Saturday, April 13, 2013

Mitch asks prisoners to do less with less

Remember last week at the OPP consent decree hearing when  the city's attorney Harry Rosenberg made a "states rights" sort of argument that it's okay to deny prisoners decent medical care? 

Jarvis Deberry explains the state law Rosenberg was citing.
The 1995 law is Louisiana's response to the nonexistent problem of prison luxury. Written by state Sen. Robert Adley when he was in the House, the law says, "It is the intention of this legislature that, to the extent permitted by law, no inmate shall have a standard of living better than the state poverty level. Citizens should not be worse off economically and living in conditions that are below those granted to inmates whose living standards are being paid for and subsidized by the hard-working and law-abiding people of the state of Louisiana."

It would seem to be a fool's errand on its face, the task of making sure that everybody on the outside is better off than everybody who's imprisoned. But if we set aside the impossibility of defining "living better," the impossibility of accounting for everybody's economic status and ignore the fact that most prisoners are citizens, we're presented with two options. We can aim to improve the lives of those who are free or just make things worse for the imprisoned. Now which path do you imagine Louisiana would pursue?
DeBerry speculates that perhaps such laws come into being as a result of drunk legislating.  But we all know they're really just a product of our cruel politics.   No matter how poor we get, no matter how much is taken from us in terms of basic public services, the political response will always involve punishing the less fortunate for getting something we've decided they don't "deserve." 

That this cycle of  devaluation is actually codified in a Louisiana statue can't be too surprising. What might surprise some people is the fact that it's a philosophy Mitch Landrieu endorses pretty strongly despite his misdirecting rhetoric.

The city's saying, (civil rights attorney Mary) Howell said, that "we will be harmed if they clean up the jail," thus pitting the constitutional rights of the incarcerated against the economic interests of everybody else. It tells people on the outside that people locked up aren't their concern, which, she said, makes it "the antithesis of what they're arguing in the NOLA for Life stuff."

The Nola for Life stuff is Landrieu's public relations campaign that aims to prick our concern for the young men who are routinely being shot down in our city. If the mayor is drumming up concern for those who caught up in gun fights, Howell says, wouldn't consistency require him to demand our concern for the people caught up in parish prison? Surely, there's a huge overlap in those two groups.

Ugly policy wrapped up in comforting catch phrases which sell it as progressive reform.  Pretty much the Landrieu administration in a nutshell. 

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