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A firsthand account of the Louisiana Penal System

11/29/10
by Berwin B. McClinton, Sr.
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“Everyone is more than their worst moment.”

Twenty years ago, in 1990, a federal judge in Baton Rouge declared a “State of Emergency” for Louisiana’s flagship prison, Angola Penitentiary. About the same time, the state’s number two man in the Department of Public Safety and Corrections warned that mandatory sentences, specifically life-without-parole, are a liability to the state.

Larry Smith, who also was Angola’s interim warden, was quoted as saying, “…the state cannot afford to continue its present course of incarceration and foot the bill for this endeavor…we have to deal with it or it will deal with us.”

Two decades after his presageful caveat, the Louisiana penal system is imploding under the weight of a burgeoning inmate population and a societal mindset that is more retributive than rehabilitational.

In recent days, corrections officials have been observed re-arranging deck chairs on a sinking vessel, as they shuttle prisoners from Angola to satellite facilities like David Wade Correctional Center near Homer. According to media accounts, cells in the Closed Cell Restriction Compound (CCR) at the sprawling 109-year old prison are being evacuated in order to make room for the several thousand Department of Corrections inmates the state is paying to house in the Orleans Parish Prison.

The “new” Wade conscripts are said to represent a potpourri of convicts, considered to be the most violent and reprobative. Some are serving life sentences for committing the most violent offenses. None are capable of living among offenders in the general prison population.

In this country there are more than 41,000 men and women languishing in prisons, serving life without the hope of ever returning to their families and communities. The astronomical costs for housing, feeding, and addressing the medical needs of these individuals until they succumb to illnesses or old age is mind-boggling.

With more than 4,300 “Lifers” occupying bunks in Louisiana prisons, the “Bayou State,” the Sportsman’s Paradise”, in the years since the late D.O.C. Secretary Elayn Hunt successfully eviscerated the 10-6 life sentence-which had those serving life terms routinely going home upon serving 10 years and six months-the state now leads the world in the per capita number of humans behind bars.

Angolite writer John Corley wrote, in a November-December 2009 article titled, “A Matter of Life”: “Perhaps the most astute observation of failure, change, and redemption comes from Emily Maw, director of the Innocence Project of New Orleans, whose poignant portrait of an American icon can be transposed onto the faces and characters of almost any of the 4,200-plus Louisiana prisoners currently destined to never see the light of freedom again.

Maw wrote, “[In August 2009] Senator Edward Kennedy died after 47 years of service to his country. He is a larger than life example of something that is true of all of us to differing degrees; Different facets of a person can co-exist together without cancelling the other out. He was a man who changed millions of lives for the better… [He] went to work every day to try to fight for the underdog and the disadvantaged in society; women, African-Americans, people with disabilities, people earning the minimum wage, etc.

However, his noble and altruistic side co-existed with an irresponsible selfishness that caused heartbreak and, famously, cost a life. He battled many internal demons (that were likely exacerbated by the amount of tragedy he experienced in his life.)

If the United States of America had never forgiven Ted Kennedy because of the Chappaquiddick incident, it would not have the Americans with Disabilities Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the 1968 Fair Housing Act, the Anti-Apartheid Act, the Handicapped Children’s Protection Act, under 21s would not vote, we would not have free federally-funded clinics for patients with HIV and AIDS, etc. The list goes on.

I don’t think he deserved to be judged for the rest of his life by the worst side of himself and because he was not judged that way, he was able to give 47 years of service to the United States and become one of the single biggest forces for equality and justice that the country has ever seen. Everyone is more than their worst moment. We should not reserve our tolerance and/or ability to recognize [that] someone is more than their failings for politicians.”

In the 37 years since a tough-as-nails, hard driven, well intentioned Corrections Secretary named Elayn Hunt launched the state onto the slippery slope that sent Louisiana hurtling head-long into this quagmire of bulging prison camps, gulags, and interment facilities, pragmatism and plain common sense are finally beginning to take hold.

At the present rate of the gratuitous issuance of life-without-parole sentences, by the year 2020, it is not inconceivable that the LWOP population could surpass 5,000.

Again, quoting John Corley and invoking the eerie-but-accurately prophetic prognostication of former Angola interim warden Larry Smith, “If not judicial equity or humane considerations, economics will ultimately lead legislatures to revise their Life Without Parole statutes. States will eventually run out of places to build prisons and money to fund them. The question is, when will common sense prevail?”

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