Early on a Saturday morning, a charter bus sat parked outside a church in the New Orleans suburb of Marrero. The passengers—all women and children, all Black—were settling in for a two-hour drive that would take them to visit family members incarcerated at Rayburn Correctional Center, a state prison 80 miles away.
Rayburn is a medium security facility with an average inmate population of 1,300. It’s situated outside of Angie, Louisiana, a Washington Parish village of 250 people. Ten miles north on the scenic stretch of highway outside of the prison leads to the linear border between Louisiana and Mississippi; ten miles east is the boundary between the two states formed by the meandering course of the Pearl River. Like many sites of incarceration throughout the state, the forbidding prison complex appears in stark contrast to the bucolic setting. And like many rural prisons throughout Louisiana, a share of Rayburn’s inmate population is sourced directly from New Orleans.
For both prisoners and their families, the value of visitation cannot be overstated. The ability for individuals to remain connected to family despite imprisonment has been shown to ease the process of reentry. A 2008 report examining the effects of visitation in The Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency found that “visitation reduces and delays recidivism.” A 2012 study by the Vera Institute supports a similar finding, stating that “Incarcerated men and women who maintain contact with supportive family members are more likely to succeed after their release.”
For those serving life, visits from family members may be their only link to the outside world. “A life sentence means the life you’ve known is over,” wrote Leo Jackson in a 2012 Times-Picayune op-ed. “But it doesn’t mean life itself is over.” Jackson speaks from firsthand experience. At the age of 27, he was convicted in Orleans Parish of heroin possession with intent to sell. It was 1974, and the mandatory minimums in place at the time amounted to a life sentence at Angola Penitentiary, a former plantation named after the original country of the slaves held there. Today, Angola serves as the country’s largest maximum security prison.
In 2006, Jackson received a pardon from the governor at the time, Kathleen Blanco. Having spent half his life in prison, Jackson, now 68, understands the importance of remaining connected. His more than three decades behind bars showed him that many incarcerated individuals don’t receive visitors, something he attributes in large part to physical and financial burdens posed by distance. “After being released from prison, I wanted to give something back to those that were left behind,” Jackson told me. “I wanted to do something that would benefit the men still inside and their families.”
In 2007, he started the Cornerstone Builders’ Bus Project, providing free transportation to New Orleans families who have loved ones incarcerated across Louisiana. Every month, a 55 seat passenger bus visits different correctional facilities around the state, helping families to stay connected despite the myriad complications that come with distance and imprisonment.
As Director of the Cornerstone Bus, Jackson facilitates one-on-one visits between prisoners and their families, helping to maintain a support base for those on the inside, while providing family members on the outside the ability to stay connected without the hardship and expense associated with travel.
For many of the families who ride the bus, the visits would be otherwise impossible due to the cost-prohibitive nature of securing travel to a rural prison two or three hours outside of city limits. That the Cornerstone Bus service be free of charge has been crucial to Jackson’s mission. In funding the bus, he’s made some unconventional allies. For five years now, cyclists have been meeting in front of Orleans Parish Prison in the third weekend of October, biking en masse for three days and 170 miles to Angola Penitentiary. The bike ride, aptly titled NOLA to Angola, has helped raise upwards of $100,000 for the Cornerstone Bus, equivalent to 100 round-trip bus rides to prisons throughout Louisiana, provided at no cost to family members of incarcerated individuals.
“There’s a lot of people that don’t get to see their loved ones,” explained a mother riding the bus to visit her son in prison this past September. Due to his father being incarcerated during his childhood, her son was brought up in a single-mother home. At the age of 25, he was arrested in New Orleans after police searched his car and retrieved a firearm. With a prior conviction on his record, the District Attorney’s office threatened him with an attempted armed robbery charge carrying a sentence of 62 years. Rather than risk spending the rest of his life in prison, he took a plea deal and is currently serving ten.
