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How Oil Money Turned Louisiana Into the Prison Capital of the World

A series of events in the 1970s led to the state’s penal system becoming intertwined with the swings of its oil economy.

Part of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, a gulf coast refinery covers acres of low-lying marshland in Louisiana, on June 1, 1980.

On October 14, 2023, Louisiana elected far right candidate Jeff Landry to the governor’s mansion. As the state’s current attorney general, Landry (a former police officer and sheriff’s deputy) has made headlines for his creation of an anti-crime policing task force for New Orleans, suing the state to block clemency appeals by those on death row, and advocating to make public the criminal records of juveniles in predominately Black areas of the state. Landry’s dedication to “law and order” has been matched by his commitment to extractive industries. As a climate change denier, he has pushed for more aggressive off-shore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and sued the Environmental Protection Agency for overreach. As governor, he is poised to roll back the moderate criminal legal system reforms enacted under Gov. John Bel Edwards in 2017, and further deregulate the oil and gas industries. These political moves will further tie Louisiana to the destructive prison and petrochemical sectors — limiting and cutting short the lives of countless residents.

This political coupling of mass incarceration and petrocapitalism is nothing new for the state. In 1901, Louisiana purchased the notorious Angola plantation to serve as the Louisiana State Penitentiary, and oil was struck in the state for the first time. Yet, as documented in my book, Prison Capital: Mass Incarceration and Struggles for Abolition Democracy in Louisiana, not until the 1970s did the growth of Louisiana’s penal system become intertwined with the swings of the state’s oil economy. This is not to reduce Louisiana’s standing as an epicenter of mass incarceration to a “resource curse.” Political power blocs and struggles, not natural resources, shape policy makers’ decisions. With that said, one cannot understand Louisiana officials’ unprecedented expansion of the state’s punishment regime without understanding the seesaw of petrocapitalism.

Over the course of the 20th century, Louisiana developed its political economy on oil extraction and refinement. Amid the black gold rush of the 1920s, Gov. Huey Long rose to power on a populist platform that promised the people of Louisiana state investments in social welfare through increasing taxes on oil companies. Long’s petro populism was modest insofar as he never called for the public ownership of the state’s natural resources, and the taxes he championed were relatively limited. However, this petro populism still ushered in the beginning of Louisiana’s fiscal dependency on oil revenues. As Jason Theriot documents in his book American Energy, Imperiled Coast, generation after generation of state leaders incentivized new rounds of oil extraction to fill state coffers and enrich oil capitalists at the expense of a diversified political economy and the erosion of coastal wetlands. By the 1970s, Louisiana had become economically dependent on the volatile commodity of oil.

The 1970s also marked a new era for the Louisiana penal system. The legitimacy of Angola had reached a breaking point. Four Black prisoners — Arthur Mitchell, Hayes Williams, Lazarus Joseph and Lee Stevenson — filed an extensive lawsuit against Angola in 1971 for issues including medical neglect, unsafe facilities, religious discrimination against Muslims, racial segregation and the violence of solitary confinement. In 1975, federal Judge Elmer Gordon West ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and declared the prison to be in a state of “extreme public emergency.” Sweeping changes were ordered in the name of restoring imprisoned people’s constitutional rights and population limits were placed on Angola.

At first, liberal reformers running the Louisiana Department of Corrections (DOC) responded by pushing for a slew of reforms they believed would make Angola a more orderly, safe and modern prison: ending the trusty guard system, racially integrating prison dormitories and work assignments, and investing in repairs and security technologies. At the heart of their reforms was a push for their “decentralization plan” to shrink or even shutter Angola and replace the plantation penitentiary with smaller regional urban prisons.

Louisiana’s budget was so flush with oil surpluses that for three straight years, prison construction costs were covered with cash on hand instead of the more typical debt financing.

While the federal court agreed this was one possible avenue out of the crisis, Judge West mandated that Angola be downsized or decommissioned in two years’ time. Otherwise, officials would need to expand the prison. The short timeline given by the courts and local opposition to new prisons by urban residents in their cities made the decentralization plan unfeasible. Instead, Louisiana sought to resolve the crisis by enlarging the prison system in rural areas. As the 1978 Governor’s Office Long Range Prison Study shows, officials added 1,400 new beds to Angola and built three new state prisons within five years of the federal court rulings. This expansion of the Louisiana carceral state was framed by government officials — from Judge West to the governor of Louisiana — as a form of “humanitarian” reform, without any concern given to the state’s increased power to cage more Louisianians.

But such penal expansion is never cheap.

