Magazine article The Christian Century

The Prison Business

Magazine article The Christian Century

The Prison Business

Article excerpt

THE FIRST MAJOR public building to reopen in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina wasn't a public school, hospital or courthouse. It was Orleans Parish Prison. And you can hardly blame Sheriff Marlin Gusman for being anxious to reopen it. David Morton reports in the New Republic (August 14 & 21) that every prisoner brings in from $22.39 to $43.50 per day in government funding. The more prisoners, the more money. Before Katrina, Gusman's jail averaged 6,000 inmates--4 percent of New Orleans' adult male population.

According to Morton, Gusman's predecessor, Charles Foti, began a practice of encouraging arrests in order to fill prison slots. After Katrina rendered many of the prison facilities unusable, Gusman reluctantly released some of the minor offenders. Calvin Johnson, chief judge of the criminal court, told the New Orleans Times-Picayune, "I'm not exaggerating: there were people in jail for spitting on the sidewalk."

The prison's annual budget, over which Gusman had almost complete control, was some $70 million. Sheriffs can deploy chain gangs around the city to dole out civic favors and increase their own name recognition. Some people said Gusman was more powerful than the mayor. Not long after Katrina, he won reelection as sheriff, despite being roundly criticized for his performance in evacuating the prison. His was one of the most recognized names on the ballot. Contractors contributed heavily to his campaign--some of whom will no doubt be offered contracts to rebuild the prison. …

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