The Listening Post Asks: What Do Jails And Prisons Do?

Apr 21, 2016

The Listening Post is back collecting thoughts and experiences from communities around New Orleans on a new series of issues. The past month we’ve been collaborating with Independent radio producer Eve Abrams and her Unprisoned project. 

Eve had a question on her mind: "What do jails do? What do prisons do? I think I just wanted to find out what peoples’ perceptions were. I’m really unsure what they do quite frankly."

What do Jails and Prisons do? That’s a big question, especially here in Louisiana, which, you’ve no doubt heard many times over, has the world’s highest per capita rate of incarceration.

That statistic is so prominent, that both sides of the political spectrum are even finding some common ground. Last Fall the conservative heavyweights the Koch Brothers held a criminal justice conference in New Orleans.

Anti-big government icon Grover Norquist was there. He said jails and prisons cost taxpayers WAY too much money.

"We have too many people in prison for too many laws for too long a time and we need to rethink some of that."

One of the reasons Louisiana’s become such a poster-child for incarceration is that the state has harsh sentencing laws. James Brockway is a staff attorney with the Orleans Public Defenders. He represents local residents who can’t afford their own attorney. That’s also the population most likely to wind up in jail or prison says Brockway.

"What do Jails and Prisons do?" asks Brockway, "make sure that a certain group of people continue to stay at the bottom rung of the social hierarchy. Instead of dealing with the type of problems that explain why the things that might cause them to be in jail might happen and trying to fix them, we keep warehousing people. And sort of go on this endless cycle that accomplishes very little”

Alvar Library hosts a Listening Post
Credit Jesse Hardman

Our goal at the Listening Post is to get YOU, citizens of New Orleans, to share your thoughts and experiences on important matters, like the role of jails and prisons in society. We set-up some new Listening Post recording devices at a recent Bring Your Own even, and the Alvar Library in the Bywater. And people shared some great responses. 

We also gave people a chance to respond with their cell phones. We asked our Listening Post audiences two questions. Here’s what people texted us:

1. What do jails and prisons do?

  • Jails are businesses, it all goes back to money. They’re there to keep people of color scared and of course they change people by giving them ptsd, and other psychological disorders. 9 times out of 10 that person shouldn’t even be in a jail, instead they should be getting medical treatment. But it’s easier to lock our problems away and forget about them instead of facing them head on and making a true change. Just look at how this country has dealt with the fact that the European settlers massacred an entire race of people and then pretend as if nothing happened. Do you actually think that those same people would help the people that they brought here, enslaved, and ruined for generations? Of course not.
  • Physically prevent criminals from pursuing more crimes while in jail. That is it. Does not prevent after they are released. In fact could make worse.
  • Perpetuate inequality; maintain white supremacy; crush dreams; destroy families; ruin lives.
  • Nothing
  • I understand they provide no real solutions to serve society – more can be done here. In the UK nobody earns money from prisoner but I’ve learnt that’s not the case in the US. It makes no sense to the level headed mass people
  • In my opinion jails and prisons breed racial hatred and hardened criminals. I am a member of the Welcome Table of New Orleans. It is a partnership between the city of New Orleans and the Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation. I have been waiting my whole life to be part of an effort to break down racial isolation. 
  • Put lives on hold
  • Perpetuate a police state.
  • Teach folks that there is no way out of the way they was brought up
  • Simply serve as a warehouse for criminals.
  • A lot of psychological damage for starters
  • Transfer wealth from taxpayers to the prison industrial complex
  • Jails are short-term holding facilities for criminals, prisons are longer-term.
  • Harden the human soul
  • Ensure recidivism.
  • Supposedly reform criminals
  • They don’t reform… The produce better criminals
  • Prisons is doing more harm than good unless there is restoration present To many in over time the crime doesn’t fit the crime
  • Ruin the lives of our most vulnerable and waste our tax dollars
  • Nothing
  • Keep some criminals locked up but mostly it’s people with misdemeanor charges.
  • Jails create disconnection and indifference, and seem to make money doing it… we are squandering a chance to make a greater world by locking up the victims of our problematic society. every human deserves love in their lives, especially those who have lived through violence and desperation. we should hate the crime and not the criminal. a ‘jail’ should be an environment of forgiveness and healing.
  • They make the owners of them very wealthy. To my knowledge, mostly all prisons in La are privately owned and receive a per deim on each jailed person. Now, what’s wrong with that? Do you think the owners want their jails empty?

