Deadly lockdown in New Orleans

Two years after Hurricane Katrina, the city's prisons are overflowing and inmates have mysteriously died behind bars. Critics denounce a justice system in tatters.

Published August 23, 2007 7:30PM (EDT)

"I never got paid," Dewitt Solomon tells me. Nine months before the levees broke in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, he had a minimum-wage job busing tables and washing dishes at Messina's, the popular New Orleans tourist restaurant. But instead of paying him directly, Messina's gave Solomon's paychecks to the Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff's Office. Solomon, who was serving time in the Orleans Parish Prison -- the eighth-largest penal institution in the country and the largest correctional facility in Louisiana -- was enrolled in the sheriff's work-release program. The prison was supposed to give him his wages, minus the $500 a month it deducted for room and board, the day Solomon regained his freedom. Solomon says that the sheriff still owes him $1,500.

Sitting at the kitchen table at his home in New Orleans' West Bank, Solomon and I are feeding bottles to his twin sons. The babies weighed less than 2 pounds at birth. Now, at 13 months, they're startlingly small but chugging away at the formula like they're in a race to catch up. Solomon says he tried for months to recoup his lost earnings and never got a call back from the sheriff's office. He gave up after floodwater washed away his only proof, the pay stubs he'd saved from the restaurant.

Solomon sounds more resigned than bitter. "It's not that I couldn't still use the money," he says. "I'm just glad I got in and out before it got any worse." He describes how his brother-in-law was arrested on trespassing charges when he went to check on storm damage to his father's home. His cousin was also arrested for a nonviolent crime weeks ago, and no one in the family has been able to make contact with him or even determine where he's being held.

New Orleans has the highest incarceration rate of any major U.S. city -- double the national rate. Louisiana also locks up more people in local jails than any state, in part because of state laws, unheard of in other parts of the country, that paralyze due process.

District attorneys have 60 days from the time of arrest to decide whether to press charges and typically use the full statutory time limit. From there, it takes an average of three months for detainees to get a court date. It can take up to three years to get to trial. According to a recent study by the Vera Institute of Justice, 40 percent of those entering the Orleans Parish Prison would qualify to be released on their own recognizance. Instead, the city opts to lock people up if they can't post bail, which is true of three-quarters of the jail's detainees.

While it was bad before the storm, "now the system is only working to pick people up," says Loyola Law School professor Bill Quigley. "It's a vacuum, sucking poor people in and keeping them in. Being arrested now equals being sent to prison."

A year after Katrina, the city's backlog of cases peaked at 6,000. Judge Arthur Hunter of the Orleans Criminal District Court declared that "it is a pathetic and shameful state of affairs the criminal justice system finds itself in" and said that he would mark the one-year anniversary of the storm by beginning to release poor defendants.

But just as Hunter was declaring a constitutional state of emergency last summer, New Orleans was hit by a devastating crime wave. With half its former population, the city's crime rate escalated back to pre-Katrina levels. By the time the city was gearing up for its second post-Katrina Mardi Gras celebration, the national media was pronouncing New Orleans the murder capital of the United States.

Under the headline "Dysfunction Fuels Cycle of Killing in New Orleans," the New York Times reported in February a "uniquely poisoned set of circumstances" fueling the violence, including the destruction of the city's only crime lab, friction between police and prosecutors, community distrust and fear of the police, uncooperative or vanished witnesses and "murderers' brutalized childhoods." The majority of victims and suspects have been young African-American men -- many of them teenagers -- caught up in a drug trade that was reinvigorated, reorganized and made more lethal amid turf wars in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

The crime crisis is part and parcel of a wider social crisis. Two years after the storm, only one-third of the childcare centers and 45 percent of the public schools in Orleans Parish have reopened. Mental health services for residents suffering from depression, drug addiction and posttraumatic stress disorder are nonexistent. The city's Housing Authority has slated thousands of units of public housing for demolition, the majority of which were not damaged by the storm.

Quigley has represented hundreds of families fighting to reclaim their homes and possessions from the Housing Authority. "One of the reasons they say they don't want to reopen public housing is that they don't want to let crime back into the city," Quigley explains. "But crime is already back in. The truth is that there are a lot of young people here without their families. The families don't have housing. So kids are coming back on their own, without their aunts and their mothers and their grandparents. Neighborhoods are breaking down because we don't have the families back. We don't have a lot of the churches. We don't have the infrastructure in poor communities that we had before.

