Ninth ward, New Orleans [CNN]
Ursula Price, a staff investigator for the indigent defense organization A Fighting Chance, has met with several thousand hurricane survivors who were imprisoned at the time of the hurricane, and her stories chill me.
"I grew up in small town Mississippi," she tells me. "We had the Klan marching down our main street. But still, I've never seen anything like this."
Safe Streets, Strong Communities, a New Orleans-based criminal justice reform coalition that Price also works with, has just released a report based on more than a hundred recent interviews with prisoners who have been locked up since pre-Katrina and are currently spread across thirteen prisons and hundreds of miles.
The Louisiana State Penitentiary, America's most infamous and largest maximum security prison, known as "The Farm". In the 18th and 19th centuries, Angola was a thriving slave plantation. After the turn of the century it was officially converted into a prison, yet very little changed: the free labor which was originally provided from the sweat of an entirely black and slave population was then taken over by a mostly black and convict population.
They found the average number of days people had been locked up without a trial was 385 days. One person had been locked up for 1,289 days. None of them have been convicted of any crime. [...]
According to a pre-Katrina report from the Metropolitan Crime Commission, 65% of those arrested in New Orleans are eventually released without ever having been charged with any crime.
Samuel Nicholas (his friends call him Nick) was imprisoned in Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) on a misdemeanor charge, and was due to be released August 31. Instead, after a harrowing journey of several months, he was released February 1. Nick told me he still shudders when he thinks of those days in OPP.
"We heard boats leaving, and one of the guys said 'hey man, all the deputies gone,' Nick relates. "We took it upon ourselves to try to survive. They left us in the gym for two days with nothing.
Some of those guys stayed in a cell for or five days. People were hollering, 'get me out, I don't want to drown, I don't want to die,' we were locked in with no ventilation, no water, nothing to eat. Its just the grace of god that a lot of us survived."
Lake Ponchartrain, July 10 2005, high water in the wake of Hurricane Dennis
[Globe and Mail]
Benny Flowers, a friend of Nick's from the same Central City neighborhood, was on a work release program, and locked in a different building in the sprawling OPP complex. In his building there were, by his count, about 30 incarcerated youth, some as young as 14 years old.
"I don't know why they left the children like that. Locked up, no food, no water.
Why would you do that?
They couldn't swim, most of them were scared to get into the water. We were on work release, so we didn't have much time left. We weren't trying to escape, we weren't worried about ourselves, we were worried about the children.
The guards abandoned us, so we had to do it for ourselves. We made sure everyone was secured and taken care of. The deputies didn't do nothing. It was inmates taking care of inmates, old inmates taking care of young inmates. We had to do it for ourselves."
Benny Hitchens, another former inmate, was imprisoned for unpaid parking tickets. "They put us in a gym, about 200 of us, and they gave us three trash bags, two for defecation and one for urination. That was all we had for 200 people for two days."
Slaves at work on the Indies Company plantation, across from New Orleans
State Department of Corrections officers eventually brought them, and thousands of other inmates, to Hunts Prison, in rural Louisiana, where evacuees were kept in a field, day and night, with no shelter and little or no food and water.
"They didn't do us no kind of justice," Flowers told me. "We woke up early in the morning with the dew all over us, then in the afternoon we were burning up in the summer sun. There were about 5,000 of us in three yards."
Woodlawn Plantation, Louisiana
1941 [Edward Weston]
Abu Ghraib on the Mississippi
From reports that Price received, some prisoners had it worse than Oakdale.
"Many prisoners were sent to Jena prison, which had been previously shut down due to the abusiveness of the staff there. I have no idea why they thought it was acceptable to reopen it with the same staff.
People were beaten, an entire room of men was forced to strip and jump up and down and make sexual gestures towards one another. I cannot describe to you the terror that the young men we spoke to conveyed to us."
In 1724, Louis XV adapted the Code Noir for Louisiana. Since 1685 this code had regulated the condition of slaves in the French Islands, notably forbidding interracial marriage and sexual relations.
"We have a system that was broken before Katrina," Price tells me, "that was then torn apart, and is waiting to be rebuilt.
Four thousand people are still in prison, waiting for this to be repaired.
There's a young man, I speak to his mother every day, who has been in the hole since the storm, and is being abused daily. This boy is 19 years old, and not very big, and he has no lawyer. His mother doesn't know what to do, and without her son having council [sic], I don't know what to tell her."
September 1970 raid on Black Panther offices, across from the Desire Housing Project, est. population, 20,000. Moon Landrieu was mayor of NO at the time.
I asked Price what has to happen to fix this system.
"First, we establish who was left behind, collect their stories and substantiate them. Next, we're going to organize among the inmates and former inmates to change the system. The inmates are going to have a voice in what happens in our criminal justice system.
Untitled, from the One Big Self, Prisoners of Louisiana series, 1999, silver emulsion on aluminum
If you ask anyone living in New Orleans, the police, the justice system, may be the single most influential element in poor communities.
Its what beaks up families, its what keeps people poor."
Amen to that...
*Link is to online facsimile of the Black Panther newsletter of June, 1971.