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How Louisiana Became The World's 'Prison Capital.'

Louisiana imprisons more people per capita than any other state or country in the world. One out of every 86 adults in the state is behind bars. Times-Picayune reporter Cindy Chang says the state's correctional system has created financial incentives for local sheriffs to keep prisons full.


Other segments from the episode on June 5, 2012

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 5, 2012: Interview with Joseph Stiglitz; Interview with Cindy Chang; Review of People, Places, & Things' album "Clean on the Corner."


June 5, 2012

Guests: Joseph Stiglitz – Cindy Chang

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Joseph Stiglitz, is best known for two things: winning the 2001 Nobel Prize in Economics and helping popularize the expression the one percent with his May 2011 Vanity Fair article "Of the One Percent, By the One Percent and For the One Percent."

The article described the increase in inequality in the U.S. and its political system that seemed to give disproportionate voice to those at the top. Stiglitz expands on that in his new book, "The Price of Inequality: How Today's Divided Society Endangers Our Future." Stiglitz is a professor at Columbia University. During the Clinton administration, from 1993 to '97, he served on the Council of Economic Advisors, first as a member, then as chair.

After that, he was chief economist and senior vice president of the World Bank. In 2009 he was chair of the U.N. General Assembly's Commission of Experts on Reform of the International Financial Monetary System. Joseph Stiglitz, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

JOSEPH STIGLITZ: Nice to be here.

GROSS: Why were you concerned about inequality? Like, what did you see around you that made you think this is what I have to investigate?

STIGLITZ: I grew in Gary, Indiana, which in a way reflects the history of industry in America. It was a city that was founded in 1906. It had a lot of immigrants. It had a lot of African-Americans. And as I was growing up, I saw the ways in which markets weren't working well.

I saw high levels of discrimination, which lead to poverty in the bottom. I saw episodic high levels of unemployment. I saw business cycles. I saw all kinds of inequalities. And so it was clear that America wasn't quite the dream that was depicted in some textbooks, and I wanted to understand why those textbooks were wrong and I wanted really to make a contribution to do something about it.

GROSS: You wrote a Vanity Fair article last year that was titled "Of the One Percent, By the One Percent and For the One Percent" that helped popularize the phrase the one percent. Who is in the one percent?

STIGLITZ: Obviously it's a very small group, a very elite group whose incomes are very high. This one percent gets about 20 percent of all the nation's income. It consists disproportionately of CEOs, of those in the financial sector, but there's an array of other people; the high-paid lawyers who help serve the CEOs and those in the financial sector is an example. Relatively few entrepreneurs are among these.

GROSS: You write that for the past 30 years the top's been growing faster, and the bottom has been declining. What measure is that? Like what is that based on?

STIGLITZ: Well, there are a variety of measures. One measure is: What is the share of those at the top? And what is the percentage of the population that falls below the poverty level? The percentage of the population falling below the poverty level has increased dramatically in the last few years, and the percentage of income of those at the very top, the upper one percent, is now about 20 percent, much higher than it was, say, two or three decades ago.

I think most Americans understand that our system today isn't fair. One of the roles of the government is to try to make our system fair. And one part of fairness is that everybody ought to pay a fair share of their taxes, of their income in taxes. And a basic premise, I think, that most Americans believe is that if your income is very, very high, you ought to pay at least the same percentage of your income in taxes as somebody whose income is lower.

Most Americans, I think, would not agree with the view that speculators ought to be taxed at half the rate of those who work for an income.

GROSS: You say in your book that the most egregious aspect of recent tax policy is lowering the tax rate on capital gains; in other words, lowering the tax rate on profits that you make in the stock market. And this happened first under President Clinton. You served under President Clinton. You were the chief of the Council of Economic Advisors.

Were you in that position when the president lowered the tax rates on capital gains, something that you really disapprove of?

STIGLITZ: Yes, I was chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors at the time, and I very strongly opposed it. I thought it was wrong. I thought it was wrong because it increased inequities in our society and it encouraged speculation, and that it would not lead to faster real economic growth. And unfortunately all three of those concerns turned out to be true.

Unfortunately, even in spite of the evidence showing that capital gains taxes led to more speculation, more instability, President Bush lowered the capital gains tax rate even further, and that has led to a period in which the rate of - growth of inequality was higher than it has ever been, at least in recent memory, and led to the kind of instability that led to the great crisis.

GROSS: This is the kind of thing Warren Buffett's talking about when he says that his secretary gets taxed at a higher rate than he does because his profits are through capital gains, and her profits are through wages, and wages get taxed for most people at a higher rate than capital gains do.

So when you were arguing with President Clinton about whether capital gains should be cut or not, what was his argument?

STIGLITZ: I think the basic - what was going on at that particular moment was the Republicans controlled Congress and he wanted, like any president, to show that he was doing something. The view among some of the political advisors was that doing something was better than doing nothing. My view was that doing something that was wrong was worse than doing nothing.

And unfortunately that was one of those instances where the political advisors won, and I think a wrong decision was made.

GROSS: So you're saying you think that was a political decision, not really an economic decision.

STIGLITZ: That's right. If it had been an economic decision, it would have been shaped markedly differently. For instance, one of the arguments that some people argue for capital gains having special tax - a lower tax rate - is that it encourages innovation. If that's the case, then you might have said let's give a lower capital gains tax rate for those who engage in innovative activity, but not for land speculation, not for taking a gamble on CDSs, derivatives, betting on whether Greece is going to collapse or not.

These are activities that actually weaken our economy, the global economy, don't strengthen it. So you could have had a targeted capital gains reduction. I think one could have justified that on some economic grounds. I still would have disagreed with it, but at least that would have made some sense.

GROSS: You write that after World War II, people of different classes saw their incomes rise, that everybody prospered. But now it's different. The middle class is diminishing. People in the middle class and below are seeing decreases in their wages, where people at the very top, the very, very top, are doing very well. What changed, you know, in the past 30 years?

STIGLITZ: Well, you're absolutely right that the nature of our growth today is markedly different than it was in the decades after World War II. There we had shared prosperity. More recently what we've had is exactly the opposite.

You know, it would be one thing if those at the top did very well, but as they were doing well, the benefits, you might say, trickled down to everybody else. But right now most Americans are worse off than they were 15 years ago. So there has not been shared prosperity.

And this relates to some of the reasons that we have such inequality. One of the reasons that we have such inequality is that much of the income of those at the top arise from rent-seeking. It rises from taking advantage of others.

GROSS: You used the word rent-seeking. Rent-seeking. You have explain what you mean.

STIGLITZ: Well, the idea of rents are returns that people get not because of the efforts that they exert, not because of the contributions they make to our society, but like a landlord, just because they own some asset. So we - it's a term economists use to describe the income of monopoly, the income associated with exploitation, the income that arises from using political influence to get gifts from the government, to get large amounts of money either from the government paying you over-market prices, like it does for the drug companies, or giving you access to resources at below-market prices, like it does to the oil and mineral companies in the United States.

GROSS: OK, so you were saying that the income at the top has increased a lot because of what you've described as rent-seeking.

STIGLITZ: That's right. If you look at the people who are doing very well, they're not the people who have made the most important contributions to our society, not the people who've, for instance, invented major technological advances like the transistor or the laser or the computer, the things that really have transformed our society.

They are people who've exercised their monopoly power, perhaps having made a contribution but then leveraged that contribution into huge profits by using monopoly power. They include the CEOs of some of the corporations who take advantage of - abuse corporate governance deficiencies so that they take an outsize share of the corporate profits.

They include the - many of the CEOs of the banks and other financiers who take advantage of our under-regulated financial system, our over-bloated financial system, not a - it's not that their income is related to their contribution to society. We know that these banks brought us to the brink of ruin, and in spite of that, they've walked off with mega-bonuses.

GROSS: In trying to describe where you think the American economy has gone wrong and why there's such a disparity between the people at the top and the people everywhere else, you use student loans as an example. Why do student loans for you exemplify what went wrong?

STIGLITZ: Well, they help illustrate a basic point that I try and make in the book, that market forces do play a role in shaping inequality, but market forces are actually shaped by political processes, by legislation that can either give more scope for inequality or restrict it.