For both the mother and son, the bus service has proven invaluable. “One of my biggest fears when they moved my son way out here was how far away he was. I was just wondering how I was going to get to see him,” the mother said on the drive towards the prison. “Once I found out about the bus ride and I knew I could come every four months or so, I’m okay. That helped ease me, knowing that he’s going to be away for a while and I’m going to be able to see him. And that helps him too, you know? He’s mama’s baby.”
At the end of Prison Road, the mile-long stretch of driveway off of LA 21 leading into Rayburn, the bus stopped at a security checkpoint. A correctional officer boarded the bus, walking from front to back, taking a headcount of the passengers. The women and children disembarked from the bus in front of a small building, the “Front Gate.” They took off their shoes and placed their belongings on the belt of the x-ray machine. Single-file, they stepped through a metal detector and were patted down. After putting their shoes back on and collecting their things, a barred mechanical gate slowly opened in front of them, the first in a series. Moving past its boundary, they were confronted by another set of bars. They waited for them to open, after the gate behind them had fully closed.
“When we talk about incarceration, we normally just think of the individuals that are incarcerated,” Ernest Johnson, the Juvenile Justice Director for Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, recently told me. “We should talk about the impact that incarceration has not only on that individual, but on the entire family.”
The barriers built up by incarceration routinely tear families apart. An individual sentenced to prison is not only isolated from society, they’re also separated from preexisting networks of support—a hardship endured by both the prisoner and their loved ones. A recent report from the Ella Baker Center, informed in part by research from several New Orleans-based organizations (BreakOUT!; Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children; Voice of the Ex-Offender), and interviews with more than 1,000 former inmates and family members in 14 states confirms the severe and long-lasting impacts of incarceration on the family unit. Two-thirds of families had difficulty meeting their basic needs as a result of their loved one’s incarceration. One-third went into debt to cover phone and visitation costs; 87% of the family members responsible for these costs were women.
The adult passengers on the Cornerstone Bus to Rayburn were mothers and grandmothers, sisters and aunts, wives and girlfriends. With them they brought sons, daughters, and nephews of incarcerated men. It’s unclear to what degree the incarceration of thousands of New Orleans men contributes to nearly half of the city’s children living in single-mother families; nor is it certain how incarceration culture will impact children growing up with parents in prison. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “children of incarcerated parents are seven times more likely to be locked up one day.”
Thinking about the prevalence of intergenerational incarceration along with the reality that one in three Black men can expect to go to prison within their lifetime alludes to a rather ugly truth—the weight of America systematically locking up its most discriminated-against race is a burden engendered by a recurrent process of Black subjugation.
While the issue of incarceration is a national one, there is perhaps no better place to begin to understand the inherent difficulties of putting large numbers of people in prison than New Orleans, especially when examining the criminal justice system’s proclivity for persecuting Black men. One in 14 Black men from New Orleans are incarcerated—a single alarming statistic among many in a city with the world’s highest incarceration rate per capita. While the city itself is 60% Black, Blacks make up almost 90% of the jail population.
The 2011 U.S. Department of Justice report confirming a continued pattern of discriminatory policing among New Orleans’ police officers towards minorities provides a partial explanation of the disproportionate incarceration of the city’s Black residents. A racially biased police force feeds a draconian criminal justice system; arrests are followed by prison sentences. Economic inequality, a lack of access to education, and high rates of unemployment leave the city’s Black population at a further disadvantage, inevitably more vulnerable to the persistent threat of unconstitutional law enforcement and imprisonment.
Yet, Louisiana’s problems with incarceration aren’t limited to New Orleans. Like the city, the state’s prison population is inordinately high and overwhelmingly Black. The racial disparity typified by the overrepresentation of incarcerated Black people in New Orleans can be seen throughout Louisiana, with Blacks making up 32% of the state’s population and 66% of the prison population. And while New Orleans reduced its prison population by 67% over the past decade, Louisiana’s prison population has seen little fluctuation over the same period of time. As of December 2014, Louisiana incarcerated over 38,000 people. A decade prior, that figure was just under 37,000, indicating that incarceration in the state has actually increased over the past ten years, although only by a relatively small amount, considering that Louisiana’s prison population has grown more than 260% since 1985.
