Earlier this year, Louisiana took steps to reform its criminal justice system in an effort to reduce prison populations by emphasizing smarter sentencing and supporting programs aimed at reducing recidivism. To most reasonable people, this should be seen as a positive step towards alleviating America’s mass incarceration problem. Of course, Sheriff Steve Prator of Caddo Parish, Louisiana, is not most reasonable people. According to Prator, the most pressing issue facing Louisiana’s justice system isn’t its swelling prison population, but “who will change my car’s oil for free if we let the good prisoners leave?”
Last week, Prator called a news conference on the eve of these new prison reforms to make a public case against them. And although a portion of his plea was devoted to concerns over public safety (despite the nonviolent nature of the ~1,400 people being released), Prator also made the stunning admission that he believes his state’s prison labor system was a “necessary evil” to provide easy access to free labor. On top of being an unfortunate, if subconscious paraphrase of Robert E. Lee’s infamous remarks on chattel slavery, Prator’s comments suggested that he values these prisoners – most of whom are people of color – about as much as a Pep Boys loyalty card.
Of course, the issue of using mass incarceration as a means of extracting cheap labor is nothing new. Just last year, the documentary 13th was nominated for an Academy Award for its in-depth look at exactly this subject. And it is a poorly kept secret that the American War on Drugs has devastated communities of color by filling prisons with nonviolent offenders to the benefit of almost no one. This is why it is important to view Prator’s comments not as a misunderstanding, or a poor choice of words, but as a revealing admission that there are high-ranking law enforcement officials who believe in the exploitation of human suffering for personal gain.