By Jordan Flaherty
years after the devastation of New Orleans highlighted racism and inequality
in the US, the disaster continues. New Orleans’ health care and
education systems are still in crisis. Thousands of units of public
housing sit empty. Nearly half the city’s population remains displaced.
released this week by the Institute for Southern Studies
reveals that, out of $116 billion in federal Katrina funds allocated,
less than 30% has gone towards long-term rebuilding — and half
of that 30% remains unspent.
The city’s criminal
justice system, already rated among the worst in the nation by human
rights organizations pre-Katrina, continues to be in crisis. After the
storm, thousands of prisoners were abandoned in Orleans Parish Prison
as the water was rising. In the days after Katrina, mainstream media
depicted the people of New Orleans as looters and criminals, and a makeshift
jail in a bus station was the first city function to re-open, just days
after the storm.
For Robert Goodman, an activist
around criminal justice issues who was born and raised in the schools
and prisons of Louisiana, this demonizing and criminalization of the
survivors was no surprise. He tells me that the primary crisis of New
Orleans is a discriminatory and corrupt criminal justice system, adding
that, “every time a black child is born in Louisiana, there’s
already a bed waiting for him at Angola State Prison.”
On May 9, 2006, Robert Goodman’s
brother was killed in an encounter with the New Orleans police. This
was another death in a long list, including Jenard Thomas, an unarmed
25 year old, shot by police in front of his father a few months before
Katrina, in a case that inspired weekly protests for months, until interrupted
by the storm. The list also includes three deaths in Orleans Parish
Prison this year, including, most recently, Glenn Thomas, the son of
Rosetta James, another criminal justice reform activist.
A Broken System
In New Orleans, 95% of the
detained youth in 1999 were Black. In 2004, Louisiana spent $96,713
to incarcerate each child in detention, and $4,724 to educate a child
in the public schools. “When I went to prison, I was illiterate,”
Goodman tells me. “I didn’t even know anything about slavery,
about our history.”
New Orleans’ public
defense system is in such poor shape that Orleans Parish Criminal District
Court Judge Arthur Hunter recently complained that, “indigent
defense in New Orleans is unbelievable, unconstitutional, totally lacking
the basic professional standards of legal representation, and a mockery
of what a criminal justice system should be in a Western civilized nation.”
Orleans Parish Prison, the
city jail, was — pre-Katrina — the eighth largest jail in
the US. Advocates complain that there is no forum for oversight over
the jail or Marlin Gusman, the criminal Sheriff who oversees it. “We’ve
suffered under a policy where the city builds a huge jail that is then
required to be filled with human beings, or else it’s a waste
of money,” states civil rights attorney Mary Howell.
Robert Goodman and Rosetta
James are fighting to change the system that took away their loved ones,
as part of a grassroots organization called Safe Streets Strong Communities.
Safe Streets is struggling not just to reform the entire system, from
policing and public defense to prison, but also to reframe the debate
around these issues.
Safe Streets began as a coalition
of grassroots activists and organizers from a number of organizations
who came together post-Katrina to respond to the immediate crisis. “Our
first priority was to help those individuals who had been in Orleans
Parish Prison prior to Katrina, many of whom were being held illegally
for minor, non-violent offenses,” explains co-director Norris
Henderson. “In the early days, right after the storm, Safe Streets
was basically performing triage for a broken system.”
In the transition from the
crisis of Katrina to the long-term catastrophe that the city is still
in, Safe Streets focused their energy on building their base, ensuring
that people in communities most affected were shaping the priorities
and making the decisions of the organization.
The organization has been
one of the most inspiring stories of post-Katrina New Orleans. Shortly
after Safe Streets began pressuring on the issue, the city’s indigent
defense board was completely reconstituted and now includes people that
actually care about poor people receiving a fair trial. After Safe Streets
turned their focus to issues around policing, the city approved and
funded an office of the independent monitor to oversee the police. In
addition, the city council has begun looking at downsizing Orleans Parish
Prison, as well as reducing the sheriff’s budget, and tying it
to reform and greater accountability — also a part of Safe Street’s
More importantly, they helped
reframe the debate around criminal justice in the city. Within a few
months after the storm, instead of talk of more prisons, journalists
and politicians were looking at the system, and the roots of the problems.
Evidence of widespread police misconduct and people locked up for months
without charges began to be reported.
For those that have been
victimized by law enforcement violence, organizing and talking about
what they have faced has already been transformative. “I can’t
imagine where my family would be if it weren’t for Safe Streets,”
Goodman tells me. “We would have been pushed to the side. This
organizing inspired my mother to live another day.”
A version of this story
originally appeared in the July/August issue of ColorLines Magazine.
See a special online collection of Katrina-related reporting at: www.colorlines.com/.
is an editor of Left Turn Magazine and a community organizer. His previous
articles from New Orleans are at Left
Turn. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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