It’s a most unfortunate situation that Louisiana has one of the largest populations of people in prison, and a large majority of those imprisoned are Black. It’s also unfortunate that most of the Louisiana Department of Corrections leadership is White.
Johnnie Jones, who became the first Black state prison warden in Louisiana more than four decades ago, and a group of Black retired DOC leaders spent about a year looking at the agency’s hiring and promotion history as well as pay levels. They knew what to expect. Several of them experienced it. But they wanted to confirm it, with data.
It did not surprise them, but what they found was a "good old boy" system that regularly rewards White relatives and friends of high-ranking DOC leaders, effectively denying Black people leadership opportunities.
The committee found a diverse department, including Blacks making up about half of all corrections employees compared to one in three Black residents in the state. However, most of the Black employees hold non-leadership and low-ranking jobs and most leadership and high-paying jobs go to Whites. Their completed report was shared with Gov. John Bel Edwards, Louisiana Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc and a host of other elected officials and DOC leaders. Independent of that review, The Advocate did an analysis and found similar evidence and conclusions.
Most of the people who oversee these mostly Black prisons are White. There are six wardens. One, Frederick Boutte at the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women, is Black. The state’s top prison leaders are wardens, deputy wardens and assistant wardens — and 70% of them are White.
With language that is far too common these days because the truth hurts, the committee included a disturbing, overarching observation: "It is apparent to any objective observer that the underrepresentation of Black employees in senior-level positions within the department stems directly from the effects of institutional or systemic racism, coupled with the utilization of the 'good old boy network' — a circle of influence that excludes Blacks."
LeBlanc and the DOC acknowledged a lack of significant progress while pointing to some evidence of success.
According to the department, their agency has a higher percentage of Black employees than several other state agencies and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has indicated that the DOC has an increasing number of African Americans in leadership positions. But that is not good enough, and those efforts are not reflected at the highest levels of leadership, according to Jones and his colleagues.
The department says its EEOC leadership category numbers were at 78% White and 21% Black in 2010 and the numbers are 69% White and 30% Black in 2020. Those are not big changes. A nine-percentage-point increase in Black leadership in 10 years? That is a snail’s pace.
Clearly, this is a multi-layered problem for Louisiana. We want to reduce the need to have so many people behind prison walls. We do not want so many in the prison population to be Black. We can improve prison administration and critical relationship issues in part by significantly changing senior leadership across the DOC. This is not a set of problems that we should stall.
If Edwards and LeBlanc are honest about what’s lacking, they must be honest about making significant changes. That starts with greater diversity in prison leadership.