Skip to main content Accessibility

Long Road to Nowhere: How Southern States Struggle with Long-Term Incarceration

The Deep South is the epicenter of mass incarceration. The United States incarcerates more people per capita than any other country, with prison populations growing by 86% between 1990 and 2019. For Southern states, prison populations exploded by 127% during that same period. During this time in history, America implemented “tough on crime” policies that responded to public health issues like the drug epidemic with incarceration instead of rehabilitation. Laws for even nonviolent crimes became more punitive with longer sentences, and people of color were disproportionately pushed into prisons with little hope for parole.

Today, incarceration rates for Latinx and Black people are more than two and five times the incarceration rate of whites, respectively. The commitment to the “tough on crime” narrative led to significantly over-crowded prisons, which not only put a strain on state budgets, but also created human rights challenges regarding how to maintain a safe and healthy prison environment.

Three Southern states in particular — Alabama, Florida, and Louisiana — exemplify how prison populations have grown to be problematic in three unique ways. Alabama is home to the most overcrowded prisons in the country, currently, at 151% of capacity. Alabama’s prison crisis has drawn attention from U.S. Department of Justice investigations twice within a 15-month period, and led to a recent lawsuit concerned with how severely overcrowded prisons contribute to unsafe, unsanitary, and increasingly violent conditions. Even after sentencing reforms were passed in 2017, recent legislation concerning the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles has severely diminished the parole chances of currently incarcerated people.

Florida, with over 95,000 imprisoned people, has the third-largest prison population of any state in the country, behind only Texas and California. However, unlike California and Texas, Florida still adheres to a “Truth in Sentencing” rule requiring incarcerated people to serve at least 85% of their sentences, regardless of any demonstration of rehabilitation. Florida’s abolishment of parole for crimes after October 1983 also makes it nearly impossible to decarcerate in the manner of other states. As a result, Florida has grown to have the oldest prison population in the South, a group whose care is increasingly expensive.

Louisiana, on the other hand, has been known as the “incarceration capital of the world” for consistently having incredibly high incarceration rates. A large factor is the number of people serving life sentences without the possibility of parole, including juveniles. Life-without-parole sentencing, or “LWOP,” has permanently locked over 4,500 people in Louisiana’s prisons, with an additional 1,300 serving “virtual life” sentences of more than 50 years — altogether making up one of every five incarcerated people in the state. Louisiana currently holds more people with LWOP sentences than Alabama, Georgia, New York, and Texas combined.

The lack of early prison release is just one of many contributors to mass incarceration in the South — an issue that presents itself in varying ways across the states. Likewise, the solutions also vary — from expanding parole eligibility and making it retroactive, to increasing incentives for rehabilitation credits, to recalibrating triggers for LWOP sentences. A sensible approach to decarcer-ation in the South would not only make prisons safer and less expensive, but would also create opportunities to reinvest savings in other priorities. This report will investigate the impact that overincarceration has had in three Southern states, and provide recommendations on how each state can address the issue through policy change.

Read the report by clicking on the image below.

Photo by Shutterstock