"Some of us in the city think it's a bigger crime to keep thousands of families out of their apartments than to sell drugs," he notes. "But law enforcement doesn't see it that way."

Indeed, city officials responded to the crime wave with a troop surge. The city's police department is nearly staffed back up to its pre-Katrina size and is budgeted all the way back up. Local law enforcement has been joined by 60 state troopers and 300 National Guard troops in Humvees and military uniforms -- they've christened themselves "Task Force Gator" -- at a cost to the state of $35 million.

Police have been making a record number of arrests, now averaging 1,400 a week. But as the crime problem persists, they don't seem to be getting the bad guys. According to recent exit interviews with detainees leaving the parish jail, conducted by the local criminal justice reform organization Safe Streets/Strong Communities, 80 percent of inmates were being held for nonviolent offenses, mostly on low-level drug and alcohol charges. "While the city is plagued by violent crime, residents who will never be charged with a crime spend weeks in jail," the Vera Institute recently reported, "and some serious offenders are released with no charges."

Ursula Price, Safe Streets' outreach and investigations coordinator, describes the case of a woman in the jail who had called 911 about a domestic-violence incident. "Instead of trying to help her," Price says, "the police ran her name and ended up arresting her on an outstanding traffic violation."

Safe Streets provides first responders to the city's incarcerated. The group racks up huge phone bills accepting collect calls from the Orleans Parish Prison and the diaspora of correctional facilities to which arrestees were scattered in the wake of the storm. Some callers just want to know why they're there -- it can take days for police, whom one criminal defense lawyer described as "functionally illiterate," to complete a report. Others wonder how long they might be in, whether they have a court date, how they can get legal support and how they can contact their family or boss.

Callers from Orleans Parish Prison also report dungeonlike conditions: Twenty-five people held in cells built for 10, so many people sleeping in one area that you can't even see the floor, no fresh or conditioned air, overflowing toilets, inconsistent electricity and iffy plumbing. The prison has yet to regain the accreditation it lost in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, when thousands of inmates were abandoned in fetid floodwaters in what local writer and criminal defense attorney Billy Sothern described as "the biggest prison crisis since Attica."

This summer Glenn Thomas, the 29-year-old son of Rosetta James, a member of Safe Streets/Strong Communities, died in Orleans Parish Prison. James didn't learn of her son's death from the sheriff's office, she says, but by word of mouth: "One of the inmates was able to call his mother and tell her that Glenn had died, and she came and found me. I said, 'Nobody tell me nothing. I'm going to the jail.'" When she got there, the morning of July 4, James was told that her son, who had no known medical problems, died the night before at 11 p.m. of "natural causes," and that she could call back in another month for the official report.

Thomas died waiting for his day in court. On May 19, 2004, he was arrested for simple drug possession. He was slated to appear in court about a year later, on Aug. 31, 2005, when the city was uninhabitable. Nonetheless, a warrant was issued for his arrest for failing to appear. In October 2006, Thomas was arrested and detained in the Orleans Parish Prison. His new court date, the one he didn't live to see, was set for August 2007.

Criminal Sheriff Marlin Gusman's public information officer, Renee Lapeyrolerie, said they couldn't provide details about Thomas's death but said, "Well, in his criminal history he had a lot of drug arrests. Those things can be linked to health problems."

"This is the third death there's been in there this year," says Safe Streets co-director Norris Henderson. "It's all the same story. The jail says they don't know why any of these people died. Anything wrong that happens in his facilities the sheriff blames on the inmates or on not having enough money," Henderson says. "But you really can't blame Glenn for his own death, and you can't blame it on the money, because he's got that."

As mandated by a 35-year-old consent decree intended to remedy abusive conditions in the jail, the city pays the Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff's Office a per diem amount per local inmate, plus $3.2 million annually to provide medical services. In his 2007 budget request to the City Council, Gusman asked for an additional $5 million for medical services, a request that was granted.

Henderson is solemn when asked what it will take to get public officials to pay attention to the crisis. "It's not like I want a Rodney King situation where people burn the city down, because we don't have much of a city left to burn. But we need to do something, a sit-down, a walkout, something. It's getting to the point where we need some drama."

Dana Kaplan of the Center for Constitutional Rights summarizes the essential problem facing reformers. "Right now Gusman's funding is tied to the number of the people in the jail. How are we going to get money for schools and services and jobs programs with so much money tied up in the jail?"

Gusman's recent budget requests make it clear that he is banking on crime. His 2007 "budget request for these payments is based on our expected City inmate population," the sheriff wrote to the City Council. "The inmate population is driven primarily by the number of arrests made by the Police Department. Since the storm, the arrest rate has consistently increased in an attempt to stem the rising crime rate." In his 2006 request, Gusman explained that the depopulation of the jail in the immediate wake of Katrina represented a "90 percent reduction in revenue, but our fixed costs remain high."

Gusman has never publicly said that his aim is to build Orleans Parish Prison, which can now accommodate 2,500 inmates, back up to its former size, which was 8,000 before Katrina. But in written testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives in April 2007, he listed as chief among his critical needs "the restoration of our four largest jail facilities." This, Gusman wrote, "would increase our capacity (an additional 4,100 beds) to hold some of New Orleans [sic] most violent and repeat offenders."

In other words, "build them and fill them," says Henderson, "and we know who'll be filling them."

Henderson and other local advocates formed Safe Streets/ Strong Communities in the wake of Katrina, in the words of their founding statement, "to demand that elected officials address the root causes of our decades-long public safety crisis, cease blaming the victims, and stop investing time and money on tactics that have never worked. ... Many of our children have been given nothing to reach for except guns and little to own and be proud of but their street corners."

While Safe Streets has scored some recent victories -- helping win the appointment of a new Indigent Defender Board and funding to launch the Office of the Independent Monitor to oversee police policies and practices, for instance -- the real challenge for activists is the fight to reallocate public resources, out of law and order and into community recovery.

But to Sheriff Gusman, these are one and the same; he has made sure that the city's path to recovery will be paved by his inmates -- literally. Since Katrina, Gusman has used his Community Service Program and Neighborhood Response Team to deliver cheap labor for reconstruction projects. His office's Web site features photos of inmates in orange jumpers and sweatshirts emblazoned with Sheriff Gusman Community Service Program next to road signs announcing, "Project Clean-Up. Inmates Working." Local news reports have exposed how he has used these workers for purposes of political patronage, cleaning up districts of politicians he supports and renting out workers in exchange for political favors.

It's not so far from the way things were more than a century ago. Antebellum city records refer to what is now the Orleans Parish Prison as the Workhouse. In addition to those arrested for crime, the jail was a repository for slaves whose masters chose to lease them to the Workhouse. The same archives also reveal that African-Americans were committed to the Workhouse for "claiming to be free": In the space where the master's name was usually recorded, these inmates were referred to as "so-called free." After the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, African-Americans arrested in New Orleans for black-code crimes like vagrancy and unemployment were taken to the parish Workhouse. During Reconstruction, the incarcerated former slaves provided a critical pool of forced labor for railroad companies, agriculture and industry.

In its first session post-Katrina, the state Legislature amended a law regulating parish jail labor in order to grant immunity to prison authorities "for injuries or damages caused or suffered by prisoners participating in the any work program during incarceration at parish jail facilities." When I asked a legislative staffer about the origins of the post-Katrina amendment, she said: "I believe it was because there was a labor shortage."

Lt. Eric Donnelly, director of the sheriff's work-release program, the one that Dewitt Solomon took part in before the storm, told a local business paper that the program played a vital role in restarting the city's economic engine. "As soon as the hurricane ended and we got a new phone, it was ringing off the hook from employers saying they needed their inmates," Donnelly said. "So as soon as we were getting them back in we had [employers] coming to pick them up themselves. That's how much they rely on this program."

But, as Solomon says, "you shouldn't have to go to jail to get a job."

By Robin Templeton

Robin Templeton is a writer, non-profit development consultant and criminal justice reform advocate living in Brooklyn. She is a Louisiana native.

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