Incarceration in the Deep South: ‘The Long Road to Nowhere’

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The states of the Deep South are America’s most determined jailers, reflecting the “tough on crime” ethos of policymakers, where more individuals are behind bars for longer periods than most other places in the country, says the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).

According to the SPLC, the population of Southern prisons expanded 127 percent between 1990 and 2019, while the overall U.S. incarcerated population grew by 86 percent in the same period.

The increase tracked the implementation of so-called “tough on crime” strategies, which effectively created the era of mass incarceration and contributed to giving the U.S. one of the world’s highest per capita rates of imprisoned individuals.

Southern states represent the “epicenter” of U.S. mass incarceration, the report said.

The “tough-on-crime” approach resonated most sharply in states of the “Old Confederacy,” where corrections was used as a vehicle for prison labor since the era of Reconstruction—and was wielded with special viciousness against African Americans.

The high prison population, aside from being a legacy of the Jim Crow era, acts as an economic brake on development, argued Delvin Davis, author of the SPLC study.

“A sensible approach to decarcer­ation in the South would not only make prisons safer and less expensive, but would also create opportunities to reinvest savings in other priorities,” Davis wrote.

In his report, entitled “The Long Road to Nowhere: How Southern States Struggle with Long-Term Incarceration,” Davis focused on Alabama, Florida and Louisiana.

Editor’s Note: Florida is not always considered part of the “deep South,” but the author’s inclusion is supported by some sources, due to its being a peripheral state on the Gulf of Mexico coastline, its history of slavery, large African-American population, and its role as one of the states of the Confederacy.

Alabama, which houses the country’s most overcrowded prisons, has been the target of federal lawsuits over unsafe, unsanitary and violent conditions. At the same time, despite reforms passed in 2017, “recent legislation con­cerning the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles has severely diminished the parole chances of currently incarcerated people,” Davis wrote.

Florida, with over 95,000 imprisoned people, has the nation’s third-largest prison popula­tion behind only Texas and California. Unlike those two states, however, Florida inmates are required to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences, whether or not they demonstrate rehabilitation, under the state’s “Truth in Sentencing” rule.

Other measures, such as the abolition of parole for crimes committed after October 1983, have given Florida the “oldest prison population in the South, a group whose care is increasingly expensive,” Davis wrote.

Louisiana’s high incarceration rates have earned it the sobriquet of the “incarceration capital of the world.” One of the factors driving the high rates is the number of people serving life sentences without the possibility of parole, including juveniles.

“Life-Without-Parole sentencing (LWOP) has permanently locked over 4,500 people in Louisiana’s prisons, with an addi­tional 1,300 serving ‘virtual life’ sentences of more than 50 years — altogether making up one of every five incarcerated people in the state,” Davis wrote.

He added: “Louisiana currently holds more people with LWOP sentences than Alabama, Georgia, New York, and Texas combined.”

All three states, Davis wrote, illustrate the inequities and injustices of U.S. mass incarceration.

In Alabama, for example, where just 19.5 percent of applicants were granted parole during fiscal year 2019, those denied parole were more likely to be Black, according to figures cited by Davis.

Davis noted that Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey recently announced the construction of three new private men’s prisons, to address prison overcrowding.

But, he noted, “Alabama cannot build its way out of prison overcrowding. Without revitalizing the possibility of parole release, new prison construction will only be a temporary and unsustainable solution — entirely too expensive for any benefit it would yield.

“Alabama’s prison system must address the core issue that it admits more prisoners than it releases.”

LWOP sentences have had harsh effects on juvenile offenders as well as elderly offenders, wrote Davis.

While at least 25 states and the District of Columbia have banned the use of LWOP sentences for juveniles, Alabama, Florida and Louisiana have not.

“Juvenile life sentences automatically dispose of a young person’s future, and at great financial cost to the state,” said the study.

The cost per juvenile with a LWOP sentence in Louisiana is $1 million.

For the elderly, life without parole means being incarcerated in a facility that might not provide adequate health care.

Not only can it be more dangerous to keep an elderly person incarcerated because of their health needs, it’s also expensive, Davis wrote.

According to the report, releasing the approximately 2,165 parole-eligible prisoners over the age of 60 in Alabama which would save the state $50.6 million in a year.

Ending LWOP in the southern states and releasing elderly inmates who aren’t public safety threats would be a form of redemption, Davis said.

So would ending Truth in Sentencing Laws, he said.

Davis wrote that the Deep South’s experience with incarceration can serve as a both a warning and an object lesson for the rest of the country.

“The South has already proven that throwing money at bigger prisons and longer sentences is not a sustainable plan,” Davis wrote.

“Today, a commitment to decarceration is a necessity for progress.”

Additional Reading:  Deep South Joins National Effort to Bail Out Low Income Offenders

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You can download the full SPLC report here.

This summary was prepared by TCR Justice Reporting intern Emily Riley

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