So take student loans. Here it's understandable why particularly people in the poor - in the bottom - understand that their future prospects depend on education. But we passed a bankruptcy law that totally distorts the market. It allows derivatives to get priority over any other claimants. And at the same time it says students cannot discharge their debt even in bankruptcy, and yet they are saddled for the rest of their lives with these student debts.

And we've seen the consequences of these student debts, people graduating with a huge burden; $25,000 is now the average student debt. The banks feel relatively assured, particularly in the era that - where the government guaranteed, it's now withdrawn these programs because finally the government realized what - the gift that they were giving to the banks as they were bearing the risk and the banks were taking the profits.

So they curtailed that, but it is still a relatively safe bet for banks to make these student loans because students cannot discharge the debt regardless of whether they get the jobs that they hope to get.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Joseph Stiglitz. He's a Nobel winner in economics and the author of the new book "The Price of Inequality: How Today's Divided Society Endangers Our Future." Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Joseph Stiglitz. He is a Nobel Prize-winner in economics and the author of the new book "The Price of Inequality: How Today's Divided Society Endangers Our Future." And he teaches at Columbia University.

When you served as chair of the Council of Economic Advisors under President Clinton, what did you see firsthand about how lobbying works in financial regulation, for instance, you know, in economic decisions? Give us an example of something that you saw that for you epitomizes what the problem is.

STIGLITZ: I think the example that most epitomizes the problems that I've been talking about was the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act that allowed investment banks and commercial banks to come together. After the repeal of Glass-Steagall, the differences between the investment banks, which took rich people's money, invested in high-risk activities, high return, the difference between those banks and ordinary commercial banks was abolished, and the unfortunate consequence of that was that the commercial banks began to act like investment banks, undertaking high-risk activities with ordinary individuals' money.

It had two other consequences. One was that the banks grew bigger and bigger. They became too big to fail. That meant that they - if they gambled and won, they walked off with the profits, but if they gambled and lost, they knew that the government would bail them out, which they were right, it did bail them out.

And finally, there are a host of conflicts of interest that were apparent in the years before the Great Depression and which had led to the passage of the Glass-Steagall Act, an act which served the country well. In the decades following the passage of this - Glass-Steagall Act separated the commercial and investment bank - the United States had no financial crises, no major bank failures.

In the period after deregulation, we've seen the kind of instability that we face.

GROSS: Well, getting back to the question of lobbying, you're saying in your book that part of the problem with our economy is lobbying, is that, you know, banks and corporations have so much power in the lobbying process that they have a lot of input into the political process, you know, and that this works to get legislation that favors them economically, such as Glass-Steagall.

So since you were in the Clinton administration, when the lobbying for this began, is there anything specific you can tell us that you witnessed about the lobbying process and why it's so effective?

STIGLITZ: There are many aspects of this lobbying process. One of them, of course, is the revolving doors, that you have people who come from Wall Street, go into government and then leave government and go back into Wall Street. So when you have this kind of revolving door, it's not just that their interests are not well-aligned with that of the public; it's that their mindset is, you might say, captured by the industry from which they come.

They see their interest, the interest of Wall Street, as if it were in the public interest. So that's probably the - one of the most important ways. But of course you also see it through campaign contributions, which affect both the administration and Congress. And it's the interaction of the two which is so strong.

Unfortunately, some parts of the administration are themselves so influenced by, in this case, the financial sector that they take a more active role than they - and see the world through the eyes of the financial sector. There used to be an expression, what's good for General Motors is good for the United States, and vice versa. I think increasingly, given the strength of the financial sector, many thought that what was good for the financial sector was good for the economy.

We would have had a stronger economy if we had not allowed our financial sector to get so bloated, if we had not de-regulated. As a teacher, I feel this very intensely because I see a disproportionate fraction of our best students going into the financial sector rather than going into the kinds of activities that would lead to real innovation, you know, the laser, the invention of the computer, the transistor, the kinds of things that would really transform our technology and our society.

And this is, in a way, the largest waste, but it's also very much related to the underlying problem of inequality because one of the prices that we pay is that the sources of this high inequality, the bloated financial sector, for instance, distort the way in which we use our scarcest resources, our people and our money.

GROSS: Well, Joseph Stiglitz, thank you so much for talking with us.

STIGLITZ: It's been a real pleasure.

GROSS: Joseph Stiglitz is the author of "The Price of Inequality." He's a Nobel Prize-winning economist who's a professor at Columbia University.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our guest, investigative reporter Cindy Chang, writes that Louisiana is the prison capital of the world. The state imprisons more of its people per capita than any state in the nation and any country on Earth. Louisiana's incarceration rate is nearly five times Iran's and 13 times China's.

In a series in The New Orleans Times-Picayune, Chang and her colleagues report that the state's high prison population is no accident. An approach which began as an effort to cope with prison overcrowding has led to a system where more than half of the state's inmates are housed in for-profit facilities with financial incentives for local sheriffs to keep prisons full. The state's prison sentences are among the harshest in the country, Chang writes, and both private prison operators and the Louisiana Sheriffs Association lobby the legislature to keep it that way.

The series also finds that the state's meager spending on inmates leaves many inmates with few educational (technical difficulties) as they serve their time.

Cindy Chang is a special projects writer for The Times-Picayune. She spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.

DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: Well, Cindy Chang, welcome to FRESH AIR. And Louisiana, as you described it, the prison system is different from a lot of places. A lot of places, state inmates, those who get longer sentences, are in big state-run institutions, you know, kind of often far from the homes of prisoners. What's different about Louisiana?

CINDY CHANG: The big thing is that in Louisiana over half of state inmates are housed in local prisons, which are usually run by sheriffs. And what we tend to think of as county jails are for people who are awaiting trial and just can't make bail or weren't allowed to have bail so they're just waiting for their court date. But in Louisiana, the system has grown so that sheriffs house a lot of inmates who are serving state sentences. And the reason the sheriffs are willing to do that is because they get money in return for doing that.

DAVIES: So they're kind of these prison entrepreneurs in a way?

CHANG: Exactly. And how that came about was in the '90s there was an overcrowding problem and the Department of Corrections decided to solve that problem by offering incentives for sheriffs to build their own prisons.

DAVIES: So you had county sheriffs who are - are they elected? We call them parishes.

CHANG: Right. They're elected.

DAVIES: Right.


DAVIES: So they're elected sheriffs in their county or parish, as it's called in Louisiana, right?


DAVIES: And so they looked around and said, hey, I can start a prison. I can get - what is it, like about 25 bucks a day they get from the state?

CHANG: Right, per inmate.

DAVIES: And so then there is an incentive once they build the prison to keep it full. Is that right?

CHANG: Exactly.

DAVIES: And how do they keep it full?

CHANG: Well, it's very much under the radar and not regulated. Once somebody gets sentenced, say, in New Orleans, if they have a sentence of 10 years or more, they'll probably end up in a state prison. And everyone who has ever been through the system would much rather be in a state prison than a local sheriff run prison because the state prisons have lots of programs. You can learn a trade like welding or plumbing. If you're not taking classes, you have a job. You know, if you're serving time, you'd rather at least a busy every day and trying to improve yourself.

But what happens if you have a sentence of less than 10 years is that your sheriff will likely send you to another sheriff, which tends to be in a rural area, because that's where this prison industry is really centered. And we spent a lot of time in Richland Parish in Northeast Louisiana. What the warden of the prison there does almost every day is, he calls his buddies in Jefferson Parish, which is a suburb of New Orleans, say, and says, hey, do you have a few to send over?

DAVIES: So it's like hotels selling their extra beds on Priceline or something.

CHANG: It really is exactly like a hotel. The sheriffs have invested in building these prisons often with the help of private investors. And once you build a prison or hotel, how do you keep it running? You have to keep the beds full. So that's a real - instead of the downward pressure on the incarceration rate, which a lot of states are feeling now with budget pressures, Louisiana has an upward pressure because they've got to keep the beds full.

DAVIES: OK. So we have a local sheriff who's built a prison. He has fixed costs of maintaining the place and keeping the lights on, so he gets the revenue by keeping it full and getting the 25 bucks or so per day per prisoner that the state sends, right?