The unprecedented number of people imprisoned in Louisiana is made possible via an extensive network of “correctional facilities.” Throughout the state, jails and prisons mar the landscape. Each of Louisiana’s 64 parishes is equipped with facilities built for incarceration; half of these parishes have at least three or more. A June 2015 composite listing of the addresses for all of Louisiana’s prisons, local jails, work release facilities, and juvenile facilities is 18 pages long and contains more than 230 facilities.
Consequently, the per capita incarceration rate in Louisiana exceeds every other state. One out of every 86 adults is in prison, a ratio that is double the national average. Harsh mandatory minimum sentencing laws contribute to this oversized prison population, with 44% of inmates in Louisiana serving sentences for nonviolent drug and property crimes. With a criminal justice system fixated on retribution, Louisiana routinely fails to offer adequate resources to its prison population, spending less money per day on inmates than any other state in the country. Similarly, state resources for the formerly incarcerated, who face countless roadblocks upon reentry, are essentially nonexistent. About half of Louisiana’s prisoners end up back in prison within five years of their release. What’s more is that habitual offender laws mandating severe sentences for recidivism have amounted to over 400 prisoners doing life without parole for nonviolent crimes, by and large the highest number of prisoners serving life without parole for nonviolent offenses among every other state in the U.S. According to a 2013 report from the ACLU, 98% of Louisiana’s prisoners serving life without parole for nonviolent offenses were sentenced in accordance with mandatory sentencing laws; 91% of them are Black.
Pardons are rare for Louisiana’s incarcerated. Governor Bobby Jindal has granted clemency to 62 people since taking office in 2008. Two of these pardons were commutation of sentences that went to people in prison. In comparison, his immediate predecessor, Kathleen Blanco, issued 285 pardons during her four year term as Louisiana’s governor. 87 of these pardons went to prisoners, either reducing their sentences or releasing them.
A sample of incarcerated people in Louisiana denied pardons illustrates the senselessness of the state’s current prison system. Bernard Noble, a 49-year-old father of seven, currently serving 13 years for possession of two joints, was denied clemency in June. This past September, Harrison Cage, a convicted murderer who has worked in the Governor’s Mansion as a prison trustee for the past 16 years and currently serves as Jindal’s personal butler, was denied his request to have his mandatory life sentence reduced after 24 years in the prison system. Albert Woodfox, who has spent more than 40 years in solitary confinement, remains at Angola despite having his conviction overturned numerous times, the most recent ruling coming from a federal judge earlier this year.
Instead of exhibiting any signs of compassion or leniency, Louisiana has insisted on locking people up and throwing away the key. Of the more than 6,000 people incarcerated in Angola Penitentiary, over 4,500 will die within the confines of the prison. A quarter of these lifers are currently over the age of 55—a truly heart-rending detail when taking into account that the average age of conviction for lifers in Louisiana is 28.5 and the life expectancy of the state’s inmates is 72 years.
Looking at the nation as a whole, excessive punishment appears to be routine. There is now roughly 2.2 million people behind bars, over four times the incarceration rate of 1980. One out of every nine people incarcerated are serving life sentences. Nearly half of the people serving life sentences are Black. The uneven application of law enforcement along with the nationwide obsession with retribution has given rise to a serious incarceration problem in America. Alas, Louisiana surpasses every other state in its resolve to put its own citizens behind bars.
Without question, the effects of incarceration are far-flung and extend well beyond the prisons. Accordingly, the attendant consequences of locking up Black men at an unprecedented rate aren’t easily measured. The vast majority of the tens of thousands of prisoners in Louisiana remain unseen. They sit behind prison walls in rural locales, banished from society and removed from the awareness of the general public. Like the refineries stationed along the Mississippi River or the oil rigs erected in the Gulf of Mexico, the jails and prisons spread across the state represent a large and mostly hidden industry whose damages are impossible to fully comprehend.