Louisiana’s standing as one of the world’s most incarcerated places is often blamed on prison and jail admissions from major population centers like New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Shreveport. But an explosion in new beds and pretrial detention rates in local jails across the state’s rural parishes has played an even greater role, according to findings from a new database created by the Vera Institute of Justice.

While New Orleans reduced the number of beds in its jail by more than 6,000 over the past two decades, sheriffs across the state were moving in the opposite direction, adding nearly 14,000, according to Vera’s recently launched data project, Louisiana Locked Up: A Problem in Every Parish. In total, the state’s locally run jails now have more than 30,000 detainee beds, the group found. 

To further illustrate the problem, Vera looked at the number of people who were arrested and detained pending trial on a single day and found that New Orleans’ rate was dwarfed by parishes with far fewer residents.

As of Nov. 26, 2021 — the date used for Vera’s snapshot — Orleans Parish detained 715 people pretrial at a rate of 18 per 10,000, while Madison Parish detained 443 at a rate of about 405 per 10,000, according to the database, which uses the 2019 census population estimates of about 390,000 for Orleans and 11,000 for Madison. The vast majority of pretrial detainees in Madison Parish were held at privately run facilities in the parish, which house detainees from other parts of the state, according to a 2021 report by the Louisiana Department of Public Safety & Corrections. 

In Catahoula Parish, where the 2019 estimated population was about 9,500, 545 people were jailed, at a rate of about 575 per 10,000.

“When we added up all the beds, you basically could incarcerate two Tiger Stadiums worth of people in the state of Louisiana.”

Will Snowden, Vera Institute of Justice

“This is a snapshot of understanding how these rural parishes are contributing to our problem with mass incarceration,” said Will Snowden, director of Vera’s New Orleans office. “We felt we needed to have a parish specific analysis of what incarceration looks like, to really kind of just change the nature of the conversations that we were having.”

Louisiana Locked Up provides data on “arrests, pretrial detention, incarceration and local spending on the criminal legal system” for all 64 parishes. For example, it shows that Avoyelles Parish has five prisons and jails with a combined capacity of 2,515 detainees. Its pretrial incarceration rate is twice that of Louisiana’s rate of 29.4 per 10,000 residents and nearly five times the national rate of 12.4 per 10,000 residentss. Spending on policing and corrections accounted for 51.5% of its total 2017 budget compared to 31.7% for hospitals.

Snowden said he realized several years ago this granular look at the state’s incarceration problem was needed following discussions with several state legislators representing rural parishes. As he tried to explain to them that not only was the state a world leader in locking up its own people, but their own communities played a significant role in the problem, they became defensive and pushed back, he said.

“They need to see the actual data, particularly as it relates to their home parishes,” Snowden said.

What the data show is that pretrial incarceration rates in 9 out of 10 of parishes are greater than the national average of about 22.5 per 10,000 residents. In 6 of 10 parishes, the pretrial rate is more than twice the national average. It also shows that the heaviest concentration of jails and prisons is near former plantations. About 78% of these facilities are within five miles of a former plantation and 28% are within one mile, according to Louisiana Locked-Up.

And just as those plantations brought in money for their operators, so too do jails, Snowden said.

“You can’t talk about mass incarceration in Louisiana without talking about the money that comes along with it,” he said.

In the early 1990s, the state was under a federal court order to alleviate overcrowded conditions in its prisons. Unable to afford the construction of new facilities, the state turned to local sheriffs — who are primarily responsible for housing detainees awaiting trial — to house convicted prisoners. For the service, the state pays them a per diem – currently $26.39 – for each prisoner.

Financially strapped rural parishes took advantage of this new source of revenue and started building new jails or expanding existing ones. Since 1999, the number of parishes with more than 1,000 jail beds has nearly tripled, from five to 13, according to Vera. And with that, the money came rolling in.

In 2021, the Tensas Parish Detention Center took in more than $3.7 million in state per diem revenue, while the Orleans Justice Center generated about $1.1 million, according to the database. Tensas housed 389 state prisoners as of November 2021 while Orleans only had 142, down from more than 1,000 on average in the early 2010s.

The detention center was built in 1985 with an original capacity of 78 people. It can now hold 600.

“When we added up all the beds, you basically could incarcerate two Tiger Stadiums worth of people in the state of Louisiana,” Snowden said. “We are what we invest in, right? And we invest more in jails, prisons, and detention facilities than we do in universities and colleges.”

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Before coming to Verite, Richard A. Webster spent the past two and a half years as a member of ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network. He investigated allegations of abuse against the Jefferson Parish...