The Rise — and Fall — of Petrochemical Revenues

In Louisiana, the state’s petrochemical revenues allowed the state to take on substantial prison construction years earlier than other states under similar federal court orders. As noted by scholars, such as Timothy Mitchell and Judith Stein, the 1970s were a dramatic period for the global oil economy. In 1973, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) raised the tax rate on oil production while Arab oil states placed an embargo on the U.S. in response to President Richard Nixon’s support for Israel in the Yom Kippur War. In response, U.S. oil prices shot up fourfold, creating strains on the U.S. economy. Coupled with the devaluation of the U.S. dollar, this produced the 1973-1975 U.S. recession. However, for Louisiana, the increase in oil prices led to more oil taxes for the state. The OPEC oil crisis produced not a budgetary shortage but an unexpected windfall of revenue and buffered Louisiana from the national recession As state executive budgets document at length, Louisiana officials were able to funnel $100 million to new carceral construction, increasing the DOC’s operating budget from $17.3 million in 1972 to $45 million in 1977 in the name of liberal reforms. In fact, Louisiana’s budget was so flush with oil surpluses that for three straight years, prison construction costs were covered with cash on hand instead of the more typical debt financing. By 1980, the state’s prison capacity was double what it was in 1970.

However, when oil prices dropped following the global oil glut in the 1980s, Louisiana found itself in a tailspin. New Right Gov. David Treen leveraged the fiscal crisis to institute law and order austerity — cutting social programs alongside bulking up investments in prisons, jails and policing. For the first time in years, the state’s budget projections outpaced revenues. With the state scrambling for resources, Treen cut $270 million from across the state budget in 1982, which included a 25 percent cut to the Department of Labor. During this time, unemployment rates skyrocketed to the point that the Louisiana unemployment program went broke when unemployment claims wildly outpaced reserves. The following year proved even more dire. Treen pushed not to raise taxes or to marshal resources to cushion the devastation the recession was having on people’s lives; instead, Treen cut another $120 million from critical state services in 1983. These policy measures transitioned what had begun as a fiscal crisis into a manufactured economic one.

This expansion of the Louisiana carceral state was framed by government officials as a form of “humanitarian” reform, without any concern given to the state’s increased power to cage more Louisianians.

While incarcerated people at Angola hoped this economic crisis would compel the state to abandon its intensified punishment regime, this was not to be so. Although the state could not cut certain baselines due to the mandates of the federal court orders, Treen went above and beyond in funneling dwindling state funds into the already bloated DOC budget. Unlike every other sector of the state, the DOC did not experience cuts but rather a 23 percent budgetary gain during the first years of the early 1980s recession. When the interest rates for prison construction were too expensive, Treen implemented double-bunking — or doubling the number of people in prison cells and dormitories. When the federal courts berated Treen for this move, Treen reallocated funds from public works into jail construction while the state legislature allocated an additional $34 million to building prisons.

While these policies immiserated Louisianians across race, gender and geography, they particularly eviscerated urban Black communities. Treen matched his investments in prisons with a slew of new “tough on crime” initiatives that targeted increasing numbers of people for longer and longer prison sentences. This came as Black Louisianians experienced some of the highest unemployment rates in the nation — upwards of 20 percent — during the oil bust years, according to archived reports of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Under law-and-order austerity — the coupling of state disinvestments in the social wage alongside investments in mass incarceration — Black Louisianians were disproportionately laid off with a shrinking safety net to soften the blow. At the same time, “law and order” law-making, policing and prosecution targeted urban Black communities who had been structurally abandoned by the labor market. This dual crisis ballooned the prison population. According to incarcerated journalists at The Angolite, the Angola news magazine, between 1975 and 1985 the state’s prison population jumped from 4,000 to 12,500 people.

During the 1970s and 1980s, both liberal reformers and law-and-order politicians invested in expanding the Louisiana carceral state. Yet in both cases, it was petrochemical tax dollars that made such expansions materially possible. Policy makers’ development of the Louisiana political economy on the volatile industries of oil and gas has ensured cyclical economic crises that have normalized precarity and provided cover for politicians who claim that the only legitimate sectors to invest in are prisons and police. All the while, the extraction and refinement of oil and gas destroy wetlands and increase carbon emissions — together exacerbating Louisiana’s vulnerability to climate change.

Yet, Louisiana is not destined to forever be a place built on the extractions of petrochemicals and prisons. As organizers with Taproot Earth remind us in their Gulf to Appalachia Climate Action Strategy, building just climate futures requires disinvestments from carceral infrastructures as part and parcel of the urgent reworking of our political economy.

Even with Jeff Landry as governor, abolitionists and environmental justice activists will continue to fight for a state invested in the care of its people. As a front line of these intertwined struggles, Louisiana reminds us of the life and death stakes of the new world we are fighting for.

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