Times-Picayune Team Wins June Sidney for Portrait of Louisiana’s Profit-Driven Prison System | Hillman Foundation

Times-Picayune Team Wins June Sidney for Portrait of Louisiana’s Profit-Driven Prison System

A team of Times-Picayune reporters has won the June Sidney award for Louisiana INCarcerated, an 8-part series that investigates how for-profit prisons, long sentences, and a broken pardon system have yielded the highest incarceration rate in the nation.

One in 86 adult Louisianans is behind bars, a rate nearly twice the national average. If Louisiana were a country, it would have the highest incarceration rate in the world.

The series, reported by Cindy Chang, Jan Moller, Jonathan Tilove, and John Simerman, explains how powerful institutional forces interact to keep incarceration rates high.

Louisiana is the only state where elected local sheriffs run prisons for profit. Prisons help create local jobs and their revenues help fund law enforcement departments. In order to keep their prisons full, and the money coming in, sheriffs team up with prosecutors to lobby for ever-tougher sentencing laws.

“This series paints an unflinching portrait of a justice system corrupted by the pursuit of profit,” said Sidney judge Lindsay Beyerstein.

The Times-Picayune recently announced that it will be laying off nearly one-third of its staff and cutting back to three print editions a week. This will make New Orleans the largest city in the U.S. without a daily newspaper. 

Cindy Chang is special projects writer for The Times-Picayune. She began her journalism career at the Pasadena Star-News and has freelanced for the Los Angeles Times and theNew York Times. She graduated from Yale University and the NYU School of Law.

Jan Moller reported for the state capital bureau of The Times-Picayune from 2003 to 2011. He is currently the director of the Louisiana Budget Project.

Jonathan Tilove is the Washington correspondent for The Times-Picayune. Before that, he spent nearly 20 years writing about race and immigration for Newhouse News Service.

John Simerman is courts reporter for The Times-Picayune. He is a graduate of Pomona College and the journalism school at New York University.

Lindsay Beyerstein interviewed Cindy Chang about the story:

1. Describe the role of the sheriffs in the Louisiana prison system and how this arrangement promotes high incarceration rates.

Over half of Louisiana inmates are serving their time in a for-profit prison run by either a sheriff or a private company. The sheriffs have invested millions of dollars in these prisons and must keep beds full to make money. Prisons are also an important source of jobs in rural areas. Not surprisingly, the sheriffs have been a powerful lobby against measures that would reduce the prison population.

2. Louisiana has unusually strict sentencing guidelines. You reported on a 22-year-old offender who is serving 24 years for his second car burglary, having barely dodged a life sentence. In Texas, he would have faced a maximum of 6 months. Why are punishments so harsh?

Part of it is a general lack of sympathy for criminals. A prison term is a common fate for people in poor, inner-city neighborhoods, with one in 14 black men from New Orleans currently serving time. On the other hand, most well-off Louisianians don’t know anyone who’s been through the system. New Orleans has the nation’s highest murder rate, and people are justifiably scared of violent crime. Add to that the pressure from prison entrepreneurs, i.e. sheriffs, to keep beds full, and it’s no wonder that harsh laws get on the books and stay on the books.

3. All life sentences in Louisiana are life without parole, yet lifers get more rehabilitation than most offenders who will soon be released. Why is that?

Louisiana state prisons, which house inmates with the longest sentences, spend an average of $55 per inmate per day. Compare that to the $24.39 per diem in sheriff-run prisons. Even sheriffs who want to offer more programs don’t have the money to do so, because the state compensates them so poorly. Prisoners who sit idle for years, when they could be acquiring education and job skills, are at greater risk of committing another crime upon release.

4. Why is Gov. Bobby Jindal hanging on to over 300 pardon applications that have been sent to him since he took office in 2008?

I can’t speak for the governor, but in general, pardons present a sticky situation for politicians, especially those with an eye on higher office. Think “Willie Horton.” It’s safer not to sign than to risk that the person will commit another crime.

5. In 2011, Jindal announced a commission to review Louisiana’s sentencing laws. Describe how the prosecutors and the sheriffs watered down proposed reforms.

The law enforcement lobby is so powerful that Gov. Jindal won’t sign anything they oppose. This year, however, the sheriffs and DAs seemed to acknowledge the state’s dire budget situation, standing down on two measures that would give some prisoners a shot at earlier release. The measures, which are similar to those that failed in 2011, passed. They only apply to people who have not yet been sentenced, so the cost savings will not be immediate.

6. Your team got remarkable access inside prisons. How did you go about securing the cooperation of prison authorities?

The Louisiana Department of Corrections is fairly generous about access to its state-run prisons. Angola opens to the public twice a year for its famous rodeo and often plays host to tour groups. It’s a remarkably civilized place, considering that most of the inmates are murderers and rapists. I didn’t get responses from many of the sheriffs I called, but Charles McDonald of Richland Parish was incredibly open in allowing us to make his prison into a case study, and several other sheriffs gave us tours as well. The private prison companies LaSalle Corrections and LCS were kind enough to let us into their facilities. Special thanks goes to Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman for allowing us to spend multiple days observing his re-entry program for soon-to-be released inmates. There’s no special trick, just explaining what your goals are and coming across as genuinely interested and open-minded.

7. What prompted the Times-Picayune to do a major multimedia series about incarceration in Louisiana?

The idea came from Jan Moller and his editor, Tim Morris, in the Baton Rouge bureau, who noticed that attempts at sentencing reform were hitting dead ends year after year. We started by asking why Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the world and what the consequences are of locking up so many people.

8. Was there anything that you left out of the series that you wish you could have included?

I wrote a story on a health care issue that ended up not being included because it didn’t fit well with the main themes. I hope to run it separately at some point. I also wonder whether we dealt with race in the best way. My idea was to weave the issue into the narratives, but I wonder if we should have used a more head-on approach.

9. How will the cuts at The Times-Picayune affect the paper’s ability to do more projects like this one?

The prison series was only possible because the newspaper invested tremendous time and resources. Of course, we’re concerned that with major staff cuts and an emphasis on constant blogging, this may be our last project.

Cindy Chang
Jan Moller
Jonathan Tilove
John Simerman