Louisiana has the highest known incarceration rate in the world, with 1,094 people locked up for every 100,000 residents, including prisons, jails, juvenile facilities and immigration detention centers. But among those incarcerated here, the largest group is in state custody. About 600 in 100,000 Louisianians are in the custody of the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections, compared to a national incarceration rate of about 350 per 100,000. 

Which parishes are impacted by their residents being behind bars instead of in their communities, spending time with their families and contributing financially to their households? Pretty much all of them, according to a newly released report and data hub on people in state custody by the Prison Policy Initiative, a non-profit that advocates against mass incarceration and Voice of the Experienced, a Louisiana-based prison criminal justice reform advocacy group.  

For the report, researchers looked at what parts of the state incarcerated people come from, down to the census tract, and found that urban and rural municipalities from across Louisiana are sending residents to prisons at high rates, sometimes at extremely high rates, well above 1,000 per 100,000 residents. 

The report is part of the “Where people in prisons come from” project that the Prison Policy Initiative launched in January. The Louisiana report, released Thursday (July 13), relied on 2022 data that Voice of the Experienced gathered from the Department of Public Safety and Corrections. It explores the impact that taking people away from their homes and placing them behind bars has on the communities they leave behind. 

“No community escapes the harm of mass incarceration,” Mike Wessler, communications director at the Prison Policy Initiative, said in an interview. “It weakens communities economically and it tears at the fabric of our neighborhoods emotionally by taking loved ones, sons, fathers, brothers, sisters and in no small number.”

Wessler said the data also dispels the longstanding belief that urban areas are affected most by mass incarceration. New Orleans leads the state in the number of its residents that are incarcerated, with 2,519 people from the Crescent City in state custody — either in prisons or local jails — in 2022. But even as the largest city and third most populous parish in the state, its rate of people living in Louisiana prisons is 652 per 100,000 residents — far less than Washington Parish, with the highest rate, 902 per 100,000. Bogalusa, the largest city in the parish, with a population of nearly 11,000, has a rate of 1,661 per 100,000, the highest of any city in the state. 

“We wanted to really kind of investigate the myths about what areas are most incarcerated,” Wessler said. “I think the point remains that incarceration is hitting [rural] communities just as much as it’s hitting urban communities, if not higher.”

He noted that urban and rural communities are facing similar challenges of poverty, poor health outcomes, lack of mental healthcare resources and treatment for substance abuse. 

Lawmakers can use this data to “cut across the urban-rural divide,” he added. 

‘The stark disparity that exists just a few blocks away’

Although all parishes are sending their residents to prisons at high rates, the data in the report – which measures incarceration rates down to the census tract – show that Black neighborhoods with high levels of poverty bear the brunt of mass incarceration. 

The report compares the New Orleans neighborhood of Lakeview, which is 84% white, with 5 residents living in prison and an incarceration rate of 51 per 100,000 residents to the neighborhood around the former B.W. Cooper public housing development, which is 96% Black. That neighborhood, which has a total population of about 1,500, had 35 residents living behind bars  — an imprisonment rate of 2,441 per 100,000.  

“I do think one of the really powerful things about this data and is shocking to me whenever we do one of these reports is just the stark disparity that exists just a few blocks away,” Wessler said.

Voice of the Experienced Deputy Director Bruce Reilly said that it’s important to examine the histories of the neighborhoods that are most and least affected by incarceration. Many of the former group, which is predominantly Black, are also among the most socially and economically vulnerable. 

For example, in New Orleans, long-standing racist housing policies forced Black residents to low-lying areas, more susceptible to displacement from natural disasters. That helped more white residents to return to less-damaged neighborhoods in New Orleans much sooner than many Black residents after Hurricane Katrina. Today, many of the 19 census tracts in New Orleans with incarceration rates higher than 1,000 per 100,000 residents — several well above 2,000 —are in some of lowest-lying areas with some of the lowest median incomes and highest concentrations of Black residents in the city. 

Reilly pointed to the Lower 9th Ward, which was devastated  by Katrina, as one of the strongest examples. He said the neighborhood has been caught in a vicious cycle of over policing and divestment of resources for generations. 

“Where you get more police, you get more arrests, you get more poverty, you get more crime,” he said. “We’re a century into the cycle now. … If your only response is police, that’s an investment in incarceration.” 

He said money that could be spent improving social outcomes for the neighborhood’s residents gets spent on housing people in prison. 

“I don’t think anyone’s really looking at the money spent on incarceration as money that could’ve been spent otherwise,” Reilly said. “For every dollar sent to West Feliciana [where the Louisiana State Penitentiary is located] to rehabilitate someone from the Lower 9th Ward, that’s a dollar not being spent on the Lower 9th Ward.” 

This high rate of incarceration in Black communities tracks in other parishes too. In Washington Parish, the census tract with the highest incarceration rate is 50% Black. The parish as a whole is about 31 percent Black. 

‘The data is the true value of the project’

Louisiana is just the latest state the group has reported on as part of the project. The other 12 states included in the project so far had all ended the practice of so-called “prison gerrymandering” – when incarcerated people were counted as residents of the census tracts where their prisons were located for the purposes of legislative redistricting. Changes to the laws in those states forced corrections departments to share prisoners’ home addresses with redistricting officials, the Prison Policy Initiative report noted. So for those states, the group used newly adjusted redistricting data compiled by the nonprofit Redistricting Hub.

“The data is the true value of the project,” Wessler said. 

But for Louisiana, which has not ended the practice, the data had to come from the Department of Public Safety and Corrections. Voice of the Experienced was able to obtain the data because the organization had worked with public safety officials on voter registration outreach. 

Reilly said Voice of the Experienced supports legislation that does not count people in prison, who cannot vote, as residents of the prison’s voting district. That will ensure better representation for the communities most affected by incarceration. 

“Even if you’re a civil rights champion, you’d be like, ‘Well, all my voters are prison guards. What do I do?’” he added. 

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Before joining Verite, Bobbi-Jeanne Misick reported on people behind bars in immigration detention centers and prisons in the Gulf South as a senior reporter for the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration...