Reprint: Antebellum 28 August 2006Posted by marisacat in DC Politics, Inconvenient Voice of the Voter, The Battle for New Orleans.
This was first posted March 14, 2006
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 [Lassus, 1726]
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. Link*
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 [Deborah Luster]
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.
August 28, 2006
A current report from Jordan Green of Facing South (link goes to a slew of reports on post Katrina Gulf Coast issues)… via Counterpunch, on the corporate thievery from FEMA and other recovery funds, in some cases not delivering on contract work… but, you got it, being paid anyway - and really, it is all thievery from those who suffered, survived and want to return to NOLA, SELA and the Gulf Coast:
[W]hile the government’s Hurricane Katrina Fraud Task Force has focused attention on fraud by emergency assistance recipients, instances of corporate contract and procurement fraud have been documented at 50 times that amount.
A review of congressional testimony and other documents by Gulf Coast Reconstruction Watch found a total of at least $136.7 million in corporate fraud in Katrina-related contracts. In addition, government investigators have highlighted contracts cumulatively valued at $428.7 million that they found troubling because of lack of agency oversight or misappropriation.
Some of the contractors failed to meet their obligations, and charged the government for work that was never performed. Taking advantage of inadequate oversight, some private companies inflated costs. It was also the case that the government, most notably FEMA under the leadership of former Director Michael Brown, withheld crucial resources from the hardest hit areas of the Gulf Coast, and failed to establish efficient supply lines and points of distribution for ice, water, meals-ready-to-eat and other essentials. The contractors could lay the blame at the feet of the feds, and vice versa. [snip]
Listening to the panels on New Orleans and Katrina today on Cspan… Douglas Brinkley mentioned that Brown is attempting to sell himself to St Bernard Parish as a post disaster expert. Well, why fuss. Absolute failure is well rewarded in America.
Those findings are based on over 250 statistical indicators and over 50 status reports, in-depth investigations, and profiles of community leaders.
Are we being too negative? Isn’t media coverage filled with stories about “signs of progress and hope” in the Gulf? Well, let’s ask the people who have been affected.
According to an ABC News poll of Gulf Coast residents, our findings are in line with how they view the situation. [...]
RAY SUAREZ: Sean Reilly, you wanted to jump in?
SEAN REILLY, Louisiana Recovery Authority: Well, you know, when people ask me about the pace of the recovery, what I’m encouraging people to do is re-reflect. Yes, let’s learn the lessons. Let’s see perhaps where perhaps we made mistakes. We can make mid-course corrections.
But at the end of the day, let’s remember that what we’re about is rebuilding a great American city, about re-establishing a southern half of a state that got absolutely devastated. And if we start saying that it’s the fed’s fault or the state’s fault or the city’s fault, you know, that’s really not going to be a dialogue that’s going to get us anywhere.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, but on the other hand, isn’t a necessary part to hold people accountable who made promises to electorates, who made promises to jurisdictions, and in the view of those jurisdictions, haven’t kept those promises?
SEAN REILLY: Well, absolutely. And, you know, first and foremost, when you’re talking about New Orleans, you need to talk about safety and levees. And, you know, it’s taken us a long time to get to a place where we could hold the Army Corps of Engineers accountable for what happened to this city.
I think history will reflect that this was not a natural disaster, actually; this was a manmade disaster; this was an engineering failure. And when you reflect on that as a root cause, then it brings you to a different place, in terms of solutions and in terms of, you know, how do you bring this city back in a safe way? How do you get people to understand where the dangers are and get them out of harm’s way?
RAY SUAREZ: Ben Jaffe, what has to happen from here on out?
BEN JAFFE: There’s a lot that needs to happen. And I’m a little — I continue to be frustrated, because the conversation that we’re having now is the same conversation that we’ve been having all year. There is a lot of planning that needs to still take place. There’s a lot of planning that needed to take place that didn’t get done, a lot of work that didn’t get done.
I don’t necessarily know what needs to happen. I do know that, if we don’t address the situation here, that we will lose a culture that is responsible for one of the most amazing treasures that we have in the United States. We’re the city that gave birth to jazz.
You know, we’re a beat-down people right now. We have all suffered for a year. Psychologically, the toll that it has taken on us is amazing. Every day we wake up, it’s not like one day we wake up and it’s better than yesterday. It’s a little bit better. Maybe there’s less trash on your corner.
And it’s a real fear of mine, it’s a real fear for the first time in my life — I’m not optimistic about the future of this city. And that really breaks my heart, because if there has ever been a cheerleader that has yelled louder than anyone about New Orleans, it’s been me.