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Q&A: ‘Prison Capital’ explores Louisiana’s infamous reputation for mass incarceration

“Prison Capital: Mass Incarceration and Struggles for Abolition Democracy in Louisiana” by Dr. Lydia Pelot-Hobbs
Photos courtesy of The University of North Carolina Press & Lydia Pelot-Hobbs
“Prison Capital: Mass Incarceration and Struggles for Abolition Democracy in Louisiana” by Dr. Lydia Pelot-Hobbs

Louisiana is well-known for its high incarceration rates. Dr. Lydia Pelot-Hobbs, an assistant professor of geography and African-American and Africana studies at the University of Kentucky, set out to explore the reasons why in a new book.

"Prison Capital: Mass Incarceration and Struggles for Abolition Democracy in Louisiana" uses painstaking research to examine prisons and jails in the Bayou State, particularly since the 1970s. The book chronicles organizing led by incarcerated people at the Louisiana State Penitentiary — better known as Angola — and provides an in-depth review of criminal justice activism in New Orleans in the years after Hurricane Katrina.

Pelot-Hobbs also connects Louisiana's turbulent economy, shifts in political power, current events and systemic racism to show how its modern prison and policing systems took shape.

The Gulf States Newsroom's Kat Stromquist caught up with Pelot-Hobbs to discuss the book.

The following conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

This book is about the dark and complicated history of prisons and jails in Louisiana. What drew you to this subject? 

I had not really spent significant time in Louisiana or New Orleans, in particular, ‘til after Hurricane Katrina, and ended up getting recruited to do organizing to support just reconstruction work in the city in the summer of 2006, specifically around — which I detail in the book a fair amount — the abandonment of the city jail, or Orleans Parish Prison, to the floodwaters by city and state officials, and the turn to kind of various kinds of law and order as a disaster response to Black New Orleanians trying to survive in those really intense times.

I ended up living in New Orleans after that for an extended period of time. And through that period, I heard the statement repeatedly stated, which is that Louisiana was the most incarcerated state in the world.

And so, through kind of my experience working with organizations — specifically the New Orleans chapter of the organization Critical Resistance, as well as a grassroots organization called Safe Streets/Strong Communities — I ended up with a lot of questions about the criminal legal system in Louisiana, and how this had come to be the case.

The first part of your book relies heavily on research from The Angolite, the award-winning prison newspaper published by people incarcerated at Angola. It's a unique publication. What was it like engaging with those archives? 

The Angolite is an incredible source. I know of very few other sources anywhere in the country that exist that's, kind of, news reporting by incarcerated people during the primary era of the prison boom. Between the mid-1970s and the mid-1990s, The Angolite ran as what they called a "free press," in that they meant that the warden did not have control over what was or wasn't published. They had, literally, phones that they could call all kinds of people. They could ask questions, they would do Freedom of Information Act requests, and they would get materials. I mean, they would do real investigative reporting.

And for them, the stakes of it were palpable. So it's never a question of an abstract idea, but in the case of The Angolite, the people who are writing this, doing this research, doing this reporting, are often finding their chances at parole, being stripped of them. So understanding what's going on, what are these mechanisms, you can feel that this research has real personal stakes to it.

One surprising thread in the book is the treatment of queer people in prisons and jails by police. What are some of those connections between queerness and mass incarceration? 

So there's a long history, right? Pre-mass incarceration — going back into the late 1800s, early 20th century — this story of kind of quote-unquote, rounding up homosexuals, has a long history across the country. And [it is] one of the ways in which prisons and policing work to regulate certain kinds of normative social behavior.

As far back as I was able to find in my research — again, which begins in the 1970s — you have story after story about, even as there's the breaking down of racial segregation in prisons and jails, it's being coupled, intensified, with things like the creation of what they would term a homosexual cellblock or the segregation of prisoners who are deemed queer, either because they have been, quote-unquote, caught in queer sex acts or they've just been viewed as somehow kind of non-normative. So there's another level of discipline and control happening for people who the prison deems as queer.

I end the book with a discussion of this organization, BreakOUT!, which organized for many years around the criminalization of queer and trans youth of color in New Orleans, particularly Black trans girls.

I find this organizing, and this kind of critique, a way to stretch out our imaginations of what everyday police violence looks like. And to explicitly put these questions of gender and sexuality front and center, instead of always focusing on a more narrow imagination of it always being straight young men, but to also think about the different ways police violence looks based on people's gender and sexual identities as well.

Much of your research covers things that are still front and center in Louisiana criminal justice: calls for state police to come to New Orleans, truth in sentencing laws, controversies over pardons. Why are some of these themes so persistent?

I think that there are a couple of different reasons why these themes are so persistent over time. One of them is that there has not really been a fundamental dislodging of criminalization as a response to the multitude of crises that people face.

There continues to be a series of crises facing the people of Louisiana: economic, political, ecological. So, there's this way that the police system and the broader criminal legal system are seen as the constant solutions and answers to crises that are really crises around housing, employment, education, health care — I could go on and on.

I also think the development of a “law and order” politic going back to, in a contemporary period, we can say in the ‘60s with Nixon. But I would argue we could even go back further into thinking about the ways in which anti-Black racism animated the first round of “law and order” politics during the rise of Jim Crow, the rise of things like the Black Codes in the South and beyond.

It's fortified. It's a real narrative. It's a story: the ways in which racism positions certain people, specifically Black folks, as more criminal [and] as a threat, has had real political staying power. And that there is a class of people, tied up with race, class and gender, that is not able to be seen as fully human. I think this is really deep, and I think it shows up in all kinds of ways, big and small, [whether] people say it like that or they don't.

I feel like it becomes then [that] the answer is just always, how do we get those people sidelined again? And it becomes a scapegoating, and a blaming of people for all kinds of structural harms that are actually being enacted against them in broader communities, instead of thinking, “Oh, maybe, instead, we could get out of this.”

This system is not making people safer. It's not making people more secure. It's not actually meeting people's needs. But it is proven time and time again to be a very powerful narrative that continues to shape our ideas of what the point of governance is.

This story was produced by the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration between Mississippi Public BroadcastingWBHM in Alabama, WWNO and WRKF in Louisiana and NPR.

Kat Stromquist is a senior reporter covering justice, incarceration and gun violence for the Gulf States Newsroom.