Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Craig Elementary School

In early 2003, my wife Nikki Page, an artist and art teacher, was involved in a project at the Craig Elementary School in our old neighborhood Treme where she had students paint portraits of loved ones that were incarcerated. She said that there was not a single child who didn't have someone - a mother, a father, an aunt, a neighbor - that was locked up and who they missed. The portraits were draped out of the windows of the school along with a banner with "Why are so many people we love behind bars" in large letters as part of the opening of a Critical Resistance conference on "ending the nation's reliance on prison cells and razor wire to stop crime."

As a child, I didn't know anyone who had been incarcerated and prison didn't factor into my life at all except as something I saw on television or in the movies or heard about from my cop stepfather. So, despite the fact that I had been working in the criminal justice system for a few years at the time, it was still jarring to me how mass incarceration had marked so many of these children's lives, depriving them of their caregivers and loved ones. These kids and their communities are the collateral damage of the war on drugs and the fact that America has abandoned nearly every social program focused on the poor other than incarceration.

I thought of the kids at the Craig School when I saw the article in today's New York Times, "Record Number of Inmates Serving Life," which explained that Louisiana had set the trend for the rest of the country in throwing away the key:

Burk Foster, a criminal justice professor at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan and an expert on the Louisiana penitentiary system, said the expansion of life sentences started at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, the nation’s largest maximum penitentiary, in the early 1970s, when most people sentenced to life terms were paroled after they had been deemed fit to re-enter society.

“Angola was a prototype of a lifer’s prison,” said Professor Foster. “In 1973, Louisiana changed its life sentencing law so that lifers would no longer be parole eligible, and they applied that law more broadly over time to include murder, rape, kidnapping, distribution of narcotics and habitual offenders.”

Professor Foster said sentencing more prisoners to life sentences was an abandonment of the “corrective” function of prisons.

“Rehabilitation is not an issue at Angola,” he said. “They’re just practicing lifetime isolation and incapacitation.”


Note to the rest of the country: If it started in Louisiana and it doesn't have anything to do with food or culture, don't try it. We are at the bottom of most meaningful measures from education to infant mortality. Significantly, we are also one of the most dangerous and crime ridden states in the union (and New Orleans is the country's murder capital by leaps and bounds) despite the fact that we also, as a state, have more people incarcerated per capita than any place in human history. You might say to yourself, if Louisiana's radical experiment with permanently incarcerating a significant percentage of its population was a successful public policy, wouldn't it stand to reason that people in such a place wouldn't be afraid to walk the streets at night lest they be robbed or killed?

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