Revolution #66, October 22, 2006


Doing “Katrina Time”—Torture in New Orleans Prisons

Part 3: Dungeon “Justice” and Slave Labor

This series is based on a 141-page report, “Abandoned & Abused: Orleans Parish Prisoners in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina,” released on August 10, 2006, by the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project. Based on questionnaires received from 1,300 prisoners, as well as interviews with current and recently released Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) prisoners, the report contains extensive and damning testimony and evidence of the inhuman and racist torture-like conditions and treatment that OPP prisoners have been subjected to. Part 1 of this series, “Locked Cells in Rising Water,” tells how prisoners were abandoned when Katrina hit and water flooded into the prison, and recounts how deputies later came back and used mace, tasers, batons, and shotguns against prisoners who were struggling to survive. Part 2 is about how prisoners were evacuated under inhuman and brutal conditions. And Part 3 tells the story of how thousands of prisoners have been strewn about the state, left with no legal representation, and how prison labor is an integral part of the New Orleans prison system.

448 dollars. This is how much Greg Davis owed in court fines. And this is why he was in Orleans Parish Prison when Hurricane Katrina hit on August 29, 2005. It was seven months later, in March 2006, when he was released. And he got out only after Tulane Law School students took on his case. When the students first talked to Greg Davis, he didn’t have any idea why he was still being held in prison.

Many other prisoners evacuated from OPP have ended up spending months in prison on minor charges without seeing a lawyer or appearing in court. It was like being thrown in a dungeon—with no lawyer, no contact with the outside world, no way to reach family, no way to get any kind of justice.

Many of these prisoners had not even been found guilty of any crime. And when they finally had their “day in court,” many had already served more time in prison than they ever would have received had they been found guilty of the crime they were charged with.

85 percent, 75 percent, 9 months. 85 percent of people arrested in New Orleans are too poor to hire their own lawyers and need to be represented by a public defender.

And how has the public defender’s office been funded in New Orleans? Almost entirely from fees attached to traffic fines.

So in the months after Katrina, with no revenue from traffic violations, the public defender’s office lost 75% of its attorneys. This left thousands of New Orleans prisoners, who were now in other facilities across the state, stranded without any access at all to legal counsel.

From September 2005 until June 2006—for nine months, there were no criminal trials in New Orleans. And the court system in New Orleans is now backed up with some 6,000 cases. The makes the “right to a speedy trial” or even the right to a hearing nothing but a cruel joke. Prisoners evacuated after Katrina had to wait 9 or 10 months to appear in court. They were stuck in prisons all around the state and because there was no space in OPP, they were unable to return to New Orleans, even if they had a scheduled court hearing.

The ACLU report “Abandoned and Abused” quotes Calvin Johnson, Chief Judge of the Criminal District Court in New Orleans. Talking about how they had a limited number of jail spaces, he said, “We can’t fill them with people charged with minor offenses, such as disturbing the peace, trespassing or spitting on the sidewalk… I’m not exaggerating: There were people in jail for spitting on the sidewalk.”

What this means is that thousands of people were kept in horrendous prison conditions, locked away with no access to a lawyer, with little or no contact with their families—for as many as 10 months, for something as minor as spitting on the sidewalk!

398 dollars. Pearl Cornelia Bland’s story is profiled in the ACLU report. She was arrested in August 2005 on a charge of possessing prohibited drug paraphernalia. When she was arraigned on August 11 she plead guilty as charged, and the judge ordered that she be released on August 12 for placement in the intensive drug rehabilitation program. The judge waived fines and fees for Pearl Bland because she was indigent. But she was not released. Why? Because she owed $398 in fines and fees from an old conviction.

Along with thousands of others, Pearl Bland was evacuated after Hurricane Katrina. In June 2006 she contacted the ACLU from the prison she had been evacuated to in Avoyelles Parish. At that point she had spent more than 10 months in jail for her failure to pay $398 in outstanding fines and fees. Finally, on June 28, 2006, an attorney from the Tulane Law Clinic appeared in court on her behalf and obtained a release order.

22 dollars and 39 cents. The city of New Orleans pays the Sheriff’s office $22.39 per day for each local prisoner that OPP houses. Before Katrina this came to about $100,000 a day. For each state prisoner housed at the jail, the state pays the city $24.39. And the city gets an additional minimum of $7.00 per day for each state prisoner who requires mental health care. For federal prisoners, including immigration detainees, the city can get nearly twice this much.

This “business side of incarceration” is reflected in the way the Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriffs discuss the trafficking of prisoners.

Speaking of the period between 2000 and 2002, when the number of state prisoners housed at OPP dropped, then-Sheriff Foti said, “If you were in the stock market you would call this a slow-growth period.” And commenting on the fact that the amount of money received for housing federal prisoners was a lot higher than what they got from state or local prisoners, Foti commented that he “wished there were more high-profit prisoners.”

The Sheriff who came after Foti, Bill Hunter, said that “fewer inmates translates into less revenue for the jail.” And, as the ACLU report points out, “In fact, when the Sheriff’s office requests payment from New Orleans for housing city prisoners, the ‘invoice’ refers to prisoners as units and lists a ‘Unit Price’ of $22.39 per day.”

600,000–700,000 pounds. Prison labor has been another side of the business of incarceration at OPP. The Times-Picayune has reported on how private citizens and companies can hire prisoners to perform work at minimum wages. And from these wages the sheriff’s office can deduct living expenses, travel expenses, support costs of the prisoners’ dependents, and payment of the prisoners’ debts. Any remaining money, if there is any, goes to the prisoner.

As prisoners who had been evacuated after Katrina began to return to New Orleans, OPP quickly got back into the business of hiring out prison labor.

According to the ACLU report, OPP recently built an aquaculture facility—run entirely by prison labor. This is being used to raise about 600,000 to 700,000 pounds of tilapia fish per year.

When running for office in 2003, Sheriff Marlin Gusman had promised just this kind of profit making off of prisoners. He told the League of Women Voters, “I will work with the city administration to reduce the burden on the general fund and provide more prisoner labor to augment city services.”

So, after Hurricane Katrina, after the whole way that thousands of prisoners were abandoned and locked up with rising floodwaters, after the whole way they were brutalized and then cruelly evacuated and denied their rights—after all this, now as they are being returned to New Orleans, prison officials are accelerating the exploitation of their labor.

Sheriff Gusman promised to make the prisoners at OPP—the majority of whom have not even been convicted, or have been convicted on very minor offenses—available to be work crews for the cleanup and revival of the city.

This hearkens back to another period of rebuilding and betrayal in the South.

The ACLU report points out, “This use of prisoners amounts to modern slavery—or a throwback to the notoriously racist convict-lease and state-use prison labor systems that proliferated in the South after Reconstruction.”

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