08/20/2012 06:35 pm ET Updated Oct 20, 2012

Revolving Door

Recently, a colleague of mine at the New Orleans Public Defenders turned to me and said, "You know, the longer I work here, the more I start to believe in corporeal punishment."

The comment was intended as a joke -- a sarcastic jab made by an overworked 20-something who was sick of seeing a stream of clients that he worked so hard to defend spend their lives going through the revolving door of the New Orleans prison system. I certainly wrote off the comment at first, but as I continued working for the defenders, I began to wonder. Not whether public whippings are a better option than jails, but whether incarceration is the best solution for dealing with those who break the law.

Imprisonment, in its various forms, has been a constant feature of society. Physical and social ostracism have long been used as punishment and prevention and have proven to be important factors in the maintenance of a civilized society. But as I sit in the sweltering heat of a poorly-ventilated meeting room, facing a man who cannot even wipe the sweat from his forehead with his hands cuffed and chained to his waist, I wonder if this is really going to make New Orleans a safer place.

According to an article by Time written in May 2006, in the years before Hurricane Katrina, the murder rate in New Orleans was 10 times the national average. When the hurricane hit, the city underwent massive population shifts, which led to fluctuations in the crime rate that have yet to stabilize. One thing that has remained consistent, however, is that the crime rate in New Orleans with respect to both violent and property crime is astronomically higher than the national average. The jails are filling, the accused are spending more and more time languishing in prison awaiting trial, and the city seems to think shoving everyone in underfunded jails for a few years is the answer.

In my time at the public defenders, I have had the chance to visit a handful of the many prisons in Orleans Parish. HOD, the House of Detention, was the first one I visited. A short walk from the courthouse, my fellow interns and I were warned that this prison is notorious for long waits to speak with clients and its lack of air conditioning. The rules are strict in HOD, like most of the prisons in the area -- closed-toed shoes, pants, covered shoulders. No exceptions, even in the summer. But the discomfort I experienced was short-lived and rather pathetic compared to the conditions that my clients lived in for years at a time. No inmates are currently incarcerated at HOD, so the prison is used as a meeting place for the inmates and their attorneys, investigators, and family members. The inmates are brought over to HOD from Tents. Tent City was the most shocking thing that I have encountered in New Orleans. In order to accommodate the high number of incarcerated individuals in Orleans Parish, the city acquired massive, army-issued tents where nearly 400 inmates serve time. Tent City can be seen from the highway, looking like an eerie cross between a circus and army barracks. The U.S. Department of Justice once reported that the conditions at the Orleans Parish Prison (OPP), a large prison connected to the courthouse, "violate the constitutional rights of inmates" with respect to inmate safety and mental care. The report was filed in 2009, and it seems little has changed since then. Prisoners that I have spoken with talk about being denied medication for months at a time and about being attacked by other inmates. Juvenile inmates have told me that there is virtually nothing to do, so they just try to spend most of the day sleeping to pass the time.

As I trek from prison to prison, I listen to the inmates talk about how they will never be able to get a job once they are released because they have a felony on their record and the prison lacks the funding for proper GED services, how they are denied medication and psychiatric treatment while incarcerated, and how the city calls this rehabilitation. I can't help but wonder if flogging might be kinder.

Sheriff Marlin Gusman's new prison will hold 1,438 new beds, according to the Times-Picayune. That's 1,438 men and women that will spend years of their lives locked away from the rest of the world, unable to seek adequate drug and alcohol counseling, unable to receive proper psychiatric treatment, unable to earn an good education or learn a skill that will give them a chance at economic success if released, unable to watch their children grow up. The punishment part, I get. New Orleans prisons are hell. But prisons are intended to do more than isolate and punish; they are also supposed to rehabilitate offenders so that upon their release, former inmates are no longer tempted to break the law. Looking at rates of recidivism, especially with regard to violent crime, this seems to be the missing piece of the puzzle. OPP, HOD, Tents; these are revolving doors that many men and women in Orleans Parish spend their lives walking through, wasting years oppressed by the heat and the violence. It just doesn't seem like these prisons work.

And perhaps the most frustrating thing about this is that I can't think of a single better idea.

Disclaimer: The views expressed by this author are not those of the Orleans Public Defenders or Washington University in St. Louis; they are those of the author alone.