlined penalties for theft and the reduced use of mandatory minimum sentences. The changes are projected to save the state $262 million over the next decade.

Louisiana, nation’s biggest jailer, is poised to overhaul criminal sentencing laws

More than 800 residents out of every 100,000 Louisiana residents are incarcerated — around double the national average. Blacks, who make up 32 percent of the state, outnumber whites in prison by a ratio of at least 2 to 1.

Prator spent the majority of the news conference warning that the law would allow for people who were not fit for release to “flood” the streets.

Of the state’s reputation for its high prison population, he said, “Let’s face it, somebody got to be number one and we got some bad dudes around here.”

“These people need to be locked up, until we’re sure that they’re not going to reoffend when they get out, or we’ve done everything possible,” he said.

In addition to having the highest number of people incarcerated per capita in the country, Louisiana holds a substantial portion of its prison population in local jails, which typically offer fewer services and programs than prisons, according to Marc Mauer, the executive director of the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based nonprofit.

“By and large the local jails welcome this because they’re getting paid by the state per head,” Mauer said.

Although it is not atypical for prisoners to do menial work for very low pay around the country, Mauer said he was shocked by sheriff’s comments.

“It’s very disturbing that he is essentially saying that purpose of sentencing policy should be to provide free labor to the sheriff’s department,” Mauer said. “It has nothing to do with public safety, it has nothing to do with redemption, restoration or self-improvement, it’s all about saving money for the sheriff’s department.”

Mauer said the comments were reminiscent of a practice in the post-Civil War South known as convict leasing, in which black men, many arrested on false pretenses, were then contracted out to local farmers and manufacturers to work.

“In some cases people were contracted out to the same plantations that several decades before had these people’s parents and grandparents enslaved and working for them,” he said. “It’s a pretty eerie parallel.”

The Caddo Correctional Center receives money from the state to house the convicted prisoners. Another 1,000 or so people are incarcerated at the center with pending charges.

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The statement from the sheriff’s office said his comments had nothing to do with race, pointing out that he never mentioned the race of the inmates he spoke about at the news conference.

Chadwick, the sheriff’s office spokeswoman, said that a portion of its 300 to 400 state prisoners do work, often as a condition of a “hard labor” sentence. That work can include picking up trash on the street, making meals or washing the department’s vehicle fleet. There is work that other inmates do that is part of enrollment in a reentry program. The population that is jailed at the facility with pending charges are typically not eligible for labor, Chadwick said. She said she did not know if the inmates were paid for their work.