2. How do jails and prisons change people?

  • The prison experience can have a variety of emotional and physical effects on people, mostly negative. Generally, it hardens people and compromises their health. The more time a person spends in prison, the less likely they are to successfully transition back into the community after their release.
  • Probably for the worse. No experience.
  • Make them harder criminals
  • In a negative way although it can humble men having solace to realize what’s important - this being a double negative. Yes in the UK I have…
  • No personal experience, but from what I’ve heard and read, often they do little good for the majority that end up incarcerated.
  • No. I don’t believe they change folks for the better, usually.
  • I think some criminals benefit, but some learn to be better criminals.
  • They strain relationships and stigmatize people.
  • Yes. They completely derail lives. It’s so hard to reintegrate.
  • No personal experience. I can imagine people who are locked up feel more anxiety, and may have long-lasting mental and emotional difficulties. Not necessarily severe, but I imagine it changes a person.
  • It institutionalizes the mind and behavior of men. Neither of those things worm best when constrained.
  • I’ve worked for criminal lawyers in another state. The United States has the highest rate of incarceration of children. It usually makes them worse. Jails wind up being a viable short-term housing/meal option for people in poverty. With very few exceptions prisons do little to rehabilitate and often harden their inhabitants even more.
  • No personal experience. It seems to be a broken system
  • They more r less stunts the mind !!!.No . No personal experience now r never
  • They make them career criminals and dehumanize them. I run the Louisiana campaign for equal justice and fight full time for this
  • They don’t change u, help is needed for your problem than if that don’t work jail. I spent 3 yrs in jail.
  • People can’t see they’re relatives on the regular. Find out they’re loosing people and it’s nothing they can do about it because they can’t see them. It’s sad.
  • Jails teach the world to hate and hold grudges. They create polarity. They are the antithesis of family.
  • I know first hand and it’s not good. It ruins people and families lives. For those who deserve to be in jail, have to pay the price and nobody cares who else it hurts. Especially the perpetrators!!!

The last voice on this Listening Episode belongs to 50 year old Michael Williams Sr. When we caught up with 

East Baton Rouge Parish resident Michael Williams.
Credit Michael Williams

Williams he was watering the lawn of the quiet sub-division home he shares with his wife, at the end of a cul-de-sac in East Baton Rouge Parish. 

Parked in the garage of William’s home is a sparkling silver Mercedes.

“I always loved to drive...I’ll get up in the middle of the night right now and just go and take a drive,” says Williams.

One of the reasons he covets driving so much is that for 15 years, he couldn’t. The last memorable drive Williams remembers was to prison, after he received a life sentence for murder.

“Taking that long ride down that Angola road in an old school bus that was painted down with chicken wire on the windows and all the windows are open, and you got all these people dressed up in a white jumpsuit with shackles with head to toe and you’re just looking out the window watching your life pass you by, not knowing if you’ll ever come back up that road again.”

In 1996, Williams, a former offshore worker, was accused of murdering 25 year old Michelle Gallagher. The case was built around one witness, and Williams was handed a life sentence. He’s always maintained his innocence.

When Williams entered Angola he was in his early 30s, married, with a two year old son back in Gretna. He was put in one of the open dormitories at the notorious state penitentiary.

“They call lights out, and they have these fluorescent looking blue lights, so it’s never dark in there. I was like man...geeze. First thing I said, was damn...I’m in Angola...laughter”

For most of his decade and a half at Angola, Williams worked an overnight shift in a kitchen, for 2 cents an hour. Williams says every free minute was spent in the prison law library, he routinely got write-ups for refusing to take a break from researching his case.

“Every opportunity I find, I’m going to go there, that’s where you’ll find me. Yeah, you can lock me up, I already have a life sentence. There’s nothing more other than killing me, that you can do to me. All I’m trying to do is help myself.”

Eventually, Williams’s efforts paid off. He put together an appeal, and with the help of the Innocence Project New Orleans, his case was vacated. Evidence was deemed not reliable. In November, 2011, Williams left Angola a free man. “It was a beautiful day,” he said.

Five years after his exoneration, Williams can pinpoint a few answers to the question, what do jails and prisons do. For him, 15 years of incarceration made him a bit of a legal expert. Jails and prisons have also given Williams a perspective most people with life sentences never get a chance to experience, or express. A view from the outside.

“You love a little bit harder. You appreciate life on a whole different level. Because only through suffering can you see past your own short sightedness. You begin to appreciate things that you generally would overlook. It changes you. When you come out here where everybody is lax, and you’re just sitting there, and they think something’s wrong with you. Nothing’s wrong with you, you’re viewing life differently now."

That’s all for this week, we’ll see you next time at the Listening Post.

Join our project by texting the word “hello” to 504-303-4348.

And stop by our website at

Unprisoned: Stories From The System is produced by Eve Abrams and brought to you by New Orleans Public Radio and Finding America, a national initiative produced by AIR, the Association of Independents in Radio, Incorporated, and with financial support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Wyncote Foundation, the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

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