DAVIES: Does the sheriff in effect earn a profit if the beds are filled and he gets - more than covers his costs?

CHANG: That's the whole idea. That's how they were encouraged to go into this business in the first place. You're talking about rural parishes that before this were so underfunded that they were buying used patrol cars from Oklahoma, they were driving around in these cars with 200,000 miles on them, they were sharing bulletproof vests. So any margin that they can skim off - and let me be clear, it's not going back into the sheriff's own pocket to buy him a mansion or anything. This is going back into his own department to buy often just real basic equipment for his deputies.

DAVIES: Right. But there is then a budgetary incentive for them to keep the prison full and create a surplus, which they can then use to better equip their staff, hire more people, provide better services.

CHANG: Right. Right. For sure.

DAVIES: Now, do the sheriffs run the prisons themselves or - I mean there are companies now, private prison companies, that will build and operate a prison for you. Do they do that?

CHANG: Right. Right. It's a mixture. Some of the sheriffs run their own prisons, others have partnered with private companies. There's two main companies. One is called LaSalle Corrections and one is called LCS, and they're both actually homegrown. They're not those national empires like CCA that most people have heard of. And there's a variety of arrangements. Like we went to Jackson Parish, which there prison is operated by LaSalle, and what the sheriff there does is he gets a guaranteed $100,000 a year, no matter whether the prison is making a profit or not, he just gets that money. But what he really gets - and he was not shy about using this word - what he really gets is the patronage, because his department prior to this had maybe 50 employees and now it has like 150. So it's three times as large. And in a place like that, 100 jobs with benefits is huge. And what he means by patronage, of course, is that he'll get reelected if he keeps on supporting these jobs.

DAVIES: Uh-huh. So the sheriff then contracts with private prison operator, they put up the money and build it, but then the sheriff gets to decide who gets hired, right?

CHANG: Right.

DAVIES: And jobs are a real currency when it comes to politics.

CHANG: That's right.

DAVIES: Now, you said a moment ago that in their efforts to keep their prison beds full they sometimes - they call each other. Let's just cover that in a little more detail. How did these sheriffs go about finding inmates? If they've got 10 or 15 beds available for the next month, where do they find more prisoners?

CHANG: Well, often it's the warden, not the sheriff, who actually does this grunt work. But, for example, we visited Tensaw Parish, which is also in Northeast Louisiana. And the warden there, he pulled out a sheet of paper and it looked like it had been thumbed over any number of times. It was all wrinkled and everything and it was a list of all of the other sheriffs in the state. And naturally an urban area, like New Orleans or Baton Rouge is going to unfortunately produce more criminals. And even though in New Orleans our sheriff houses a good number of state inmates himself, he doesn't have room for everyone who's getting sentenced in New Orleans Parish. So the warden in Tensaw Parish knows that there are certain places, like Baton Rouge, that he can call and might have a surplus that day to send him.


CHANG: And there's also trade between sheriffs on any given day. And I've talked to a lot of inmates who have been transferred multiple times and they don't know why. It's not necessarily because they were a troublemaker or they didn't get along with people. Sometimes it's just even between the rural sheriffs trading. And it can be that one sheriff needs a skilled mechanic and the other sheriff maybe ended up with two, so...

DAVIES: So they're like commodities.

CHANG: Exactly.

DAVIES: Now the conditions in the local jails run by these sheriffs where they have this incentive to keep them full for their own budgets, how did those conditions differ from the big state institutions?

CHANG: The term that's often used as a warehousing. And if you've ever visited one of these places I think it's an apt term. And I called pretty much every sheriff has this type of industry going, a lot of them didn't respond. These prisons are not like what you think of with cells and maybe one or two people per cell. They're usually dormitories and typically about 80 men or women, whatever the case may be, sleeping in a large room in bunk beds.

And the difference is that in the sheriff's prison you go in there and people are just lounging around that dorm. They're lying in bed in the middle of the day or watching soap operas. They will literally sit there, day after day, year after year until their sentence is over. While in a state prison, which is where most states house almost all of their inmates, you're busy whether you like it or not. You have a job or you take classes, or you're learning a trade, like welding or plumbing that will help you get a job when you get out.

DAVIES: And the fundamental issue here is that a system has been set up - and this was done in the 1990s when there was an overcrowding problem - a system was set up in which local sheriffs were encouraged to build or get these prisons built on the notion that they could take care of them for 20, a little under 25 bucks a day, and it seems like as long as you do that there simply isn't going to be the money to really rehabilitate people and give them skills, is there?

CHANG: Right. So now we've gotten this situation where we have the highest incarceration rate in the country, so we have lots of prisoners but they're being housed real cheaply so it's kind of a vicious cycle: how do you reduce? If you can reduce the prison population then hopefully you'll have more money left over to give the ones who are in the system more help.

DAVIES: And the fact is that the financial incentives for local sheriffs is not to reduce the prison population, but to keep it high.

CHANG: Absolutely. And the Sheriffs Association is one of the most powerful lobbies in the state and they have consistently opposed any sort of change that would reduce the prison population. Although, this year in the legislature there was a slight shift. I think that the budget problems, as in other states, have gotten so bad that there is pressure on the sheriffs and the district attorneys - who also traditionally oppose these things - to, at least, stand down on some of these cost-saving measures.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Cindy Chang. She just completed a series on prisons in Louisiana for The New Orleans Times-Picayune.

We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: If you're just joining us, We're speaking with Cindy Chang. She is an investigative reporter for The New Orleans Times-Picayune, where she has just completed a series on prisons and the prison system in Louisiana.

Do you know what the prison's budget in Louisiana is and how it compares with other places?

CHANG: It's about $600 million or so. And the comparisons are difficult because, as I said, the $24.39 is incarceration on the cheap. In Louisiana State prisons, they spent $55 an inmate, so the average in Louisiana comes out to about $38 per day per inmate, which is the lowest in the country. So if you look at the budget - the size of the budget, it's a little misleading because we're able to incarcerate many more people - I mean often two people to every one person in another state, because we spend so little on them.

DAVIES: One of the interesting things about this is that, you know, I think Louisiana has for years had a reputation of a state with a lot of corruption, particularly rural corruption. What's interesting about the system as you describe it is that it came out of the problem in the 1990s where there was overcrowding, and it was the kind of solution, which at the time, you know, a lot of political scientists were embracing, you know, reinventing government, thinking outside the box, creating a different set of incentives, embracing the innovation of private enterprise. And they've set up something, which just has a lot of perverse effects.

CHANG: Right. I think at the time it may have seemed like a reasonable ad hoc solution. You didn't have money to build another state prison and you're sitting there as the head of the Department of Corrections. You can't make the legislature reduce sentences or devise alternative programs to reduce the population. I mean, the prisoners just keep coming into the system so what are you going to do?

And Richard Stalder who was the head of the Department of Corrections at the time, he actually is a trained economist. So he very consciously said, well, what can I do to get the sheriffs to want to house these inmates instead of complaining about it? And of course the solution was money.

DAVIES: How do criminal sentences in Louisiana compare with other states?

CHANG: They're pretty harsh. In Louisiana, right now, all life sentences are without parole. Louisiana leads the country in the percentage of its inmates who are serving life without parole. That means that you never get before a parole board and say, hey, I've changed. Give me another chance.

So at Angola, which is where most of these people go, they have so many older inmates who are really on their deathbed who are costing the state so much money but there's very few mechanisms to release them. And on the lower end too, sentences are pretty harsh.

For example, recently in St. Tammany Parish which is a suburb of New Orleans, there was a guy who got 24 years without parole for a car burglary. It was his - actually third offense, although he was prosecuted as a second offender, but we have pretty strict habitual offender law here as well.

DAVIES: You can get 10 to 20 years for writing bad checks?

CHANG: And people regularly do. I mean, yeah. They'll give five or 10 years for something like that. And it's usually not their first offense, but you rarely see something like that in another state.

DAVIES: So what does the sentencing system do in terms of the mix of violent and non-violent offenders in these county jails?

CHANG: Well, Louisiana has a much higher percentage of non-violent offenders in its prison population than the national average. And we have plenty of violent crime in this state. New Orleans leads the nation in murders. So that implies that our sentencing structure is putting more non-violent - particularly drug offenders - in the system, and those are the very offenders that tend to end up in the for-profit sheriff's prisons.

DAVIES: Now, there's clearly a public appetite for harsh sentences. I mean, people are angry about crime. But you also have people - prison operators and local sheriffs - who seem to have a financial incentive for keeping the prison population high. Is there any evidence that either the prison operators or the sheriffs themselves play a role in keeping sentences harsh?

CHANG: Sure. I mean, on the level of political donations the two big private prison companies - which are LaSalle and LCS - are pretty big donors to sheriffs, to the governor, to state legislators. And as I mentioned before, the Louisiana Sheriff's Association, as well as the District Attorney's Association, are very powerful lobbies.

DAVIES: Did you talk to any sheriffs who look at the system and say this isn't exactly what we ought to be doing?

CHANG: I think a lot of them are conscious of some of the moral issues that are raised. And we spent a lot of time in Richland Parish in northeast Louisiana and the sheriff there, he will tell anybody who asks him about the prison: we hate to make money off of the backs of unfortunate people but the fact is it's been good for the parish.

You know, there are those jobs with benefits. The department has better equipment. He's about to retire but he's been in the department for, what, 30, 40 years? I mean, he was telling me about the old days when they used to share a bulletproof vests, when they used to drive these old clunky cars. And you've got to cover a lot of miles when you're patrolling a rural parish.

DAVIES: Well, Cindy Chang, I hope you do get to continue this kind of work, and I want to thank you so much for speaking with us.

CHANG: Thank you.

GROSS: Cindy Chang spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. She's a special projects writer for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. You'll find links to the paper's series "Louisiana Incarcerated" on our website

TERRY GROSS, HOST: A few years ago drummer Mike Reed assembled the quartet People, Places, and Things to spotlight music written in Chicago in a fertile period between 1954 and 1960. Reed's quartet has since expanded its mission. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has a progress report.


KEVIN WHITEHEAD: "Old" by Roscoe Mitchell, first recorded in 1967 just before his band became the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Drummer Mike Reed put together his quartet People, Places and Things to play music by their 1950s forebears. But it makes sense that, after a few years together, they'd also play later pieces, tracking the evolution of Chicago jazz. One dividend of their repertory work is that it inspires Reed to write his own tunes in the same spirit, like "The Lady Has a Bomb."


WHITEHEAD: Mike Reed's quartet People, Places, and Things with Tim Haldeman on tenor saxophone. That's from their fourth CD "Clean on the Corner." In the last few years, they've played dozens of gigs in Chicago, on tour in the U.S. and in Europe. Drummer Reed and bassist Jason Roebke have grown into a tight and flexible rhythm team. Saxophonists Haldeman and Greg Ward on alto know how and when to blend and diverge and get in or out of each other's way.


WHITEHEAD: Playing all those swinging hard-bop tunes has sparked Mike Reed as a drummer. His broad beat and accents are very Chicago, a little more casual than New York pressure-cooker swing. Chicagoans have long pursued a third-coast middle way, a little cooler than back east and hotter than out west.

In the '60s, New York free jazz was frenetic; Chicago's was quieter and more carefully paced. People, Places and Things honors that legacy, too. Mike Reed's "December?" reverses the usual roles between the front line and rhythm section. Saxophones play in quiet support, while bass and drums float on top.


WHITEHEAD: Most of the tunes on "Clean on the Corner" are new, but there's an oldie by the Chicago composer the band champions above all: overlooked bop saxophonist John Jenkins. His "Sharon" features a loose guest appearance by new star pianist and fellow Midwesterner Craig Taborn.


WHITEHEAD: As composer, Mike Reed has a knack for slow tunes that linger in the ear. On two of them, the quartet is joined by cornetist Josh Berman, who has that lag-behind-and-then-catch-up Chicago timing. Reed based the composition "House of Three Smiles" on a recorded solo by his vibraphonist buddy Jason Adasiewicz. It's a sign that these days, People, Places and Things don't just preserve the Chicago tradition; they're helping extend it.


GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is a jazz columnist for and author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed "Clean on the Corner," the new album by Mike Reed and his quartet People, Places, and Things.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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