Many residents of Louisiana’s East Carroll Parish say they could not get by without inmates, who make up more than 10 percent of its population and most of its labor force, the New York Times reports. They are dirt-cheap, sometimes free, and always compliant. You just call up the sheriff, and inmates are headed your way. “They bring me warm bodies, 10 warm bodies in the morning,” said Grady Brown, owner of the Panola Pepper Corporation. “They do anything you ask them to do.” Prison experts say that only Louisiana allows citizens to use inmate labor on such a widespread scale, under supervision of local sheriffs. The state has the nation’s highest incarceration rate; East Carroll Parish, a county of 8,700 people along the Mississippi River in the state’s northeastern corner, has one of the highest rates in the state.
The Times says that the prison system converts a substantial segment of the population into a commodity that is in desperately short supply – cheap labor – and inmates are integrated into every aspect of economic and social life. The system is partly an outgrowth of Louisiana’s penchant for stuffing state inmates into parish jails – far more than in any other state. The law gives sheriffs broad discretion. State law dictates only which inmates may go out into the world (mostly those nearing the end of their sentences) and how much the authorities get to keep of an inmate’s wages. “It is jokingly referred to as rent-a-convict,” said Michael Brewer, a former public defender. “There’s something offensive about that. It’s almost like a form of slavery.”