An Open Letter to Louisiana and its Prison System

Dear Louisiana,

How can I even begin?

I want to thank you for all of the substance you have added to the American lexicon. Your land and cultural influence gave birth to jazz, swamp pop, and zydeco. Your eating delicacies range from gumbo, jambalaya, to even Popeye’s chicken. The Essence Festival, The Vodoo Experience, and the ever-famous Mardi Gras has entertained many constituents for decades. Without Louisiana, there would be no reason to claim the greatness that is America.

Prisoners from the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center line up as they prepare to undertake a training exercise to learn how to cleanse oil from birds affected by the oil slick from the BP Deepwater Horizon platform disaster in New Orleans Louisiana, on May 3, 2010. Using remote-controlled submarines to shut off the leaking oil well in the Gulf of Mexico is like doing “open heart surgery at 5,000 feet in the dark,” the head of BP’s US operations said. BP America Chairman and President Lamar McKay acknowledged that the oil gushing from the fractured well nearly a mile (1,500 meters) below the ocean surface was due to a defective equipment designed to shut down the well in a blowout. Six robotic submarines struggled to activate a 450-tonne blowout preventer valve that failed to work properly when the well exploded April 20, igniting a fire that sent the Deepwater Horizon rig to the ocean floor with 11 workers missing and presumed dead. AFP PHOTO/Mark RALSTON (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)

As much as you, Louisiana, have made America look good, there seems to be reason for seeing you as a state capitalizing on things that make America look bad. And that thing is the prison system.

I wish I was making this all up, but I am not. You see, it has come to my attention that you have the highest incarceration rate in the world. And to be transparent, the U.S. leads the world among nations when it comes to incarceration. Since you lead the nation, then you automatically lead the world. While you have a rate of 816 people per 100,000, Russia has 492, China possesses 119, France has 100, and Germany ends up with 78. It is safe to say that you, my sweet Louisiana, is King Koopa of Incarceration.

I’m sorry, but this is the type of shit you can’t make up in fictional novels. A U.S. state leading the entire world in incarceration rates.

And there is much reason for this.

Louisiana Prisoner Problem

The reason why there are so many prisoners in you goes back to that pesky “war on drugs”. You know: that “tough talk” bullshit war on poor and (mainly) black people? Yet, that isn’t the only problem. You also have experienced this lingering number of inmates when the practice of releasing prisoners for good behavior after 10 years and 6 months of their life sentences was ended in the 1970s. Thus, you (my ever wonderful Louisiana) are filled with prisoners and we have government policies to thank for it.

And let us keep it all the way honest: as much as Black people have contributed to your artistic culture, you have forced them to contribute to the prison one. This all goes back to the slavery days. In 1860, when the Civil War started, two-thirds of the Louisiana penitentiary was white. Eight years later, two-thirds of that same population was black. I don’t know about anyone else, but I think Louisiana likes the idea of keeping their prisons filled with black people.

Plus, you house Angola Penitentiary. And historically, Angola remains the largest maximum security prison in the United States. Over 5000 prisoners “take up residence” there. But that isn’t the only alarming fact. At Angola, the average sentence for prisoners is 93 years. Meaning: the vast majority (say 95 percent) of the prisoners there will not be getting out before they die.

When the saints come marching in, I don’t want to be a part of Angola’s number. Hell, I wouldn’t want anyone to even consider it. It must be conflicting that I can find the best beignets and worst prison system all in the same state. Louisiana, your flavorful culture for the arts is being blemished by your thirst for treating people like chattel. And this must end.

Louisiana Prisoner Shame

Louisiana, you should be ashamed of yourself. It is appalling that a state in the U.S. leads the entire world in prison incarceration rates. Yet, that does not seem to be an issue for you if people come party on Bourbon Street in New Orleans. And therein lies the problem: you are good for black folks celebrating but not enough to free its incarcerated.

Louisiana, you have to change baby. You need to free yourself by finding ways to free your people.


Mark A. Harris